“A hit, a very palpable hit”! As Hamlet and Laertes lunge and parry to their unknowing deaths, one man stands apart from the pride, deception and murderous intrigue. Osric the courtier judges, casting the deciding verdict when the two fighters disagree on whether there has been contact. He calls the first hit for the Prince, which his would-me assassin challenges, only for Osric to confirm the blow. Sound familiar? During the next point, Osric is not needed, as Laertes admits “a touch, a touch, I do confess ‘t”. Perhaps Stuart Broad hasn’t read or watched this far in the play.
One of the problems cricket has faced recently is an absence of palpable hits. The Decision Review System (DRS) overshadowed the recent Ashes series, threatens to dominate the upcoming contest for the urn, and is just another dispute where the BCCI and other boards can throw their weight around, creating unnecessary conflict. The recent changes to the system have done little to change the flaws that many have raised – although the idea to top up reviews after eighty overs is not as bad as many have made up. The most contentious issue of the Ashes was Stuart Broad’s escape having edged to slip; with renewed reviews, Michael Clarke could have challenged the decision. Reviews are often turned down for marginal calls, rather than squandered optimistically. There is a lack of confidence in the system, and a feeling that a good concept has been misdirected and mishandled.
In my view, the fundamental problem and uncertainty is the shift in the benefit of the doubt. As it stands, the on-field umpire follows the convention that unless he is certain, the batsman is not out. The ball might have just missed leg stump, not just clipped. The change has been that the benefit is now with the umpire for reviewed decision – the “umpire’s call” situation for LBWs, sticking with the on-field decision in the case of indistinct caught behinds. For example, Usman Khawaja’s controversial dismissal at Old Trafford was so indistinct as to require umpteen replays; had the third umpire simply given him not out, considerable time would have been saved, meeting another criteria of the critics’ complaints.
Moreover, the code of DRS conduct needs to be clarified and codified. It cannot simply be an inchoate convention like the Spirit of Cricket. If it is in place, it must carry the same weight, and be similarly respected, as the Laws themselves, the ultimate derivation of the umpire’s authority. This authority is what is at threat from clumsy application. The process itself is inherently based around the presence of television, itself a political and administrative issue. The fact the images are provided by home broadcasters raises Shakespearean questions of neutrality and deception.
A move intended to aid umpires has instead undermined their authority and revealed their weaknesses. Any slight mistake can now be challenged and pored over. To reinforce the position of the on-field umpires, DRS must become about the third umpire making decisions like an umpire, based on what he sees and not the decision before. Benefit of the doubt must go to the batsman (or the bowler, as long as it is consistent), especially for bat-pad catches and edges behind. The grey-area of “umpire’s call” could also be modified, reducing the area of impact that renders a decision not out when hitting the stumps or simply saying that contact makes it out. The idea of DRS is a good one; improved implementation would help players and umpires alike.