James Lawton: Bungled referrals can teach England the folly of excessive appeals

The high-pitched, unified scream for a dismissal has become a congenital disease

Test match cricket journeyed back into some of the best of its past here yesterday when Andrew Strauss made arguably the boldest decision of his brief career as captain of England, and sent South Africa in to bat on a first day of superior and quite frequently remarkable attrition.

Whatever the outcome of Strauss's initiative – and last night it was slipping into critical condition as Jacques Kallis reminded us of all his quality and nerve at the crease – it was also true the old game – and especially the English part of it – may have come to terms with a vital part of its future.

It was the one concerned with how it grows to understand and live with the controversial TV referral system. The idea is the eradication of some of the more glaring examples of human error by umpires forced to make potentially match-changing decisions in little more than fractions of seconds. So far, though, referral has been greeted from within much of cricket with such little enthusiasm it might be a new strain of bubonic plague.

However, it is the future, it is a rational response to inevitably flawed officiating and – we saw some signs of this here yesterday – it might just wipe out of cricket a disease which in recent years, even decades, has become just about congenital.

The most disagreeable symptom is the high-pitched, unified scream for a batsman's dismissal that is mostly about hopeful speculation and the certainty of unnerving all but the steeliest of umpires.

Here yesterday England learnt that it is a custom running into a dead end.

Strauss, having earlier sturdily resisted the temptation, twice submitted to the passionate belief of some of his players that the video evidence would send such large obstacles to the success of his gamble to bowl at the South Africans – Kallis and A B De Villiers – back to the pavilion.

Twice he went to the review – first when Kallis had edged a ball from Jimmy Anderson into his pads, one that was, anyway, plainly going wide, and then when wicketkeeper Matt Prior yelled that he had gathered up a De Villiers snick off Graeme Swann – and twice he lost. This meant that while England no longer had any means to contest the most outrageous of decisions through the rest of an innings so likely to shape the outcome of the match, the South Africans retained both their referral options.

This was because the South Africans won their argument, without the semblance of a doubt, when they protested at Australian umpire Steve Davis's positive response to the cry of Graham Onions that he had claimed the wicket of Ashwell Prince. The difficulty in all of this was the extreme likelihood that England were right to believe that De Villiers was indeed out – but wrong to demand a review.

The evidence simply wasn't categorical. The TV umpire would have been required to follow the example of his on-field colleague and, essentially, make a fine judgement unaided by film evidence carrying anything like certainty. This is not the function of the referral system. It is designed to rid cricket of the outrageous mistake, human but potentially devastating to the true course of a Test match. It is not intended to make fools of umpires but provide them with available safeguards.

In this, cricket is massively ahead of football, where authorities talk about addressing the possibilities of more human error with extra goal judges rather than introduce the TV technology which would have made Thierry Henry's recent handball in Paris impossible to conceal.

Cricket has also learnt from the trial in the West Indies earlier this year, when three appeals rather than the present two were allowed and Hawk-Eye technology was not made available. Another major problem, though, was the unrefined understanding among some players of the point of the experiment.

It wasn't to create new disputes, to prolong arguments that couldn't be proved, one way or the other, but to abolish for ever the kind of wretched lbw decisions which disfigured key Ashes Test matches last summer.

In this admirable endeavour what happened here may well prove a pivotal development, imparting as it did the clearest sense of what can be achieved with a little familiarity.

Quite what England can do after the superb rebuttal by Kallis of the suggestion that his incapacity as a bowler also meant that his batting would produce not much more than a glimmer, is another, much more troubling question.

Was Strauss right to put such faith in four front-line bowlers? Was his investment in boldness in sharp contradiction to the conservative selection of six batsmen?

It certainly carried a degree of surprise, with South African captain Graeme Smith insisting that if he had won the toss he certainly would have batted. Still, statistics were on Strauss's side. Ten winning captains have inserted the opposition here and not one of them lost. Certainly, the South African view was that Strauss had shown plenty of nerve – and a properly competitive thrust.

For some time he also seemed to be blessed with a winning instinct. Though neither Ashes hero Stuart Broad nor Anderson found the best of their form, Onions produced some impressively hostile bursts and Swann did well to survive a brief mauling from Kallis and bowl with some guile.

Kallis, though, grew quite relentlessly as the hot day wore on. Strauss had dismissed suggestions that after weeks of injury one of the world's great batsman would be seriously diminished. "The fact that he cannot bowl is irrelevant," said the England captain. "He is a tremendous batsman and competitor and we would be foolish to forget that."

That particular trick will, no doubt, have proved quite impossible in the hours leading up to this morning's resumption of battle. Strauss's gamble may not be lost quite yet but it has come under the severest pressure.

He has reminded that beyond any plan is the possibility that you will run into something that makes its own rules and its own odds. Such, we know once more, is the talent of Jacques Kallis.