Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Politics Of DRS

Recently, Cricinfo reported that Chief Executives (CEC) of all ICC member boards except BCCI recommended that the choice for using DRS be determined by the host board, instead of being decided by both participating boards in bilateral series. This is an important change because it marginalizes the BCCI more sharply than ever before on this issue. If it is actually true that every single board except BCCI wants DRS to be used, then with such a rule in place, only bilateral Tests and ODI series in India would be played without the use of the system. This is, in my view, a brilliant move on the part of the proponents of DRS - one which I admire even though it is going to further the use of a device which I think is harmful for the game. As the ICC's Colin Gibson explained to me, this move is not based on any new evidence about the quality of technology used in DRS - Edward Rosten's research continues. Gibson explained that "internal opinion" at the ICC was that the Chief Executives made this recommendation in response to the fact that their players would like to see more consistent use of DRS. The line about consistency is a very effective one. It complements a rather condescending one which proponents of ICC (including David Richardson, now the CEO of ICC) have used in the past, that the players are "confused" by having to play under two different systems.

This move on the part of the Chief Executives is also indicative of the essential fact that DRS is at its core a political matter, and not just a technical one. This post is an attempt to describe the politics of DRS.

Umpiring is a political matter as well as a technical one. When asked what it takes to be a good umpire,  Umpire Simon Taufel, five time ICC Umpire of the Year, a veteran of 74 Tests and 174 ODIs and the 2011 World Cup Final, said that umpiring was about being "able to make decisions, not just the outs and not outs, but to make decisions in line with the expectations of the players and support staff". He continued, "Far too much of the media focus is on the LBW or caught behind that is debatable, but the real skill of what an umpiring is all about, which is being able to manage the match in a fun and fair environment, to be able to make good value judgment to players as often and long as we can." Note the point about making decisions in line with the expectations of the players and support staff. Think about the LBW law in light of this. There are conventions about the interpretation of the law. Giving LBWs when the batsman is well down the pitch would surprise players. The correctness of judgments, especially in the case of LBWs is often a matter of convention.

The technical aspects of umpiring are obvious. The Umpires must master the Laws of the game and must have demonstrated the ability to interpret them accurately. But more than that, given the fact that the laws are tested rigorously at the highest level, they must be able to make intelligent judgments in the marginal cases which emerge from time to time - in cases where the evidence is not clear one way or the other. In the most serious sense of politics - the art of influencing people's beliefs on an individual or civic level, umpiring, with its emphasis of judgment and management, is a significantly political role.

At the highest level, Umpiring has faced many challenges over the years. In the early days of televised broadcasts, there was the perception (and in some cases, the reality) of bias. Umpires, traditionally drawn from the host nation, favored, and came to be seen to favor the home team. Visiting players would say it was impossible to get an LBW against Javed Miandad in Pakistan, or against Sunil Gavaskar in India. The way out of this problem was championed by Imran Khan among others. He called for neutral Umpires. The practice of appointing neutral Umpires became common place after a slow beginning. Initially only one of the two Umpires in a Test was from a neutral country. Today all Tests are assigned to ICC's Elite Umpires from non-participating full member nations of the ICC. The same is the case in multilateral ODI events. International bilateral ODI series include one neutral Umpire and one home Umpire.

With the problem of bias solved, the next issue under scrutiny was competence. This came to light in an interesting way. Whats more, it came to light at two very different levels which had nothing to do with each other. First, there were the obvious mistakes. Mistakes which would be seen on TV in an action replay. Occasional LBWs given despite a clear edge on the bat, catches given even though the bat clearly hit the pad and missed the ball, LBWs given when the ball was clearly missing leg stump. These came to be referred to as "howlers". The second kind of problem came about because of the advent of new broadcasting aids. In order to enhance viewer experience, broadcasters bought ball-tracking systems, complete with attached statistics and graphics packages (wagon wheels, manhattans, worms, beehives, pitch maps etc.). The ball-track had a predictive path, which originally was not particularly rigorous or accurate (it used a generic point of release for example), but tantalizingly enough, showed the ball going through the pad, and onto the stumps (or past them). Suddenly, Umpiring decisions which had for decades followed convention consistently, came to be seen as mistakes. Uncharitable, patriotic commentators (ex-players themselves) were swayed by these pictures, and were moved to describe Umpiring decisions where an LBW was given even though the rudimentary ball-track graphic showed the ball just missing leg stump, as umpiring mistakes, or even, at times, howlers.

The ICC now had a problem. Their Umpires were being made to look foolish because they made occasional howlers, and also because decisions which were in fact difficult and marginal, were now being clearly shown to be clear mistakes. The solution they eventually hit upon, was what eventually became the Decision Review System. They briefly tried a system in which technology would be used only to review things that actually happened - where the ball pitched, where the ball hit the pad (was it within the width of the stumps?), whether or not there was any bat involved, whether or not a ball was edged, whether or not it was cleanly caught, etc. But this was augmented by the use of ball-tracking, provided initially by Hawkeye (by Hawkeye Innovations) and then by Virtual Eye (by Animation Research Ltd.), in a predictive capacity.

That technologies used by broadcasters to enhance the broadcast would be used by Umpires in decision making is by no means natural. Other sports such as football and baseball have scrupulously avoided this. The ICC itself examined (and probably continues to examine) the idea of using customized technologies to assist umpires which would be made available independent of the TV broadcast.

