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The marginal decisions that still leave room for debate in cricket

From video replay to Hot Spot, Hawk-Eye to Snickometer - cricket has always been at the forefront of technological advances, but the new tools are far from infallible. Osman Samiuddin reports
England spin bowler Graeme Swan, right, appeals to umpire Billy Bowden for the wicket of Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq.
England spin bowler Graeme Swan, right, appeals to umpire Billy Bowden for the wicket of Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq.
For small mercies we must be thankful. Had the two decisions that Saeed Ajmal and Andrew Strauss received on the third and final day of the first Test between Pakistan and England in Dubai been made in the 1980s or early 1990s, the aftermath might have belonged to diplomats, lawyers and politicians.

Instead, there was mild consternation over technology as an aid to umpires. Again. Still.

Cricket's conversation on technology is in danger of never ending. Neither Strauss nor Ajmal was actually out as most people saw, yet both were given. The sport is littered with such decisions; arguably any sport is. But the increasing use of high-tech tools to aid umpires - an especially venerated species whose judgement has always been final and whose authoritative space has been fiercely guarded - has become an emotive and complex matter for the sport.

It has become a matter of politicking between boards as well as with the game's governing body. The use of these aids - which were created essentially for broadcasters - has also become a financial battle between boards, broadcasters and the inventors of the tools.

That decisions such as those against Ajmal and Strauss can still occur, even with the help of technology, is a sign that cricket might just have taken a very long route to come back to the point where Mahinda Wijesinghe entered the conversation, nearly 30 years ago.

Wijesinghe was an accountant who confesses to having "gone mad about the game". He was a fair cricketer in the 1950s on Sri Lanka's schools and club circuit, but his greater significance is as the man who opened the door to the machines. It was a column he wrote - "October 11, 1982," he recalled the date as only a good man of numbers could - that formed the first call for introducing video replays.

"With these huge TV screens in Australian grounds, once they showed that a batsman was out but not given run out and he went on to score big," he remembered. "I thought to myself this is ridiculous. Here is a man, the whole ground can see he is out and he is still batting. That was the basis."

Wijesinghe recommended using walkie-talkies between on-field umpires and another official in the dressing room with access to television replays, who would present evidence on which a decision would be based. He suggested only line calls - stumpings and run-outs - be decided thus.

Three months later, in the New Year's Ashes Test at Sydney, arrived the first of many false tipping points. John Dyson was run out by Bob Willis off his own bowling in the match's first over, by at least 18 inches, the Wisden Almanack recorded. Except he was not, because Mel Johnson, the square leg umpire, did not think so. Dyson made a five-hour 79 in a game that was ultimately drawn, allowing Australia to regain the Ashes.

"The light was switched on," wrote the eminent cricket historian and writer David Frith, who became from that moment an influential advocate for technology.

He echoed Wijesinghe: "Millions of televiewers had seen from the replays that he was out, but he batted on simply because an official lacked access to what we had all seen on the screen. It was illogical and unjust."

Wijesinghe wrote a technical paper to the International Cricket Conference (now Council), via the cricket board in Sri Lanka who presented the paper to the ICC in 1984. The idea was tut-tutted away. "Although the proposals were not supported, it was agreed that all countries should continue to examine ways and means of improving standards of umpiring in general," recorded Wisden, a cricket reference book published annually in the UK.

For nearly a decade little happened, except that the case for neutral umpires strengthened and, as a side effect, so too the case for technology. For much of that period the sole purpose of Pakistan-England encounters seemed to be to shove this debate right into cricket's face.

By the early 1990s then, it was time to revisit the idea; the run out of Dyson that never was found many parallels. Graham Gooch was at least a yard short in Headingley in July 1992 against Pakistan but not given. Just two weeks earlier, Dr Ali Bacher, the head of the South African board, was on his way back to South Africa having attended his country's first ICC meeting since readmission to the game (where Bacher had already indicated South Africa might experiment with technology).

At the airport, he caught bits of the Benson & Hedges Cup final between Hampshire and Kent. "Graham Cowdrey was batting, David Gower was behind square leg. There was a scamper for a single, Gower picked up and threw down the wickets. I said 'he's in'. The square leg umpire gave him not out. The BBC showed a replay and I couldn't believe he was out by more than a yard."

This was by now a recurring theme; Bacher remembered being run out in a Boxing Day win against Australia in 1966 ("I had 63, was given out when I was past the wickets man!"). Bacher, now convinced, held a meeting immediately with Mike de Maine, the director of cricket coverage for the South African Broadcast Company (SABC).

"He asked me what we could do as a broadcaster to help umpires with decisions," De Maine said.

"We had limited technology, a few cameras, no super slo-mo, nothing. The only thing I could suggest was to see if we could assist with line calls. We always have a camera at midwicket at ground level. We could raise that and that would give us a clearer view of the creases and if there was a run out or stumping, you could replay that back."

They trialled the system during the domestic season and were happy enough when India arrived for South Africa's first home series in 22 years to approach the tourists to try it properly. "Before the first Test in Durban, I called a meeting with Ajit Wadekar [the manager], Azharuddin [the captain] and explained what I wanted us to do," Bacher said.

"They were very nervous. I called another meeting with the match referee Clive Lloyd, an innovative guy. I said I need you to lean on them. He did, they agreed. Without even consulting my board, the Indian board, the ICC, we just agreed and off we went."

