By Charles Randall
27 August 2019
The standard of umpiring seems to be falling, and this is not to say that umpires are less competent. The changing nature of cricket means that correct decisions are harder to make. The MCC, as guardians of the Laws, must take action... again.
The MCC are to review the Laws as a matter of course in September, and the subject of bats really should be revisited. Thanks to technology these pieces of wood have become lethal weapons, more than simply upsetting the balance between bat and ball. Restrictions in size made two years ago have not gone far enough.
So how does this affect umpiring? Umpire associations are requiring the bowler's umpire to stand four paces behind the stumps for safety reasons in club and professional cricket. The square-leg umpire is expected to retreat to a safe distance, which seems to be at least 30 yards. Unfortunately, with due respect, adjudicating lbw accurately is much more difficult from where the umpire now stands, and snicks are less likely to be detected from such a distance. Health and safety is now mitigating against good decision-making. The art of batting itself cannot be responsible for this - it is the advent of beast bats that is the culprit.
Though the umpire, four paces back, can just about check the bowler's foot for no-balls, the striker, now some 25 yards away, becomes more two-dimensional for lbw decisions. Can the umpire see where the batsman is standing in relation to the crease? Judging by the ECB county championship highlights, umpires are giving more lbws on the front foot that look dubious, to say the least. The umpires are probably making more mistakes, and one wonders if this is happening at club level. Anecdotally this seems to be the case.
After the first Test in the Ashes series at Edgbaston the media reported that umpire Joel Wilson "equalled the record" for the most overturned decisions in a game - a bone-headed expression, as though the Trinidadian was attempting a record... Nevertheless Wilson had eight decisions corrected, but nothing was mentioned about the difficulty caused by the umpire's position back from the stumps. All umpires deserve much sympathy.
Then came the hysteria surrounding the lbw appeal against Ben Stokes in the third Test when England were still one run short of Australia's total at Headingley. Wilson gave 'not out' to a ball by off-spinner Nathan Lyon, delivered round the wicket and very wide in the crease. The ball pitched in line with the stumps, but did it straighten enough to hit the wicket after beating the left-hander's sweep shot? Wilson could not be sure and gave not out, as most umpires would have done.
The barrage of criticism in the media was ridiculous. Glenn McGrath on Test Match Special called it a "bad" decision, and newspaper pundits, but not all, seemed to agree it was a "wrong" decision. Jim White concluded a good article in the Daily Telegraph about Jack Leach and sportsmen in glasses by describing Stokes as "absolutely plumb" - which is absolutely rubbish.
Umpires can only give what they see, even from 25 yards away, and replays showed that the ball deviated off Stokes's front pad before striking his back pad. This slight deflection was not picked up by the DRS system. The ball had not straightened as much as it appeared - though it would probably have hit at least half the leg stump. There was enough doubt about this for the appeal to be turned down. The point is that a review might have succeeded, but Wilson's decision itself was in no way "bad" or "wrong" and Stokes was by no means "plumb".
But back to safety. Before new bat size restrictions were introduced in 2017, umpires in England complained to the ECB's umpiring director Chris Kelly about the risks of injury. Umpire Rob Bailey said: "A lot of people are in danger. Bats are massive now and are only going to become more powerful and the ball is pinging off them."
The MCC took action to limit the thickness of bats, but almost certainly their law-makers did not go far enough. Law 6 limits edges to 40mm, still almost three times thicker than an orthodox bat in the 1960s. Bat overall thickness is limited to 60mm, still a great deal thicker than the older measure of about 45mm. Dry willow and light pressing allows a light pick-up for a huge bat, which generates enormous power.
At the time in 2017 the MCC felt they had made the right decision. "The bat size issue has been heavily scrutinised and discussed in recent years," the head of cricket John Stephenson said in a statement. "We believe the maximum dimensions we have set will help redress the balance between bat and ball, while still allowing the explosive, big hitting we all enjoy."
This was a disappointing and disingenuous comment, apparently ignoring 95 per cent of cricket played. It seemed to brush away concerns about safety of umpires, fielders, spectators, passers-by, gardens and cars. In any case, the big-hit sixes that "we all enjoy" became commonplace in the World Cup and merely devalued the six-hit. At club level, safety would be the concern rather than cheap sixes.
The recent death of umpire John Williams, 80, in Wales underlined the inherent dangers in club cricket. Standing at the bowler's end he was struck on the head by a drive in a Pembrokeshire league game. In 2014 an umpire died after being hit by a drive in a club league match in Israel. An umpire in Sydney grade cricket was hit in the face in 2001 and lost five teeth.
While serious damage is still very rare, umpires are being injured by violent hitting, not to mention near misses. Bruce Oxenford, the Australian umpire, used a polycarbonate shield strapped to his left arm for some matches in 2016, though this method of staying safe did not catch on. The only safety avenue left is reducing the thickness of bats so that umpires can stand in the best place near the stumps for doing their job.