Cricket: South Africans put umpires in picture

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THE ROLE of the umpire could be drastically altered in the coming year as the South Africans, who initiated the use of the third umpire for television, are planning to use technology further.

The United Cricket Board of South Africa are meeting on Wednesday to discuss changes for their coming domestic season, and Dr Ali Bacher, the board's managing director, is keen to move forwards. "I certainly believe we should advance the responsibility of the third umpire with the technology on offer to help the umpires rather than undermine them," he said. "If we don't, with the number of cameras used today and the developments like the microscopic camera, we will just expose weaknesses in the umpires and undermine confidence in them. At the moment the umpires have got no price and letting them use the technology that is available would help take the pressure off them."

If changes are introduced successfully, Bacher said that South Africa would then propose them for international cricket at the June meeting of the International Cricket Conference.

The umpires are certainly feeling exposed at the moment. Peter Willey stood in the final Test at Headingley and his experience left him bruised. "The pressure when I started doing Tests three years ago was high," he said. "But now with the constant TV examination it is ridiculous. It's no fun umpiring on TV any more. Javed Akhtar and Merv Kitchen didn't deserve the abuse by the TV pundits. We had to stop the excessive use of slo-mos on the big screen at grounds because of the added pressure, and we need to do that with the TV replays.

"Cricket used to be a gentlemanly game," he continued, "but now it's all niggly, whining childish stuff. The players used to go at each other but when the umpire said 'stop' they did - it was respect for the game and the umpire's word was final. Take away his decision-making and give it to TV and you take away his control of the situation - it will end up with 10-day Tests and the umpire just counting to six."

But, unlike Willey, Bacher believes a fine balance can be found to preserve the role and authority of the umpire. "We don't want to make robot umpires and the question is how far do you go?" he explained. "The umpires are still an important part of the game and the TV would be there for instances when the standing official was unsure, but importantly it would still be his decision to request the third umpire's view. As a doctor I was comfortable 95 per cent of the time with my diagnosis but the other five per cent I referred the patient to a specialist - that is the kind of system I personally envisage."

The ICC control the panel of independent umpires who officiate in all international matches. The increasing scrutiny of decisions is starting to cause concern, but the ICC has little power actually to intervene, as Clive Hitchcock, the cricket operations manager, explained. "If we feel that the intrusive TV coverage is putting an unfair amount of pressure on the umpires then we will talk to the host nation's cricket board, but the TV coverage is under their jurisdiction, so in England it is up to the ECB to act. But if the umpires actually complain to us then we will look at the situation and stimulate debate among the member nations."

It is interesting that, for the past year, Hitchcock said, the men in the middle have had recourse to the third umpire for catches. The problem is, however, that they have often refused to use it. The match referees firmly tell the umpires to go to the replay for the line calls but this almost automatic request for assistance has been ignored for catch decisions. And while umpires have this discretion it is clear that mistakes can and will still be made. Willey added: "Part of the problem is players appealing for things that are never out. They add to the pressure on the umpires by trying to cheat."

The issue confronting the governing bodies and in particular the ICC is: "Do we sacrifice the umpires' discretion because of mistakes?" The results of the South African experiment will reveal a lot, and if the game eventually votes against more technology, maybe the old adage of accepting the umpire's decision will survive.