But the ICC went further. Accusations of incompetence and inconsistency were met by cricket's apex body by co-opting players in making decisions. In the fond hope that players (who did not walk when they knew it was out, and who appealed when they knew it wasn't) would use reviews judiciously, only when it was obvious. They allowed the players to review, but then set up an finite number of unsuccessful reviews. They had set up, knowingly or unknowingly, an economy of error. Over the past 4 years it has turned out that players are as likely to review a marginal decision as they are to review an obvious one. Reviews initiated by players are unsuccessful more often than they are successful.

But the Player Reviews are considered to be a success. Success, it seems to me, is measured based on how happy the players are, not on how correct the decisions are. In 2012, Cricket Australia tried an alternative method in the Ryobi Cup limited overs tournament. The idea was to take the power of the review away from the players and allow the TV Umpire to initiate a review. The system was compromised by the limitations the broadcaster imposed on the availability of replays. But even so, the players didn't like the system because they felt it was arbitrary. Part of this had to do with the fact that the TV Umpire (and the technology available to him) was now the arbiter of marginality.

There are, if you think about it, three basic ways in which Umpiring can be carried out. First, one could leave everything to the Umpire in real time, and accept the decision on the field as final. Second, one could leave everything to the technology. Whenever an appeal is made on the field, a team of Umpires sitting in a control room could review the evidence and give a decision. The umpire on the field would be unnecessary. The third approach would be a compromise, involving some possibility of review. The first approach describes how cricket was played until the early 21th century. The second approach describes the substantive aspiration of some fans, commentators and players. The aspiration is that for any and all situations on the field, two things must necessarily be the case - (1) the law must always be crystal clear, (2) the evidence required to make a decision under this crystal clear law must always be fully available. The notion of judgment, and the responsibility and subjectivity (albeit that of a trained, richly experience subject) that comes with it, is anathema to those who hold this view aspirational view. As Gideon Haigh points out here, this aspiration is not new. It comes from a persistent strain in thought throughout history which says that if only we were competent enough and had all the information, we would (a) be infallible, and (b) the truth would become clear to us.

The third approach is the one used in practice. A lot of evidence has been ginned up by the ICC to support DRS. They have reported that DRS improves correct decisions from about 93 out of 100 to 97 out of 100. This, as I have tried to show here, is not strictly true. They have commissioned studies of ball tracking services, but the fact that they felt the need to commission the study did not stop them from recommending the use of DRS in all international cricket even before the study had reported its findings. In fact, the ICC's Cricket Committee made the same recommendation in 2011 before the study was even commissioned. This, inspite the fact that the ball tracking systems in use in DRS have never been tested rigorously in the field to verify their accuracy. Rosten's work does not include field testing either. The founder of Hawkeye, Paul Hawkins, told me in 2011 that the only field tests conducted so far were conducted by his company in association with the MCC in 2008, but that he didn't think they were any good.

The design of the third approach has problems. But as a political matter, the design of DRS will not change simply because there are rationally better ways to execute it. It will only change if the right people propose these changes. The BCCI has made a cogent argument against DRS. They don't trust the technology, they think it will be prohibitively expensive for some of the poorer boards, and there is the lingering discomfort with the player review. The ICC's response has been steadfast. Currently, both sides would like to hold on to a part of the status quo. The ICC thinks the Player Review is the best available way to involve technology despite the use of tactical reviews, and despite the problem of the economy of error (which limits the number of decisions that can be reviewed by penalizing teams being on the wrong end of marginal decisions). The BCCI is of the view (as stated in that interview), that having taken bias out of the equation, things should be left as they are.

This is not enough on the part of the BCCI. They have to make a constructive case. The ICC's latest move means that they cannot continue to hope for the status quo - hope that India will never have to use a system it does not like. In my view, the BCCI needs to do each of the following:

1. They need to take up the problem of DRS being designed to satisfy players, not to arrive at the most accurate decisions.

2. They need to propose alternatives to involvement of players in decision making, perhaps by using some form of the Umpire Review in domestic cricket.

3. They need to support investigations into the possibility of developing customized technology to assist Umpires in decision making.

4. They need to point out that DRS has systematized dissent and undermined the authority of the Umpire.

5. They should, as an alternative, propose that all decisions be automatically referred to television Umpires, arguing, as Umpire Taufel has, that it is not fair to ask the Umpire to make a decision first without the benefit of all the technology which is then used to verify the decision.

6. They need to propose solutions to the problem of money.

To be fair, all three approaches to adjudication described in this post are tenable. Two of the three have already been used in cricket. The third, it seems to me, is inevitable. Ironically, while the Umpire's ability to judge is being undermined, Umpires are being trained better, and more rigorously than ever. Umpiring is becoming more professional the world over, and in the ICC. Having addressed bias, and now competence, the ICC winning the argument on DRS. For the sake of Cricket, the BCCI needs to stop them.


  1. There is a fourth method of umpiring, one that balances the competing need for accuracy, with the desire to have neither player reviews nor lengthy delays. That is to use the technology to better inform the central umpire on their decision making prior to their decision - true certainty, as anyone with technical knowledge could have told the ICC before, and anyone who has watched cricket since now know, is impossible. This is the approach the ICC ought to have taken - particularly on no-ball reviews, a trivial problem for a side-on camera and computer vision - separating the decision making apparatus from the television feed, on which it is currently dependent. Tennis has used the method for years, for let-calls and faults; although they incorporate reviews as well, the former is by far the more agreeable system.

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