Cricket: Umpires caught in glare of third eye

Electronic surveillance increases pressure on the decision-makers while short attention spans stymie England
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The Independent Online
FIVE years ago, when the cricket world was rife with talk of biased umpires giving home sides an advantage, the problem was solved by the introduction of a neutral official. Now the umpires have again become an issue, this time over their perceived incompetence.

The present series has been marred - distorted - in that two or three crucial decisions which went England's way in the Fourth Test at Trent Bridge contributed to their victory. The clear implication is that the umpiring has grown worse.

This is not necessarily so. What has changed, though, is the electronic evidence which is available on our television screens. The super slo-mo replays from so many angles, close-ups and the general improvement in the technical side of the coverage has enabled commentators and experts to dissect each dismissal in a way which was never before possible. Soon, even more electronic assistance will be available.

Then there is the big screen, which shows instantly any doubtful incident in full view of everyone at the ground. How often it is that the players after a wicket or an appeal or some such moment look over their shoulders at the screen.

The point of farce is reached when a batsman is given out and well before he has arrived back in the pavilion, the umpires, the players, the crowd, Uncle Tom Cobley and all can see that he was palpably not out. And, of course, the other way around.

If cricket cannot even get its dismissals right, it becomes a laughing stock and that is what has been happening. This begs the question, do umpires make more mistakes in the late Nineties than they did in any earlier period?

This is impossible to answer. What is certain, however, is that mistakes have never been as easily and as publicly identifiable as they are today and the players in the past made much less fuss if they thought they had had a raw deal. There would not have been the shrieking outcry which followed the umpire Steve Dunne's decision to give Mike Atherton the benefit of the doubt against Allan Donald at Trent Bridge. Dunne saw the incident once, at 90mph, from straight down the pitch and he clearly had genuine doubt as to whether it had struck Atherton's glove as he gripped the bat. The pundits had the benefit of umpteen replays in slow motion and the angle of the picture which confirmed the ball had hit Atherton's glove was not the angle the umpire was looking at when he saw it just once and at full speed.

Yet before the incident had been done to death, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Dunne was blind, biased, a fool, a cheat, blatantly incompetent and probably lame, too.

So is the umpiring today worse than it was? The answer is probably yes, because in their awareness of the electronic eye, contemporary umpires are under much greater pressure. As a result, they probably try too hard and are understandably less relaxed than in the days before this intrusive electronic surveillance.

A man in a position of responsibility who feels himself under threat from behind as well as in front can be strangely affected. One thing I am completely sure about is that today's umpires are as scrupulously honest as ever they were.

The answer to the present problem is obvious. The International Cricket Council must insist that all available electronic evidence is available to umpires all the time. Of course, this will slow the game as they consult with the third umpire but, more importantly, it would correct much human error.

On the first day of the Fifth Test here, Mark Ramprakash and Andrew Flintoff would have been reprieved and evidence against Nasser Hussain was inconclusive enough to suggest he should have been given the benefit of the doubt. On the second day, Gary Kirsten and Donald would have been saved, as would Atherton after yesterday's first delivery.

This evidence and any which is still to be developed must be used to stop the game falling further into disrepute.