Why is the Decision Referral System (DRS) back in the news, and for once not eliciting controversy?
After years of stubbornly defying the rest of the world’s consensus over the use of technology to help cricket umpires with their decision-making, India has finally jumped on the last remaining seat aboard the DRS bandwagon. On October 21, the BCCI announced that they had agreed to unconditionally adopt the referral system for the five-Test home series against England beginning November 9. The announcement did come with a caveat, though — that DRS was being deployed on a “trial basis” to “evaluate the improvements made to the system over a period of time”. What it means is that at least for the next two months, Indian audiences will get to see captains signalling a ‘T’ with their arms while donning whites. And, not to forget, savour the suspense of the wait to find out whether the on-field umpire’s decision stays or gets changed.
Why have India and DRS been in dissonance?
The Indian team and those promoting DRS have been involved in an “it’s-not-me-it’s-you” squabble from the time the ICC decided that the on-field umpires’ decision may not necessarily be final. Ironically, India was one of the teams involved in the maiden trial for the referral system back in 2008 — with Virender Sehwag being the first batsman to be dismissed after an on-field ‘not out’ lbw decision was overturned. India lost the series in Sri Lanka 2-1, and also failed to utilise the new system to their advantage: they were successful with only 1 out of 21decisions that they reviewed, while the Lankans got 40% of theirs right. Mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis too had a role to play in many Indians getting trapped in front of the stumps, when the third umpire was called in. Neither the batsmen nor the umpire were sure of the path Mendis’s deliveries would take, and the series was riddled with blunders, both of the human and technological kind. Then on, DRS became India’s pet peeve.
What has been the Indians’ major gripe against the use of technology?
In short, it is that the technology — whether it’s the predictive element of HawkEye or HotSpot — is not 100% fool-proof. They have been uncomfortable with ball-tracking technology, which tracks the hypothetical path of the ball after it has struck pad or bat. Though they have played with DRS in ICC tournaments like the World Cup and Champions Trophy, the only other time they were okay with it in a Test series was in England back in 2011 — and even then, ball-tracking was left out of the review process. As it turned out, they had a hellish experience with HotSpot — the infra-red imaging system that cricket borrowed from the armed forces to determine whether the ball had made contact with the bat, pad, or thin air — with the technology being inconclusive. V V S Laxman faced the bizarre accusation of using Vaseline on his bat to escape HotSpot. Another major issue in their relationship with DRS has been the element of ‘umpire’s call’.
And what is ‘umpire’s call’?
In a way, ‘umpire’s call’ was put in place to not completely overturn the status quo with regard to the two on-field officials and their authority — to ensure that umpires were not reduced to mere ornamental pieces. Or, as former umpire Simon Taufel said recently, “Technology should be used to support the role of the on-field umpire, not replace it.” So for an on-field decision, especially an lbw decision, to be overturned, technology would have to prove that the umpire had, in fact, made a major mistake. Marginal decisions always went in his favour. That’s where the lines have got blurred on occasion — and that’s been the BCCI’s biggest issue with the whole affair. Very often senior Indian cricketers have said that the umpire’s call plays a more vital role in justifying the umpire’s decision rather than eliminating his errors. It is more like a safety cover for them than an additional tool to improve their decision-making. The Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara once said, “With the umpire’s call, technology is used as an excuse for the umpire making a mistake.”
How has the new DRS rule that took effect from October changed the status quo?
According to the previous rule, for a not-out decision to be overturned, replays had to show more than half the ball hitting the pad in line within a zone that ranged between the middle of off-stump and the middle of leg-stump in terms of width, and from the bottom of the bails downward in terms of height. To put it simply, ball-tracking had to show 50% of the ball hitting at least 50% of the stump for a batsman who’d been given ‘not out’ on the field to be sent back to the pavilion. Under the current rule, a batsman can be given marching orders if the fielding team reviews a not-out decision and ball-tracking shows 50% of the ball striking any part of the stump below the bottom of the bails. So the ball no longer needs to crash squarely into the stumps. Even getting a thin edge can spell danger for a batsman. The ‘zone that belongs to the bowler’ has now increased by 3.8 cm in width — that is, by the same width as that of a stump. According to experts, the new rule will favour the fielding team immensely — and 80% of lbw appeals that were turned down and stayed not-out based on the old rule will now be overturned. Having said that, umpire’s call still keeps the traditional respect for the on-field umpires’ authority intact, considering that the chances of an ‘out’ lbw decision being overturned are minimal with the new rule.
How is the presence of DRS likely to impact the India-England series?
For years, players from other teams have bemoaned the absence of DRS whenever they have faced India in a bilateral series. But in its present form, the referral system will probably only make a spinner like Ravindra Jadeja doubly dangerous, especially when he bowls his straighter ones that zone in towards the batsman’s stumps. The English batsmen simply cannot afford to get hit on the pads when Jadeja is bowling, because even if the on-field umpire doesn’t get them, technology most likely will. Also, expect R Ashwin, who can’t seem to put a foot wrong these days, to adjust his lines and lengths to make the best use of DRS.
Why does the BCCI feel that the new software is more foolproof than before?
In their press release, the BCCI indicated that the introduction of two new innovations, ultramotion cameras and UltraEdge, were the gamechangers. It would be fair to say that coach Anil Kumble has played a key role in BCCI changing its mind. Kumble was the first captain to display the ‘time-out’ sign and ask for a review in 2008 — but more importantly, it was during his stint as chairman of the ICC’s Cricket Committee that the two new technologies were endorsed by engineers working on enhancing DRS’s efficiency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Kumble even visited MIT and expressed satisfaction at how the technologies would help check the “range of inaccuracies” in DRS.
How much more accurate is UltraEdge?
UltraEdge is Hawk-Eye’s attempt at creating their own ‘Snickometer’. Like with earlier technologies, it combines audio and video outputs. But while the audio is still provided by the stump microphones, UltraEdge banks on the new and advanced ultramotion cameras, which provide video at 340 frames per second. That almost completely eliminates the margin for error in judging exactly when the ball hits pad or bat, and thus enhances the accuracy of predicting where it would go from that point on.