On the second day of the Test, Cyril Mitchley, the square leg umpire, signalled to Karl Liebenberg, the television umpire, on a possible run-out and seconds later, Sachin Tendulkar became the first victim of technology in international cricket.

Over the next two years this was accepted around the world. The BBC provided replays for five of the six Ashes Tests in 1993 so that just over 10 years after Dyson, Robin Smith was stumped, by Ian Healy first and then a camera, the first TV decision in a Test in England, at Lord's.

There was scattered resistance. The West Indian umpire Steve Bucknor refused to rely on TV during the South Africa-India series, though he soon changed his mind after getting a run-out palpably wrong. Mathew Engel, the then editor of the Wisden Almanack, remained unconvinced. "I may be in a minority; I remain utterly convinced that this is a disaster," he wrote. "The heart of the game, the finality of the umpire's verdict, is being eaten away."

By July 1993, the ICC agreed that TV umpires and video replays should be used wherever possible; a year later they made it mandatory among those boards where requisite technology was present.

Over the next decade, however, the conversation became heated. The growing concern over getting more decisions right melded with the rise of the broadcaster. Cricket was changing, or at least the way we watched it. Over the next decade, it became two games, one watched as the blur of live action at a ground by a few, and another slowed down and pried into on television by millions. This was - and is - the age of the broadcaster.

Television rights became the big game in town and broadcasters began to restructure the viewing experience. Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand captain, was with Sky New Zealand when, in 2000, he approached Ian Taylor, the head of an animation company with expertise in sports graphics.

Taylor's company was "in the business of turning digital data into pictures people could understand". Over the previous eight years, they had transformed the broadcast of the America's Cup by introducing real-time 3D graphics. "Martin came to us and said can we start using this stuff for TV," Taylor said. "He said, TV coverage always looks at the pitch. I want an application to look at fielders because cricket is a game of chess played between three people. It's the bowler and his captain playing chess against batsmen."

A year earlier in the UK, keen sportsman and artificial intelligence PhD Dr Paul Hawkins began researching and developing a computer programme that could track balls in flight based on data from high-speed cameras and generate a prediction of flight path. After 18 months' development, Hawk-Eye was ready just as Channel 4 obtained broadcast rights for international cricket in the UK and, like Crowe, were keen to shake up cricket broadcasting. They bought into Hawk-Eye - and other graphics tools - and unveiled it during the 2001 summer.

Hawk-Eye proved so popular that Taylor's company lost their contract with broadcasters because they did not have ball-tracking. By 2005, he started developing what came to be known as Virtual - or Eagle - Eye, Hawk-Eye's only competitor.

To this point, Hawk-Eye and gadgets like the audio-based Snicko, had been tools of entertainment. In 2002, however, came a first leap of faith. Impressed by Hawk-Eye, the ICC decided to trial it on lbw decisions at the Champions Trophy.

The trial was not a success, but such was the encroachment, the march was impossible to stop. Further trials, in the Super Series in September 2005, also were not decisive but by March 2008, cricket plunged in anyway, trialling the Decision Review System (DRS), whereby players were allowed to challenge umpires on any decision and umpires had access to technology to assist them.

By then Hot Spot had also emerged, an invention that used infra-red technology to show heat from the friction created by any collision on the pitch, such as between ball and bat or pad. In 2006, when it was unveiled, Australia's Channel 9 were content it was for improving coverage, not helping umpires.

When the ICC decided on the DRS, Taylor expressed his unease, surprising given the potential benefits to his company but right at the heart of the current debate. "We were opposed to it then," he said. "I know the technology behind it, I know the strengths and weaknesses. It was developed as a TV tool and it should not be pushed to this without more development. They did it anyway so it became incumbent upon us. What we've done and continue to do is make sure we're putting the best technology we can."

His concerns capture the discomfort of many. In the first flush of technology, many assumed these tools to be infallible. But that assumption has been challenged, especially the predictive element of ball-tracking - what happens after ball hits pad - which De Maine insists cannot be 100 per cent accurate.

Snicko is not used at all anymore; Hot Spot was thought to be foolproof when becoming a mandatory part of DRS, yet last summer it faltered repeatedly in the England-India series, leading to a U-turn within the ICC on compulsory usage of the DRS altogether.

Still, many players, boards and umpires are happy to take the tools as they are. And there is always the hope better technology will emerge.

A hairier problem is who should pay for the technology? According to Taylor, the kit for Virtual Eye costs around US$250,000 (Dh918,300) and the Hot Spot is around the same per camera. The cost per game could be up to $60,000 a day. The ICC is not willing to fund this, neither are boards. Occasionally a way is found, like Pakistan getting a corporate sponsor for DRS for their current series against England.

Some broadcasters do not care about the DRS in any case. "We have many other things we want to do, like tracking fielders, build scoring Manhattans and graphics for example," said one. "That's part of what the broadcaster does. But lbw appeals have overtaken everything and that is a distraction. The DRS has become disproportionately the decider for broadcasters about what technology they should be using."

But Taylor's experience with other sports has convinced him that the ICC ultimately has to take ownership - by, for example, putting out a tender for one company to provide tracking for all international matches. He believes these tools have become part of the laws of the game.

"It was the broadcasters who brought this in to entertain, to add to coverage," he said. "Then the ICC steps up and says, 'Oh, that looks really good'. They haven't paid for any of the investment, for any of the costs and now they want to use it."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

Updated: January 25, 2012 04:00 AM

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