Trent Copeland bowled a straight-to-the-stump delivery to Sri Lankan opener Tharanga Paranavitana, which touched his pad, seemed like a strong contender for an LBW (leg before wicket). As the umpire, Aleem Daar, declared it not-out, Aussie captain Michael Clarke went upstairs for a decision review. What happened next became one of the most controversial DRS (decision review system) ever. The ball pitched in line, and the impact showed it was hitting the wickets, but wait, it was declared umpire’s call, and not-out! The ball was said to be missing out the stamp’s midline by the slightest of margins, a millimetre or two, maybe.
Cricket is a game of fine margins. Even a centimetre here and there is good enough to change the whole complexion of an encounter. Maintaining such preciseness, thanks to human eyes, is certainly too much to ask for. Since the margin for error is so minimal, teams have in the past quite frequently fallen victim to incorrect decisions. To minimise such occurrences came what is called DRS. And as a by-product came the ‘Umpire’s Call’ to assist the associated technologies to reach the verdict of an LBW review.
What is an Umpire’s Call?
When the LBW decision is sent upstairs, the third umpire, firstly, checks whether there was any contact between bat and ball. Should no such contact be found, the umpire moves to Ball Tracking Technology to see where the ball pitched, whether the point of impact was in line with the stumps, and whether the ball would have hit the stumps had it not struck the pads.
Now, this ball tracking technology uses multiple cameras stationed strategically around the ground to assess the trajectory of the ball to answer all three questions. Ball Tracker can answer the first question with cent per cent certainty; however, according to the developers of this technology, it is not possible to answer the rest with 100 per cent accuracy.
To have the Ball Tracker give results with full certainty, two conditions must be met: a. The ball has to physically impact on a surface; and b. The surface of impact must be stationary. Since both the ball and the pad of the batter are on motion at the point of impact, ball tracking cannot be fully conclusive in determining the exact location of that impact.
As for the ball hitting the stumps, the system is trying to predict the future, something that has not even happened in reality, which can never be ascertained with precision. These elements of doubts have created the existence of the Umpire’s Call. For the point of impact, should the ball be found to be inside the demarcated area, i.e. in line with the stumps, but at a margin of less than 50 per cent, the technology can no longer come up with absolute answers and thus the on-field umpire can stay with his original decision. Again, for the ball hitting the stumps, should the ball be found to be inside the demarcated area, i.e. hitting the stumps under similar conditions, the same consequence takes place.
Validity of the Umpire's Call has come into question since the inception of the ball tracking technology in reviewing LBW decisions. The point of argument has always been the fact that two identical outputs from the ball tracker can never be able to yield opposite outcomes. If a decision of giving out on-field is sent upstairs and the ball tracker shows ‘Umpire’s Call’ at any stage, the batter will be judged out; however, had the on-field call been not-out, the final verdict would have been not-out. In short, a decision coming out of the exact same output from the ball tracker may end up going in favour of either team, which actually sounds ridiculous.
Many greats of the game have addressed this grey area of DRS, but the ICC still believes that the existing set of rules is the most appropriate one considering the limitations of technology.
After the recently concluded second Test of India’s tour of Australia, this debate has once again reignited with a good number of incidents of Umpire’s Call this series, six of which took place in the second test alone, Sachin Tendulkar expressed his disappointment saying, “I’m not convinced with the DRS rule at all. Once you have gone upstairs to the third umpire then the on-field umpire’s decision should not come into the picture at all. It doesn't matter whether the ball is hitting 10 per cent or 15 per cent or 70 per cent because when you get bowled, none of this matters. Even if the ball is just clipping the bail and the umpire has given not out, that decision should be overturned when they have referred to the third umpire. It (umpire's call) is too confusing and somewhere it is unfair to bowlers also.”
While trying to put forth his point, he referred to the dismissal of Steve Smith where the ball barely kissed the leg pole for one of the bails to get dislodged. Had the ball hit Smith’s pads instead of the stumps, the decision could have gone either way since the ball tracker would have suggested ‘Umpire’s Call’ in response. Sunil Gavaskar said, “I think the Steve Smith dismissal shows that even when the ball clips the stumps, its speed is so much that it can remove the bails. If you are appealing for leg-before wicket and if the ball is going to clip the stumps, the speed is such, even spinners’, that the bails will come off.”
Shane Warne has a similar view: “I just don’t understand the umpire’s call. If the ball is hitting the wickets (in case of an LBW appeal), it has to be out.”
What do the umpires think?
Umpires, however, look at this aspect of the DRS a little differently. In an interview last year, Simon Taufel, five-time ICC Umpire of the Year, showed his full support towards the Umpire’s Call arguing, “I think the Umpire’s Call is exactly the right thing to do because umpires should be making decisions. What happens if the cameraman has not got the shot or what happens if the technology replay is inconclusive; we just automatically give the benefit of the doubt to the batsman. Where is the benefit of doubt to the umpire’s decision?”
All in all, this debate aiming at one of the finest margins of the game is something that demands further research and well-thought-out propositions.
Ahmed Tanvir is currently studying at the Institute of Business Administration, the University of Dhaka.