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August 5, 1998


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A question of proof

Harsha Bhogle

The idiot box has become the magic box. The press-a-button machine that can do no wrong. And all of us in the cricket world have become so hypnotised by its apparent power that we have forgotten that machines are, after all, made by man and have limitations like everything else. And, as people in the army and in the airlines will tell you, machines are only as good as the man who operates them.

It is a fact that has been highlighted rather starkly by the actions of a few men in recent times. Because of the apparent simplicity in judging replays (aren’t we all the best third umpires in the world?), it isn’t always considered necessary to scrutinise the qualifications of the hand that presses the red and green lights.

The attitude in recent times has tended to be “Doing anything tomorrow? Great. How about becoming our replay umpire for the Test match?..... No, you don’t have to pay your way in. ......Yes, it’s a great view and it comes with lunch, tea, unlimited soft drinks and snacks. .........Yeah, you can tell your wife that we’ll have a chat with the producer and he’ll show you twice a day.......No, I’m afraid you won’t get any National Grid shirts. You’ll be given two sets of stickers to put on. You slap your chest every hour to ensure they are still there and remember to take them off before you wash your shirt.........”

With the increasing tendency of on-field umpires to draw rectangles in the air, and that is to be honest, not a bad trend, the importance of the man in front of the box is increasing everyday. And unlike with the man in the middle, there is no qualitative judgement to be drawn. He is under enormous pressure given the drama associated with the calling of the third umpire and with the eyes, and lenses, of the world focussed on him, he has to remain absolutely cool.

It is not easy, and more officials and viewers are discovering that every day. It was heartening therefore to read a statement attributed to Umpire Cyril Mitchley (after Umpire Piloo Reporter, the man with the most flashy boundary signal!) that a time will soon come when the best man will have to watch the replays.

Mitchley was in Nagpur where we saw one of the two shockers of recent times. Anil Kumble, as you might remember, was almost two feet inside the crease when the safety rectangle was drawn and the look on his face when he saw the red light was a bit like a sudden discovery that he had been batting without trousers before a live audience. He wasn’t the only one to feel that way, because the first impression in the television room was that the third umpire had pressed the wrong button.

At Karachi, Shahid Afridi was out after Saba Karim had first fumbled slightly and then completed a stumping. Once again, the third umpire ruled differently, and made a complete mockery of the very principle behind having a replay, which is to ensure that individual judgement and occasional bias (which is a politically incorrect, but fairly truthful thing to say) are eliminated to the largest extent possible.

At Nagpur and at Karachi, we had inexperienced umpires who got it wrong. I am not too sure about the decision at Karachi, because we didn’t get to hear the reasons behind the umpire’s bizarre decision, but I am convinced that at Nagpur it was a complete ignorance of what television can, and therefore cannot, do which led to the verdict.

The key is that television produces a two-dimensional picture. Unlike the eye, which can gauge length, depth and height, the picture on the screen cannot. A high camera can never give you a precise judgement on whether or not the bat is marginally in the air or grounded. A more obvious height difference is shown up, but tiny differences are quite impossible to tell.

That is why, as Simon Wheeler, director of the test match telecast, was keen to tell everyone, horse racing finishes or sprint finishes are never determined by the television replay. There is a finish line photograph which is analysed, and fifteen minutes later, the decision is announced. The solution, if you have to get it right every time in cricket, is to do what South Africa have done -- install four fixed ground level cameras, one on either side of the crease at both ends.

These are black and white cameras that do not add to the quality of the telecast and hence, a production company or a television network is not interested in incurring the huge extra expenditure. It is not their responsibility to produce clinching evidence, as a lot of people increasingly believe. Remember their job is to produce an entertaining telecast for the viewer, who is the only person they are really answerable to.

And so, given the constraints of commercial television, it is important for every umpire to understand the limitations of the camera. Simon Wheeler, who is one of the top directors in the business, says he would be very happy to organise a workshop for umpires to explain to them how a telecast takes place and indeed, to produce examples of where umpires can be misled. It is a fantastic idea, because just as corporate managers today have to be computer literate, modern umpires have to be television-literate.

It would also educate people in situations of the kind we saw at Sharjah, where television evidence, apparently, was not clinching. Navjot Sidhu’s run-out drama occupied several minutes and several replays. Now, apparently umpire Mitchley ruled that Sidhu was short and only asked umpire Cooray to check whether the stumps were broken cleanly, ie. with the ball in hand.

That in itself was an unusual decision, because the replays were not conclusive on whether Sidhu had in fact, made his ground. Now, had umpire Mitcheley asked for a decision on whether Sidhu was indeed run-out - and maybe he should have - it would have been very interesting. Given that the umpire would have seen what we did, there was not enough evidence to rule Sidhu out. Remember, if there is even the smallest doubt, the umpire rules in favour of the batsman, and it would be reasonable to assume that if an action required several replays, none of which were totally conclusive, the batsman would be ruled not out.

Similarly, television could not produce evidence to show that Wasim Akram had touched the ball that ran Saba Karim out. When umpire Steve Bucknor asked for the assistance of umpire Cooray, all that he was asking for was to rule on whether or not Karim had made his ground. That was easy -- but inadvertently, it showed up once again the limitations of the “magic box”.

Now, the truth is that television can produce evidence even in cases like the Sidhu episode by matching two pictures. Every replay machine in the control room is set to the same time. If one picture shows the bails coming off, but obscures the exact position of the bat, the picture could be frozen to that time-code, as it is called. Another replay which shows the position of the bat but which obscures the view of the stumps, can then be frozen at the precise time-code of the earlier one. This provides proof that the two actions seen in different photographs occurred at the same precise moment. If the batsman is short in one of them and the stumps are broken in the other, the batsman is out.

Now, while technology can provide such evidence, it throws up an ethical question that the ICC must rule on. Is the job of the television company to produce replays for the viewers, which the umpire may also use? Is their job therefore to help the umpire make a decision, or is it to play umpire themselves and use video technology to show a result?

The obvious answer would be to go the distance and provide as much evidence as possible. But remember, television is, and indeed must be, guided by commercial considerations, especially over how much equipment they can possess. And while they must be objective, they cannot possess the same qualifications that an umpire must. While an umpire may go wrong at times, and it is accepted that he will, the repercussions over an error by television can be enormous given the passion with which the game is followed in our part of the world.

So, should television be merely a provider of pictures or should it be decision-maker? The difference is very small but very crucial. The ICC has a lot of thinking to do on this issue, but it could start by insisting that qualified and experienced men do the replay job, and that saving on allowances and air-fares by having incompetent local men seated in the third umpire's slot should not become the sole criterion.

Harsha Bhogle

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