Cricket: More hi-tech help needed for the men in white coats

Incessant appeals and the introduction of the 'super slo-mo' replay have put more pressure on umpires than ever before. By David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE referred to as the men in the middle, but perhaps out on the cutting edge would be a more accurate description. The umpires, cricket's unsung heroes, are in the thick of the heated debate about the relative merits of the human eye, ear and judgement over the marvels of television's hi-tech, all-seeing, all-knowing camera lenses.

The way things are going, with mistakes being highlighted and seemingly on the increase in this latest Cornhill Test series, there is every likelihood that the men in white coats will be taken away by those men in white coats.

Action replays were bad enough. Then they were slowed down and highlighted the odd error of judgement. Now, with super "slo-mo" cameras and the bit of optical technology which homes in on the ball, magnifies it and suggests whether it has or has not made contact with the edge of a bat or pad, the poor old umpire's decision is no longer final, merely questionable.

For example, when Michael Atherton departed leg before to Allan Donald to the first ball on Saturday morning, television replays showed that he had got an inside edge on the ball and should not have been given out. Doubts were expressed about several dismissals right up to the final ball of the match, when Makhaya Ntini was given out leg before to a Darren Gough delivery that some said was missing leg stump.

A widely held view is that the standard of umpiring is no worse or better than it has been in the past. The difference is that technology is now capable of identifying errors.

Hansie Cronje, the South Africa captain, said yesterday: "We can't comment on umpiring decisions. Some go for you and some go against you. There are games when you feel they go for the opposition but that is the nature of the game and you have just got to accept it. When we've cooled down we'll reflect on what happened in the past."

Cronje has been asked by the United Cricket Board of South Africa to give his views on raising umpiring levels in world cricket. Ali Bacher, the Board's managing director, said yesterday that the game had a "major problem" with umpiring. He added: "It is not in the interests of world cricket to have it there. We must sort it out."

The big question is whether the game should extend the role of the third umpire, who sits in the stand viewing a television monitor showing various camera angles on an incident. The third umpire can currently adjudicate on stumpings, run-outs and catches where there is a question of whether or not the ball carried to the fielder. Now there are suggestions that he should also rule on contentious lbw dismissals.

Professor Tim Noakes, of the Sports Science Institute at the University of Cape Town, is convinced that high-speed cameras, placed in line with both sets of stumps and when linked to a computer, could be used to anticipate the path the ball might have taken if it had not hit the batsman's pad. Cameras at square leg would also be able to reveal how high up the pad the ball struck.

One of the biggest problems is when the batsman gets the thinnest of inside edges off his bat and on to the pad. That is when the umpire's ears and eyes can let him down and television technology can come up with a definitive answer.

When television replays exposed the human frailties of the umpire Mervyn Kitchen during the fourth Test at Trent Bridge, the former Somerset opener, having owned up to a couple of mistakes, announced that he was thinking of retiring. He was inundated with hate mail and offers of special prescription glasses and hearing aids.

Barry Dudleston, a first-class umpire since 1984 who has stood in two Tests, says that one of the problems is that today's teams make many more appeals than their predecessors. "It's simple arithmetic," he said. "The more appeals there are the more there are likely to be mistakes."

He takes a pragmatic view of the television issue. "I'd like to see the whole thing [hi-tech television replays] disappear," Dudleston said. "Unfortunately they are not going to go away. It creates interest, as for example when the third umpire is called into play to decide on a run-out. But if the technology is to stay it should be extended to cover as much as possible."

The other question that the game's authorities might need to investigate is the system of neutral umpires, which was introduced five years ago by the International Cricket Council, the game's world governing body, after some touring sides felt that they had been victims of "home" umpiring decisions.

The plan was for one home umpire and one neutral to stand in every Test around the world. Representation for any country was restricted to the ICC's stipulated maximum of four. England are the only country to have had the full complement since its inception. All the other Test playing countries have two umpires.

It has long been a widely held belief that English umpires are the fairest and Clive Lloyd, the former Test captain and manager of the West Indies, was once moved to say that he did not want a neutral umpire, he wanted two English umpires because they were the best.

One umpire, who wished to remain nameless, said: "It was disgraceful the way they hammered Merv [Kitchen] when the guy at the other end [the New Zealander Steve Dunn] made five or six times as many mistakes as Merv."

It is certainly true that English umpires are more experienced than some of those on the international panel. When Glamorgan went on a pre-season tour of Zimbabwe not so long ago, their coach driver was Russell Tiffin, who stood in the first Test of this series at Edgbaston. As a measure of how little opportunity there is for overseas umpires to gain experience, the first Test in which Tiffin officiated in his native Zimbabwe was also his first first-class match.

Another problem is that many neutral umpires, who often stand in only one match, are out of season when they arrive in England. Javed Akhtar, criticised for his performance in the fifth Test, stood in only one "warm- up" match before Headingley, when he officiated in a three-day Second XI game between Middlesex and Nottinghamshire at Uxbridge.

Clive Hitchcock, the International Cricket Council's operations manager, defends the system. "When an umpire is going to officiate out of season, it is ICC policy that they have one or two matches in which to acclimatise themselves. The umpires are happy with the arrangement," he said

Whatever happens over the umpiring issue, it is a problem that will be with the game for a further year because the playing conditions and code of conduct are already in place, following May's ICC's cricket committee meeting. The regulations come into force from 1 September and last for a year.

Many hope changes will eventually be made, with more TV technology being harnessed. It seems only this will take what has become an intolerable burden off the shoulders of those men in white coats.