July 16, 2013, by adam

It might not be cricket, but it is cricket

The first test match of the 2013 series between England and Australia was, undoubtedly, a great match and a credit to the players of both teams. From my perspective as part of the Making Science Public programme, however, it was also interesting for the role that technology played in the controversy and excitement of the game.

Technology comes into play in cricket in determining whether or not a batsman is given out in certain situations. One case is in determining if a batsman is run-out. Here an umpire can refer the decision to an off-field television umpire to scrutinise replays to determine if a batsman has grounded his bat beyond the popping crease before the fielding side have broken the wicket. The use of this technology has changed the behaviour of umpires. Now, it is a very brave umpire indeed who does not refer even the most clear-cut of decisions to the off-field umpire. These same umpires are, generally in international cricket, the best in the world and if standing in a normal county match would be trusted to decide on their own the tightest of run-outs.

Other technologies can be used ‘on appeal’ by the fielding captain or the batsman to challenge an umpire’s decision on being out caught or out ‘leg before wicket’ (lbw). This is known as the Decision Review System or DRS. Being out ‘caught’ is when the batsman has hit the ball with his bat and a fielder has caught it before it hits the ground. Being out ‘lbw’ is where the ball hits the body of the batsman (usually the leg but not always) before or instead of the bat and, subject to certain qualifications, when in the opinion of the umpire the ball would have hit the stumps had it not been for the intervention of the batsman’s body.

Everyone who has played the game at any level has their own mental scars from when umpires have given them out lbw missing the most obvious of inside edges or missed the thickest of edges carrying to the fielder denying them a wicket. In Test cricket a fielding captain or a batsman confident that the umpire has made a wrong decision can appeal the decision using the DRS. The matter is then referred to the off-field umpire for review.

The tools available to the off-field umpire include Hawk-eye, a technology that attempts to predict the path that the ball would have taken had the batsman’s leg not intervened. This is used particularly in cases of disputed lbw. In addition, the umpire can use ‘Hot-spot’, an infra-red imaging system that helps determine if the ball has hit the bat or body of the batsman. This is useful in cases of disputed catches and when a batsman, given out lbw, is convinced he had hit the ball first with his bat.

These technologies are employed in the hope that clearly wrong umpiring decisions can be reduced and the game determined by the quality of the players rather than the errors of the umpires. To prevent players abusing the system and appealing every decision, a side can only make an unsuccessful appeal on two occasions in a Test Match innings. After that, the team is subject to suffering a bad umpiring decision just as much as the village third eleven.

In the recent Test Match the Australian team, having unsuccessfully appealed on two occasions, were unable to appeal a clearly wrong decision by the umpire when the ball hit English batsman Stuart Broad’s outside edge and was caught by the wicketkeeper. At the time Broad had scored 37 runs and enjoyed his good fortune by going on to make a total of 65. It should be noted that England’s winning margin in the game was just 14 runs.

Now when I was a kid my father impressed upon me the importance of proper sportsmanship in cricket and that if I knew I had hit the ball and the umpire missed it, it was my duty to give myself out and walk off. In the professional game, however, ‘walking’ is extremely rare with the former Australian player Adam Gilchrist among the last to give himself out in that way.

In Broad’s case the role of technology may have played a part in his decision to remain at the wicket. If Australia had an appeal left, would Broad have walked or would he have waited for Australia to use their appeal and have himself proven to have clearly hit the ball? He would certainly have been given out and so there would have been no cost to him to have honoured the spirit of the game by walking. But, because Australia had no appeals left he could get away with not walking and rely upon the professional cricketers’ defence that it is the job of the umpire to get these decisions right.

It should be noted that these technologies are not infallible. This excellent paper , by Science in Public 2013 keynote speaker Harry Collins, and Robert Evans, describes at length the limitations of Hawk-eye. Hot-spot too suffered a fail in the Test when Jonathan Trott was given out lbw by the off-field umpire when both he, Trott, and the on-field umpire seemed convinced that Trott had hit the ball before it hit his leg. The error here was the unavailability of the system due to ‘operator error’.

These technical aids were introduced to try and remove the obvious umpiring errors. However, an unexpected consequence of using these technologies has been to test the skill of players, especially fielding captains, in deciding when to refer a decision to the off-field umpire.

The temptation for captains to refer a decision for reasons unconnected with a belief that an obvious error has been made is present. Such reasons might include the situation in the game ‘needing’ a wicket, or the outside chance of dismissing a key opposition batsman. Even that most calm of English captains, Michael Vaughan, has been known when commentating to yell “He’s got to review it!” unconnected with whether or not he believes the batsman out.

The coming of technology to cricket means that the skill of the captain must now include an ability to judge if and when to appeal a decision to the off-field umpire. He will listen to the wicketkeeper and the bowlers, who both have good views of possible edges or lbw cases, but, ultimately, it is his decision to make quickly, and in the heat of battle. If Australian captain, Michael Clarke, had exercised better judgement earlier in the day and not lost his right to appeal then Stuart Broad would have been given out and the result of the game may have been quite different.

What is clear is that the use of technology in cricket is changing the game. Obvious umpiring errors have certainly been reduced but technology has meant that players are now having to learn how to use the system to maximise the advantage to their team. It is too much to say technology is deciding the result of games, but not, perhaps, too much to say that it is influencing the result.

Adam Spencer


Posted in Science