Friday, 12 February 2010

The referral system - practically better, philsophically flawed

So the review system, is err under review. Again. This time the changes are expected to be cosmetic but actually rather sensible.

The first and most obvious change is to check no-balls after each and every delivery. It is so overdue that really some sort of compensation should be due to somebody. Given that we have had locked off cameras for run outs for years now, and that line decisions are by far and away the best use of video evidence, it is staggering that they have not been used before. Think of all the embarrassment that could have been saved poor David Shepherd after replays showed up the plethora of overstepping by Saqlain Mushtaq at Old Trafford some years ago.

The mystery is not why the change was made but why now? My theory is that Ian Botham got in somebody's ear. A conscientious pupil, Botham continued to work hard on his studies in disbelief (Fred Trueman scholarship) throughout the winter tour, showing particular élan both on this topic and on the 'floating slip' issue. I believe that either someone on the ICC panel accidentally tuned into the Sky commentary or more likely Sir Ian continued his training outside work hours and accosted one or more of them in the clubhouse after an afternoon's fourball-better ball. Whatever the reason and whoever is responsible, it is excellent news. Spread-betters, my advice - buy extras in the forthcoming series.

The other rumoured changes, involve the time allowed to ask for a referral and the number of referrals per match. Both of these are welcome in theory, how they will work in practice remains to be seen. The mistake that sport lawmakers continually make is to believe that creating more laws and more restrictive laws will make games better. Professional teams look at new laws not as threats but as opportunities. If they can find a better way to 'adapt' to the rule  ( which is often code for 'find a loophole') then they will have found an advantage.

During the last series England objected to the time South Africa took to ask for a referral, suggesting that they had looked up to their balcony for advice from the TV replay. Well what did anyone expect? You watch any Grand Slam tennis tournament and almost every player glances up to their corner before asking to check the call. As long as there is the opportunity to gain an upper hand, teams will take it. My question is why on earth didn't the ICC realise this? And as for England's complaint, well excuse my cynicism but if they didn't think of it then they were simply outmanouevred by Graeme Smith's side. Not that I approve you understand. It is not in the spirit of the game, England are correct, but I question their motives.

My solution, although I don't doubt that a way could be found around this too, is to not allow any TV replay until a decision to refer or not has been made. If such change were made, you can bet your life the TV stations would be demanding that teams speed up their decision-making too.

As for changing the number of referrals per match. I believe the favoured option is four per match instead of two per innings. This closes the loophole where teams use up their 'spare' referrals at the end of an innings. It won't stop the spurious request completely but it makes them less likely in the first innings of the game.

So the system will work better. Until the next problem comes along. Now to be fair to the ICC, it hasn't suggested that the meeting in Dubai this week is the final and definitive word on the subject. Nevertheless the next time they come together, I would like to see them review not just the specificities of the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) but its entire rationale.

We often hear from commentators, although I am yet to hear the ICC state it officially, that the UDRS is designed to eliminate 'the howlers'. Or 'Harpers' as I believe they are now known. Whilst I understand the premise, I find it false. Surely you employ the best umpires to avoid 'howlers'? If not then any fool could do the job safe in the knowledge that there is the third umpire with his TV and gadgets to back him up. People talk about undermining the umpire's authority, well introducing a system designed to pick up and highlight their 'incompetence' seems to me the perfect way to do it.

On the other hand, if the purpose of the technology was to aid umpires where their eyes and ears might prove insufficient then it would actually have added value. And if this were the case, the ICC should not only come out and say it publicly but it should be written into the playing conditions. Like that, umpires would not be undermined by technology but supported by it. Oh and if they did make a 'howler', the system would still cover that too!

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