Monday, May 30, 2005

HawkEye, Run Outs, and Umpires

Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata is a man who I may disagree with a lot of the time when it comes to political matters, but whose love of sport is definitely something I share. He has written recently about the phenomenon of technology in sports, with the paradox that our adjudication of umpiring decisions and general sporting analysis is often unavailable to the umpire or referee at the time.

The use of technology is cricket is increasingly highlighting the deficiency of the umpires. The third umpire, used for close run-out decisions, has greatly improved the quality of decision-making in this regard. But technology has not stopped at close-up, slow-motion cameras. The TV cricket viewer is now presented with a whole array of gadgets. These can superimpose the line of the stumps on a pitch, enhance sounds coming from the wicket to ascertain whether a batsman had edged a ball, and HawkEye, a contraption now about 4 or 5 years old, argues that it can predict accurately the direction of the ball after it has hit bat or pad. In a cricket context, this is crucial, because if true, it allows LBW decisions to be made on a purely scientific basis.

I am not yet convinced of the utility of HawkEye - I have not seen a scientific study where it measures how accurately it has projected the trajectory of a ball without intervention of bat or pad. Indeed, far more useful is the superimposing of the line of the stumps, because it enables us to see where the ball has pitched (crucial in the context of the complicated LBW law), and get a much better idea of the movement of the ball. What is more, as it relies on the original TV shot, the use of technology is grounded in fact, not the reasonable guess provided for by HawkEye.

Yet, unlike Brian Micklethwait, I would argue against the greater intervention of technology in umpiring decisions. One of the reasons I think the general standard of umpiring declined after the introduction of the third umpire was because umpires never had to think about giving a run out decision. If it was remotely dubious, they would simply refer it to the third umpire. Thus, in situations where they were usually trained to make a decision to within a couple of feet, they actually did not have to concentrate. Cricket requires precision of viewing with its laws, and the loss of precision undermined attempts to be focused when it was necessary.

To a certain extent, this has become a moot point, given that the third umpire has been in use for over 10 years now, and the international panel of umpires is largely new - ie, they have never have to worry about adjudicating run outs and as such a loss of concentration from what they were used to has not been a problem. Yet the greater use of technology can only make sense if it is to be used totally, almost as a replacement for the human umpires out on the pitch. Otherwise, the problems of concentration outlined above will rear their head again. And I am not yet convinced that the technology is nearly accurate enough yet to be used as a substitute (even if more accurate than human error); nor do I believe that it is desirable for the game to be held up constantly for further TV adjudication.

Cricket is a strange game, because one or two dodgy umpiring decisions really can change the course of a game, even if the overall standard of umpiring is excellent. By and large, it is, but media attention naturally focuses on things where the umpires have got it wrong. It is only fair that we try and put this right. But partial introduction of greater TV gadgetry is not desirable. It will diminish the authority of the umpire (whose word, after all, is final), and will quite possibly diminish his ability to boot.