James Lawton: The 21st century needs 20-20 vision
Tuesday 04 January 2005
In the 48 hours between high noon at Anfield and the early jousting in Cape Town yesterday the fate of the Premiership title and a fragile but not unpromising Test career might well have been decided.
In the 48 hours between high noon at Anfield and the early jousting in Cape Town yesterday the fate of the Premiership title and a fragile but not unpromising Test career might well have been decided. Not by moments of supreme sporting achievement, devastating statements of superior talent or nerve - or even pieces of random fortune. No, the decisive factor in both cases was official error of a rather monstrous degree.
The television evidence was overwhelming. Reruns made the referee Mike Riley's explanation that he was looking for another offence when he put his whistle to his mouth, and that the Chelsea midfielder Tiago was a victim of ball-to-hand when the anticipated foul did not occur, was quite ludicrous.
When the umpire Darryl Harper, who the previous day had quite unaccountably failed to see a clear bat-and-pad catch off the South African captain Graeme Smith, raised his finger on Hashim Amla the Hawk-eye analysis immediately confirmed the evidence of the naked eye - Matthew Hoggard's delivery would have sailed over the bails by a good part of a foot.
Now I suppose we should pause for the ritual cry that referees are only human. This is absolutely true and plainly Messrs Riley and Harper are rather more human than most. These were catastrophic failures of judgement with huge implications for a major football competition and the career of a young professional cricketer, and they surely permit only one logical reaction.
It is that all officials, even those who believe that they stand with the Pope behind the bastion of infallibility, need all the help they can get. At the moment television technology is making so many of them look inadequate it should be enlisted for their comfort and help, and if they say they don't want it or need it they should be told, politely or otherwise, that is time for them to join the rest of the human race.
Against the bruised pride of a referee or umpire, the importance of getting things right soars beyond any argument.
Football referees say the introduction of technology would undermine their authority. Umpires believe that an extension of its use beyond run-out decisions would have a similar effect. Maybe, but in the end who really cares except the officials themselves? Whether or not their God-like status is officially rescinded is a matter of complete indifference to most competitors and fans. The overriding concern is that games are not decided by human error.
In this the great W G Grace was perfectly right. Lord's was filled not to see umpires umpire but great batsman, himself particularly, bat.
Yesterday Sir Alex Ferguson threw his considerable weight behind the case for technology, saying that the current level of referee error had forced him to reconsider his old position that using video during a live match would be too complicated and time-consuming. The new Football Association chief executive Brian Barwick, a TV man, is known to consider it absurd that an available resource is not being utilised in the interests of improved officiating.
All else, when you think about it, is irrelevant. Of course there will have to be careful consideration of when the electronic eye comes into place. Yes, it would be absurd if every petty decision about a corner or throw-in was submitted to arbitration.
But in the 21st century an overseeing fourth official - with the right of a final decision - should be able swiftly to inform the man in the middle that he is in danger of committing a disastrously match-changing error. Here we are discussing the curse of diving, particularly in the penalty area, and the question of whether a ball has crossed the line. These are the overwhelming sources of dispute in football and, as we saw at Anfield, are capable of hopelessly distorting an otherwise tremendously fought game.
All of this may be utterly academic for poor Hashim Amla, who after a nightmare experience in the second Test in Durban was beginning to bat with genuine flair. How long would it have taken the match referee Clive Lloyd to review the evidence and order, without a flicker of doubt, that Amla should bat on? Less than a minute. That is no time at all to set against the future of a cricketer playing for his sporting life.
In the past it was good enough to say that you cannot expect a referee or umpire to always get things right; that in sport, as in life, you have to accept that human affairs can't always be perfectly administered. But now, when we are bombarded with instant inquests on the reality of every big-match incident, it is a hopeless failure of will not to embrace this offer of 20-20 vision.
The downside, if that is what it could possibly be, is that referees and umpires will have to be content with playing God in their classrooms or their offices or their factory benches, perhaps only in their own backyards. Those who complain about this will display an attitude that has long been part of the problem. The others, who care most about the games, and the still considerable role they can continue play in them, will surely be glad to be provided with all possible assistance.
Such, surely, is the key issue in an argument which, according to logic and a desire for truth, can only end in one satisfactory way. Meanwhile, we can only hope that Hashim Amla can look forward to something more than a rather tragic martyrdom.
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