Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yet another catching controversy

As England have taken the lead in an Ashes series for the first time in 12 years, yet another catching controversy has erupted. Phil Hughes was caught by Andrew Strauss at slip and was given out, while Ravi Bopara was given not out following a referral after Nathan Hauritz claimed a catch. The incendiary personality of Ricky Ponting added further fuel to the fire. Ponting was at the nonstriker's end and instructed Hughes to stand his ground.

The controversy has apparently been settled. The explanation is both deflating and clarifying. In essence, Umpire Doctrove was certain that Strauss had completed the Hughes catch, while in the case of Bopara, neither Umpire was sure that the catch had been completed. The Australian contention is that had Hughes's catch been referred, a verdict in Hughes's favor would have been returned, as video replays were inconclusive.

Video replays are never going to provide enough information, because they involve the projection of a 3D video on a 2D plane. As a result, even with the benefit of a perspective projection, at those very short distances (such as between the ball when it first hit the hand and the ball when it then lodged in the fingers), it is impossible to get any perception of depth. The result is that the ball appears to drop to the ground, when in fact, it is probably falling away from the screen.

This is a well understood phenomenon. What is often misunderstood is the consequence of this lack of information. Even in cases where a TV Umpire determines that the catch that he sees on the screen has been completed, he is still doing so based on bad, incomplete information. Hence, even in cases where the umpire determines that the batsman is Out, the decision is no better than the decision from the on-field umpire.

So both the Out and the NotOut decisions, made by the TV Umpire are based on dubious evidence (except in cases where the catch is shin high or knee high!). The obvious problem lies not in the technology, but in the total break down of trust between the batsman and the fielders. No batsman can afford to trust the word of the fielding side (certainly not in a major Test Match contest). Even if a batsman is inclined to take the word of a fielder, the pressure from his own side and supporters will be too great, for they will point to an instance where an opposition batsman didn't act in the a similarly gentlemanly way and went on to make big runs.

As in the case of Hughes and Bopara, the "correct" decision, such as it is, depends on whether or not the onfield umpire can be certain that a catch is clean or otherwise. The minute an on-field umpire refers it upstairs, controversy is inevitable.

There are solutions to this problem. Some are well known and have been suggested for a long time. The most obvious one is to reinstate the old law, which stated that in order for a catch to be clean, no part of the hand below the wrist (i.e. the palm the back of the hand or the fingers), should be in contact with the ground when the ball reaches the hand. This change will favor the batsman. However, there are any number of rule changes which could redress the balance - reinstating the backfoot no-ball rule being the most obvious one. Rarely has there been a law which promises so much good, but has been set aside, mainly due to inertia.

A more radical solution to this problem would be to give the close in fielders place mats - astroturf mats. The fielders will definitely complain, but if the mats are sized correctly to accomodate a dive by the catcher, this would ensure that the fielder would always dive on the mat, thereby ensuring that background for the catch is a flat surface, and not grass. But this is a complicated solution and as such is quite impractical (even though impractical rules abound in the modern game - one only has to look at the new chucking law)

As things stand now, they are ripe for Ricky Ponting and his ilk. Like his predecessor Steve Waugh, im fairly certain that to the end of his playing days Ponting will continue to insist until he's blue in the face, that his Australians play 'hard but fair'. Then, once he has retired, he will, like his predecessor, admit that his Australians "got away with murder". Whats more, he will probably be convinced that he held both positions absolutely sincerely!

Given the impossibility of implementing the law without any trust amongst opposing players, Ponting's prospective conviction is a self-fullfilling prophecy.

8 comments:

  1. I think super slo-mo and High Definition pictures for the TV Umpires can help. Referrals must go to the TV umpires especially when there is such a doubt. And once with the TV ump, and in case of TV replays being inconclusive, they should apply the classic rule: when in doubt, benefit goes to the batter.

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  2. Aditya, the problem is that TV umpires only make sense when the TV view is less inconclusive than the view of the onfield umpires. For these catches, it rarely is.

    Kartikeya, I am intrigued by your suggestion that the hand should not be allowed to touch the ground. Scorpicity mentioned this on Homer's blog as a schoolyard rule, but I had never heard of it. You are suggesting it should be "reinstated" - when was it ever part of the official laws. My impression was that the hand touching the ground had always been allowed, explicitly so since 1947.

    My last comment on that post didn't seem to make it through, but my thoughts are that such a rule is great on the playground, but in the international setting would just lead to debates about whether a fielders little finger grazed a blade of grass, which isn't any easier to adjudicate on with a tv replay than the current rules.

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  3. On second glance, there's even more subtlety than I first noticed - after Scorpi's comment, the idea sounded like the hand could not touch the ground while the catch was completed, but of course the notion of the catch being completed is a relatively recent one. You say the ground can't be touched "when the ball reaches the hand". There are many places to draw the line...

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  4. Yeah. The strict rule as i understand it was that at no time could any part of the hand below the wrist be in contact with the ground. So a legal catch could only be completed without the hand touching the ground, or in this case, touching the grass.

    Thats why i think such a rule would favor the batsman so significantly.

    You see the remnants of this old law (and as Scorpi's suggests currently prevalent law in the schoolyard) in the habits of some fielders who take great pains, if they have the ball in on hand and are on the groun, to make sure that their wrist is upturned, even though their forearm may be clean on the ground.

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  5. Even in cases where a TV Umpire determines that the catch that he sees on the screen has been completed, he is still doing so based on bad, incomplete information. Hence, even in cases where the umpire determines that the batsman is Out, the decision is no better than the decision from the on-field umpire.

    But the problem with replays for low catches is that the 2D picture often makes it look like grass is touching ball. If the picture shows clear separation between grass and ball, then there's no problem. ie, the mistakes can only go in one direction, in favour of the batsman.

    I second Jonathan's question about this wrist-on-ground thing. I can't see mention of it in the 1980 Code, the 1947 Code, or the few revisions of the 1884 Code that I checked.

    reinstating the backfoot no-ball rule being the most obvious one. Rarely has there been a law which promises so much good, but has been set aside, mainly due to inertia.
    What if the draggers come back?

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  6. My understanding is that the dragging of the backfoot is easier to detect than the dragging of the sliding of the frontfoot. In any event, the umpire should consider where the foot lands not where it ends up.

    The point is to let the umpire make the decision as early as possible to that he can shift his attention to the batting end.

    About the catching law, let me see if i can find it.

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  7. In any event, the umpire should consider where the foot lands not where it ends up.
    But this is the problem - you had bowlers like Rorke who would have their back foot land behind the bowling crease and then drag it well past the popping crease.

    I agree that it would make it easier for the umpires, but there's a reason they changed to a front-foot no-ball rule.

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  8. Rorke was also said to be a chucker - something that had much to do with the amount of drag of his back foot.

    With run scoring apparently so much easier, it may not be a bad thing if the bowlers are able to bowl from 20 yards instead of 22

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