Reflections on the DRS and the game of cricket

Gideon Haigh, in The Australian, 16 July 2013

gideon HAIGH 11TUCKED away in a corner of the program for the Trent Bridge Test is a series of potted interviews with the match officials in which they are asked among other things whether they remember games for “decisions or players’ feats”. It’s great performances that count, avers Marais Erasmus. “If I’m not noticed,” he says, “it means I have got things right!” It’s good advice, and worth citing not only because of Erasmus’s inability to keep to it on the Friday of this Test. This was a wonderful game of cricket that deserves to be remembered for the excellence of its skills and the drama of its moments. But there’s also a danger that those recollections will be overshadowed by the umpiring – not because of its quality, although that was assuredly an issue, but because of its involuted complexity.

There were 13 referrals in this Test: five were upheld, eight struck down. England was better at them: it was three and one. Australia’s record was two and seven. Which, of course, cost it dearly when it came to Stuart Broad’s impersonation of Bill Lawry, who proverbially never left the crease if there was still one stump standing, for they had no referrals left.

But should a game of cricket be so susceptible to the influence of a technology? Judging if and when to seek video adjudication is certainly a skill, but wouldn’t we prefer matches to be decided by prowess with bat and ball? And aren’t we there to watch a game rather than to dicker over the microns by which a delivery might have pitched outside leg, or whether 45 or 55 per cent of a digital ball is striking a cyberstump?

It’s getting to the point where teams will be selecting specialist referral consultants, their effectiveness statistically measured on an official metric, and where successful referrals will be announced musically – Jerusalem for England obviously, perhaps Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport for Australia.

Imagine just for one moment had the Trent Bridge Test ended with the same telltale nick by Brad Haddin, the same perfectly reasonable not-out decision by Aleem Dar and England with no referrals remaining. Would we have been satisfied that justice had been served? Would we have regarded it as a win for “accurate umpiring”? How big an apology would the ECB have wanted from the ICC? Wartime reparations would probably have looked a bagatelle by comparison.

The Decision Review System is changing the game in other subtler ways too, upsetting calibrations of long-standing. Off-spin to left-handers has grown more effective – ask Graeme Swann. The forward lunge in batting is likewise less effective – ask Shane Watson.

Watson is a member of the batting school raised to believe that getting in a big stride inures one to lbw decisions. But it doesn’t anymore, or not, at least, to the same degree.Ball tracking technology has instilled the belief among umpires that many more deliveries hitting the pads would also hit the stumps than we used to believe – in effect the first enlargement of the stumps since they grew to their statutory size in 1931. It was clear from the off in Australia’s second innings that England was aiming to hit Watson’s pads, confident that even in the event of an appeal being turned down it could pursue the adjudication through the referral system. In the event, Dar adjudged the delivery from Stuart Broad to be hitting leg stump, and Watson’s rueful look after his vain referral spoke volumes. Five years ago, he probably wouldn’t have been out. Likewise his partner Chris Rogers in the first innings.

This isn’t necessarily a problem. The 1935 change to the lbw law had similar repercussion, batsmen having to unlearn the “pad play” that had become popular. But imagine if Ricky Ponting was beginning his career now. How far would he progress with that forward thrusting pad?

There is also emerging a sense of parallel games: cricket involving DRS, and cricket not. When we see, as we did at Trent Bridge, how profound an impact DRS can exert on the conduct of a match, how do we assess cricket without it? First-class cricket? Indian Premier League? Non-DRS international cricket (which is by definition the most lucrative form because it involves India)?

And, as they say, whither honour? It takes a bit of chutzpah to stand as still as Nelson on his column when you’ve just left a splinter in the ball that’s now in slip’s hand, but Broad has demonstrated its feasibility. To be fair, while “walking” is sometimes imagined to be part of an  abiding cricket honour code stretching back to antiquity, it belongs  more properly to the realm of what Eric Hobsbawm called invented  tradition.

In Simon Rae’s excellent history of unfair play, It’s Not Cricket, he  finds negligible evidence for walking before World War II, and  concludes that the custom was only a vogue in English cricket for the  two decades after, where he suspects it represented a last efflorescence  of gentlemanly conduct as the distinction between amateur and  professional narrowed to vanishing point.

Even during its heyday, Rae reports an ambivalence about the  politesse, recounting an incident in a Test at Cape Town in 1964-65 when  Ken Barrington walked after being given not out for a caught at the  wicket, and occasioned howls of execration: “Ugly new low in  sportsmanship”; “an ostentatious act which bordered on gamesmanship”;  “it seems the England players are quite capable of umpiring the match  themselves”. He quotes the quivering judgment of former Springbok Jackie  McGlew: “You must never take control of the game out of the umpire’s  hands.”

Broad certainly left that commandment of McGlew’s unviolated. But in  the age of DRS, what he left in the umpire’s hands was the equivalent of  a grenade with the pin pulled out.

A system designed to eliminate “howlers” protected one, set a new  benchmark for player impenitence to which others will surely aspire, a  good umpire and good man had his career travestied because he will  forever be associated with a rare mistake, and a superb game of cricket  was not spoiled but sullied.

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ALSO SEE Michael Roberts:  “DRS – India’s hegemonic idiocy,” 19 February 2012,

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Filed under Australian cricket, cricket and life, cricket governance, DRS, Gideon Haigh, IPL, sportsmanship

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