If the first Ashes Test teetered on a knife edge and the second turned out to be among the most one-sided in history, then there was at least a common thread which united them. Both were mired in umpiring controversies, the deconstruction of which filled column inches that ought to have been reserved for stylish straight drives or unplayable outswingers. The Decision Review System (DRS), an innovation designed to assist the match officials but one which has struggled for universal acceptance, absorbed much of the blame. The Luddites were called to arms once more. Such criticism is missing the point. Abandoning this aid will not stop television companies investing in new technologies to enhance their viewers’ enjoyment. Unless harnessed to the cause, these ultra-slow-motion replays, Hawkeye, Hot-Spot and whatever may supersede them, will only further undermine the integrity of those who have just their eyes to trust in. This easy target is a red herring obscuring a more significant problem.
At the heart of this of course is cricket’s wrangle with its very soul. The game reveres its traditions, and one of the strongest is the notion of fair play and the inviolability of the umpire’s judgement. Not the infallibility you understand, that would be absurd, merely the acknowledgement that his verdict is made in good faith and cannot be questioned. DRS alters this position; for many it is a line crossed and represents the obliteration of a certain spirit. I take a pragmatic view. Such village green utopia might be a noble aspiration but, for good or ill, it is incompatible with the reality of the twenty first century. It was interesting to note that Stuart Broad’s failure to walk when he was clearly out attracted far less adverse reaction in Australia than it did here. Younger followers, less wedded to the chivalrous notions inherent in much of the fury, might also wonder what all the fuss was about. We can’t on one hand regard the arbiter’s word as final and then expect the England batsman to overrule it when he knew it was wrong.
That instance was so clear cut that the umpire would have been made to look a fool without the forensic scrutiny to which all decisions are now routinely subjected. It was obvious. In the old days that would have been that, but DRS offered the capacity to correct it. Indeed this is exactly the sort of so-called ‘howler’ that it was created to rectify. The problem at Nottingham was that Australia had used up their two permitted challenges on more speculative referrals and were powerless to overturn the wrong. What’s more, the batsman was fully aware of the situation. The fielding side was penalised as a result of its own poor usage of the system, in essence because they had doubted the acumen of the man in the middle too often. Perhaps the greatest service of DRS is the extent to which it highlights the validity of most on-field calls. The majority of the disputed cases have been so borderline as to leave room for debate even after much re-examination.
Now that the evidence is in the public domain, DRS has given umpires increased confidence to raise their finger where previously they may have opted for caution, the area of lbw decisions in favour of spinners being the most noteworthy. For many years it seems they were largely getting these wrong. Despite the commotion of the past few weeks, the ICC issued figures to prove that the percentage of accurate decisions was improved by recourse to the various televisual gizmos. Even when Jonathan Trott was mistakenly sent back to the pavilion in the Trent Bridge thriller, it was the result of human error by the operator rather than a failing of the machinery. And that brings me to the point. Are the four men standing in the Ashes series, who will be obliged to continue when the two teams do battle again this winter, the best available for the task?
Since the advent of the elite panel, with the associated evaluation of performance that membership entails, umpires from England and Australia have risen to the fore. Eight of the current twelve hail from those two nations, and as perfectly understandable rule changes introduced only relatively recently decree, the officials must be strictly neutral. Now though some advocate a reversal of this policy, and often cite the presence of DRS as an argument in their favour, perceptions make this an undesirable course of action. Ongoing IPL developments suggest that incorruptibility is a myth, while the ructions of the Shakoor Rana affair serve as a reminder of the dangers of the old ways. I’m sure both sides would be comfortable if the likes of Rod Tucker or Ian Gould were to take charge at Old Trafford next week. However, the lack of transparently impartial alternatives to the quartet currently under the microscope must be a source of some concern.
We should not be surprised that the countries doing battle for the urn also produce the most viable contenders for promotion to the senior list. After all, they have the most competitive and longest established first-class structures with well-trodden pathways for umpires to progress through the grades. Yet the West Indies produced in Steve Bucknor the man who has stood in more Test matches than anyone else, and many have fond memories of the wispy Indian Venkat. Neither nation, and given the status of the game on the sub-continent the second omission is particularly difficult to fathom, has a representative worthy of consideration to follow in their footsteps. The removal of New Zealander Billy Bowden and Pakistan’s Asad Rauf has left their respective compatriots Tony Hill and Aleem Dar, plus Kumar Dharmasena of Sri Lanka and South African Marais Erasmus to divide all ten matches of the Ashes bonanza between them.
These four have their critics, but like players are just as susceptible to swings in form. The checking for no-balls when the bowler’s foot is well behind the line, as occurred several times at Lord’s, is proof that at least a couple of them have become hesitant in trusting their conviction. Genies cannot be squeezed back into bottles and the modern umpire needs to recognise DRS as part of his armoury and not be cowed if, inevitably, he does not get everything right. The real issue is not the technology, it is that the pool of flesh and blood has become too restricted. Whether it be through increased mentoring, or overseas opportunities at the levels below the international scene, the ICC must prioritise the development of officials worldwide, and maybe not just from the Test playing lands. In the end, doing a situation justice is what matters most, and that will be best served if fewer decisions are under contention in the first place.