Cricket: Camera blurs the issue again

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The Independent Online
CAN AN umpire be wrong even when he gets the decision right? Yes, at least morally. If that sounds like an Edward de Bono riddle, the poser came with England's first wicket of the day at Buffalo Park against a Comb-ined Border/Eastern Province side. With the home side finishing the day on 331 for 5, it was a moderate day for England's bowlers, whose tempers would surely have been tested to breaking point, had that early decision gone against them.

Faced with a sappingly hot day in the field after Alec Stewart lost the toss, Darren Gough made good his disappointment at having Brad White dropped in the gully two balls earlier by snaring the left-handed Carl Bradfield when he edged to Mark Butcher at first slip.

At least that was what it looked like from the sidelines as Butcher took the catch inches from the ground before throwing the ball up in triumph. What happened next, as Bradfield stood his ground, did little service to the umpire versus technology debate that has raged since Rudi Koertzen became a household name after his litany of errors in the Second Test.

Controversy creates celebrity, and when a young girl seeking autographs ran on at a drinks break and ignored the players but not the umpires, you know things have got out of hand. Confronted by an immobile batsman, umpire Ian Howell, a first-class player until three years ago, panicked and turned to his colleague, Craig Schoof, at square leg. When Schoof shrugged, Howell then referred it to the third umpire's TV replay.

When, after five minutes, that proved inconclusive, mainly because the one angle available (despite seven cameras) could not follow the red ball against the huge red and white Castle Lager logo on the pitch, Howell took matters into his own hands and gave Bradfield out.

To the fielders and spectators it was the right decision, though according to the laws of cricket, the process by which he made it was wrong. Law 27.4 states: "An umpire may consult with the other umpire on a point of fact which the latter (including the third umpire) may have been in a better position to see and shall then give his decision. If, after consultation, there is still doubt remaining the decision shall be in favour of the batsman."

As an ex-player fast-tracked into umpiring under a scheme brought in by the United Cricket Board, Howell probably decided on instinct. There appears to be a scarcity of good umpires in South Africa, a fact highlighted by the case of Cyril Mitchley, who is due to stand in the Cape Town Test. Until last September, he was on the international panel of umpires. Now deaf in one ear, he felt his disability could compromise his decision- making and asked to be taken off the list. But that does not preclude him from officiating in home Tests, and he will stand with B.C. Cooray on 2 January.

Howell was involved in the next dismissal as well when Graeme Swann, in his first four-day match of the tour, won an lbw decision against another left-hander, Brad White after lunch. He made 48 before missing a hoik over midwicket. While it is true some umpires like Steve Bucknor take an age over an lbw decision, you could have boiled a kettle in the time it took Howell, a one-time left-arm spinner, to raise his finger.

It was a lone success for Swann, who came in for some tap, especially from the chunky Wayne Wiblin, who in one over hit him for three fours and a six. But the off-spinner was not the only "step and fetch it" bowler. Alex Tudor, whose 15 overs cost 72, showed he is not so much easing back as falling back.

If Tudor half-deserved to get Wiblin after he slashed at one that bounced, his dismissal of Laden Gamiet as the ball cannoned off his back foot into the stumps was pure luck. The pick of the bowlers was Chris Silverwood, who went wicketless.

Conditions, if anathema to the bowlers, were batting nirvana for those willing to hit the ball. With four hundreds already this season, James Bryant is the in-form player and his 72 was an innings of pedigree before he edged Gavin Hamilton's out-swinger. Piet Strydom took up the torch and his unbeaten 68 had a sureness about it that could consign England's bowl-ers to further hard graft today.