Club Cricket Conference

Wednesday, 22nd May 2024

Electronic umpiring can be useful at the right price

Personal view: Charles Randall

17 February 2015

Club cricket has borrowed from the professionals, such as beast bats and batting helmets, and the pros have borrowed successfully from clubs, with 20-overs cricket a striking example.

But perhaps the one innovation that has not crossed the divide is the third umpire and the umpire decision review system, known as the DRS. Though the sophisticated Hawk-Eye is far too expensive to be considered at recreational level, two fixed cameras placed for line decisions might be within the realms of feasibility – but it hasn't happened.

Line-decision cameras made their debut in November 1992 when at South Africa's insistence Durban was rigged up for India's visit, and Sachin Tendulkar became an eminent first third-umpire run-out victim. Big screens and sophistication were all in the future. As far as I know, no club match has yet used cameras to ape the professionals.

The very first match hinted at the problems that would arise in subsequent eras. Umpire Steve Bucknor gave batsman Jonty Rhodes the benefit of the doubt in a tight run-out decision in a normal way, but the Indians demanded Bucknor go to the third umpire when signals from the television-watching pavilion indicated that Rhodes had not made his ground. Other hitches included fielders obstructing the sight line, which turned straight-forward 'out' into 'not out'. Third umpire judgements occasional took well over a minute.

The advent of freeze-frame meant that a batsman could, and did, perish because the bat bounced at the split-second moment a bail was lifted for a run-out, even though the bat had actually crossed the line grounded. Recently the ICC had to circulate a reminder that batsmen could not be given run out on freeze-frame evidence simply because both feet and bat were off the ground while they were running in safety. Thanks to super slo-mo and pedantry, a run-out could be achieved when the batsman had gone yards past the crease.

In the early days a green light meant 'out' and red 'not out'. That seemed illogical, and indeed the idea was reversed, giving rise to a hilarious goof in Karachi in 1994. The South Africa batsman Dave Richardson was sent on his way by a red light, but at the end of the day the third umpire admitted he had simply pressed the wrong button. There was no way of communicating his error, so poor Richardson became a victim. Poor Richardson? This was the same player who had been reprieved at Headingley a couple of months earlier when he survived only because Graeme Hick obscured the bails from the camera while completing a simple run-out.

Occasional goofs still arise, but at least the big screen permits quick, public retraction. In the recent Australian Big Bash the Adelaide left-hander Craig Simmons was given out on the big screen – only to be recalled when he reached the boundary's edge.

It was in 2000 that Siemens felt able to announce a claim that Hawk-Eye tracking by camera and computer could predict the path of a cricket ball, and this extremely expensive system was duly taken on as a toy for the television commentators. Accuracy of 100 per cent was not claimed. There were impressive demonstrations, though these tended to be held indoors, perhaps very different from outdoors where the path of a cricket ball can bend in mysterious ways after hitting the ground.

The ICC decision to launch a six-camera Hawk-Eye in 2009 as part of the dismissal process – when originally it had been intended as a media aid – was contentious in my view. To this day some umpires have doubts based on personal experience. For example, one county umpire told me that at square leg he could see clearly that in an lbw decision given by the tracking system the ball would have gone high. This happened on one or two occasions, but in the past few years the world has assumed certainty for Hawk-Eye decisions when no certainty exists.

It stretches credulity that the vicious off-spin of Graeme Swann could achieve a rock-solid lbw decision when the ball hits the front-foot pad on the half-volley with no benefit of the doubt for the batsman. And there must be doubt that a computer can really predict the path of a raggedy inswinger with certainty.

On the other hand Hawk-Eye probably helped the revival of finger spinners, and one can assume that the vast majority of electronic judgements must be more reliable than human eye.

The fallibility of humans interpreting screen evidence in the third umpire's booth has been exposed quite often, and the false impression given by cameras judging fair outfield catches is well documented. So it is probably just as well that club cricket will never be able to afford electronic umpires.