The Referral System: Hasty Disapproval

Michael Roberts

This essay was printed in the Island, 28 March 2009, but is informed by the expereince of viewing th whole of the Indian Test series in sri Lanka in July-august 2008 from the advantageous heights of the Press Box.

For years cricket has been beset with poor umpiring decisions. Some of these decisions have impacted on the course of a game and swung the outcome in favour of one side. In the past decade or so the evidence of new technologies has revealed such flaws in all their nakedness. Despite such evidence some cricketers continued to bury their head in the sand and claim that poor decisions in their favour evened out. This was arrant nonsense because the balancing out did not necessarily occur within the same match.

In this context the Referral System was introduced on a trial basis by the ICC for good reasons, reasons that I will specify in detail in the second part of my essay. The trial referral scheme, alas, has generated a series of knee-jerk reactions of distaste from a range of voices. The negativity is absolutely mind-boggling. Among the voices are a number of captains directed by the immediate circumstance of this or that decision or the weight of referrals going against their team. Kumble in Sri Lanka in 2008 as well as Vettori and Gayle in New Zealand in 2009 are examples of such a response.

There are also the usual suspects from within the die-hard conservative order. Some are from the umpiring fraternity defending the regime of on-field umpires. Daryl Hair, predictably, is one such voice, with Malcolm Conn, equally predictably, serving as sidekick trumpet (Australian, March 2009).

What I find most disappointing is the critical interpretations served out by normally insightful commentators, such as Sambit Bal and Tony Cozier. Cozier’s reaction appears to be prompted by some terrible interventions by the third umpire during the ongoing West Indies-England series. But the third umpire at several such moments was Daryl Harper who has an unenviable record of terrible or poor decisions as on-field umpire (with Murali and Sri Lanka at the sharp end of some of these not-outs) – confirming that any monitoring system is only as good as its personnel. I have not seen the TV versions of these contentious decisions of referral so I cannot comment further.

However, I was present through most of the India-Sri Lanka Test Series in July August 2008 from the same vantage point in the press box as Sambit Bal and my verdict is diametrically opposed to his: in my view the referral scheme is among the best recent innovations in cricket. This is not because Sri Lanka was favoured by the weight of such referrals. That weightage, after all, arose in part because in Ajantha Mendis they have a bowler who bowls wicket to wicket and in part because the Sri Lankans used the scheme judiciously.

There was reason for my verdict. Some fair decisions were reached with the aid of the Referral System on occasions when it would have been impossible for the on-field umpire to have reached a conclusive verdict. A case in point was Tendulkar being given out caught – quite brilliantly by Dilshan at leg-slip – at the SSC ground after the ball went pad to glove and curled back over Dilshan’s shoulder. From the vantage of press box above and behind the wicket I immediately thought it was out. It would have been virtually impossible for the main umpire to discern the series of effects. He rightly denied the call. The fielders knew that it was a definite catch and called the referrals into play. Replays enabled the third umpire to communicate with the on-field umpire and restore justice.

This sort of restitution of fair decision, whether in favour of the batsman, or, alternatively, the fielding side, will occur in other games. My impression is that it has happened fairly often during the trial of the Referral System though I have not kept count. It is vital that batsmen given out caught behind off a nick on shirt or hip should be permitted to bat on through corrections with the aid of referrals. Likewise, especially with hot-spot now added to the review scheme, referrals enable a fine-tuned assessment of nicks, off pad, or non-nicks, to close-in fielders; or lbw decisions where there is a suspicion of a prior edge off bat.

Two recent incidents during the Third Test between Australia and South Africa provide strong evidence in support of the Referral System. The left-hander Hughes was given out lbw by Bucknor to the left-hander Harris’s break moving in. The decision was not challenged, but the TV commentators adjudicated that a referral would have led to a reversal because the point of contact was not quite between wicket and wicket. Two days later, on 21 March, Bucknor gave Harris out to Katich’s googly breaking from off and clearly heading for the stumps. Harris challenged the verdict through a referral and was reprieved.

These were replica cases within the same match. They underline the value of the Referral System. In neither instance was Bucknor’s initial verdict a poor decision. That is, his erroneous verdict was an understandable line-ball call, a Category C error as distinct from Category B, viz., Poor Decision and Category A, Horrendous Decision. In no way was the reversal in Harris’s case an indictment of on-field umpires. Rather Bucknor should be pleased that he was able to participate in reversing an understandable line-ball error.

The different types of line-ball decisions are the realms where controversy has developed. One strand of criticism leveled at the referral scheme concentrates on line-ball lbw decisions dependent on verdicts as to whether the ball pitched on the imaginary lines between wicket and wicket on the leg-side. The referral that saved Michael Hussey in South Africa recently is one such example. As part of a general argument about lack of consistency, Justin Langer argues against this reversing act.

“Replays showed it pitched about a quarter of a centimetre outside leg stump. It looked plumb but was shown to just a smudge outside the line. If you can’t give you can’t give anything.”

This verdict moves from one specific type of case that has promoted malcontent voices to a generalization about all referrals. Note that Langer’s strident voice ends with a gross exaggeration – marked here in bold letters. There are many lbws, occasionally even those challenged by a batsman’s referral, where it is shown conclusively that the ball pitched within the mat, so, here, Langer is spitting s..t. It is important to stress in counterpoint that there are some reversals of Category C or Category B decisions because the slow-motion replay with aid of photographic mat has revealed that the ball pitched outside the mat.

Those are the lucid cases of re-evaluation of decisions. The controversial arena is where the review shows that the ball is partly in and partly out. That is, the problem arises because the technology is so precise, indeed, very, very precise [in contrast to seeming bump-ball catches where it obscures]. Surely, then, the answer is for the ICC to consult a body of umpires and then to proceed towards a ruling: say, where over 50 percent of the ball is on the edge or, alternatively, where it is even a smidgeon on the mat, then, the batsman is deemed out.

In brief, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is evident that the detractors are demanding hundred per cent accuracy in the Referral System and deeming it flawed because such a rate has not been secured. But we should be pleased that the scheme has improved the status quo and done so quite measurably. That is why I regard the litany of complaints to be quite extraordinary.

In fine-tuning the system of referrals, then, what the cricketing world needs to have now is (1) a statistical table of the various categories of referrals that have been made, reversed and confirmed; and (2) an accompanying video series that assembles all the cases in a series of types so that a proper evaluation can be made of each type.

This review should also mark out errors in a scale of categories. The classificatory marking scheme that I advocate would have three scales: Category A would indicate a horrendous umpiring blunder; examples would be Bucknor deeming Symonds not out when he nicked the ball in such manifest fashion at Sydney against India; or Koertzen giving Sangakkara out in his 190s at Bellerive during the Second Test vs Australia. Category B would be “poor decisions” of a less obvious character; and Category C would be line-ball decisions of an understandable character, such as those outlined above (Bucknor in South Africa and Tendulkar not out at the SSC).

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