Friday, October 28, 2005

HawkEye, Cricket Umpiring, and the Greater Use of Technology

Back in May, I wrote that I wasn't yet convinced of the greater need to introduce more technology to assist the cricket umpire in his job. My argumentation was that introducing technology into certain areas reduces an umpire's concentration on the game, and therefore leads to poorer performance overall.

Over at Cricinfo, the modern world's bible for cricket fans, they have launched a new blog, Wicket to Wicket, which they've kicked off by hosting a discussion on the very issue of HawkEye. The greatest coach of modern times, Bob Woolmer, has contributed to the debate himself, where he makes the most persuasive case I have yet seen for the use of new-fangled gadgets and stuff.

(As an aside, Wicket to Wicket is playing precisely the role blogs should be playing in the wider media - acting as a forum for debate where issues are discussed fully and frankly).

Woolmer's point is this:
It [the introduction of HawkEye] would also mean that the human difference between one umpire and another over lbw decisions would vanish. It is particularly difficult when one umpire is seen as an “Outer” while the other is a “Not-outer.” The same appeal would solicit a different decision.
Being the open-minded man that I am (except when I'm right, of course), my opinion has been changed. The umpires are integral to the game of cricket only in that there needs to be some impartial judge of what is going on, and to adjudicate on the most controversial decisions. The laws of the game are absolute, even if the interpretation of the law from person to person is different.

Those different interpretations, of course, detract greatly from the game. The idea of sport is that the better team wins, not the team that benefits, however inadvertantly, from poorer umpiring decisions. Whilst we are reliant on human error for the adjudication on close decisions, the game will be unfair. Who the beneficiaries are will not be consistent from game to game, and no doubt over a long period of time the luck will even out. But in a results-driven game, luck evening out over a long period of time is not good enough. The immediate context is important. And to lose a game you deserved to win, because of a howler of a decision, is one of the most frustrating things imaginable.

Introducing HawkEye means that there will be a recognisable standard. It may not be perfect, but at least it will introduce a level playing field. A bad referee or umpire in any game is irritating. Yet if they are consistent and bad, you at least know the parameters under which you are expected to compete. It is the inconsistency of lbw decisions that causes the biggest problems. With the greater use of technology, the consistency issue will become redundant. If you are given out lbw by HawkEye and think it is unjust, it may not seem much consolation - but had the exact same thing happened to your opponents, they would have been given the same decision. That much cannot be said when we are relying on human judgement.

Umpires are incidental to the game of cricket. And, whilst I respect the job they do, they are fallible, and they do render the outcomes of cricket matches unfair. In sport, we want to create as level a playing field as possible. As far as cricket is concerned, the game will not have that level playing field until HawkEye is used as a matter of course.