Umpires on trial but errors are price of human touch

Disputed dismissal of Lara should not obscure the wider picture
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The Independent Online

Shivnarine Chanderpaul got a gritty and important hundred. Matthew Hoggard bowled sharply with the new ball. Andrew Flintoff did one of his conjuring tricks, with the ball rather than the bat. But until Freddie's customary heroics the man of the moment at Lord's yesterday was a 54-year-old from Adelaide named Daryl Harper, who was umpiring his 42nd Test.

His special moment had come at 4.53pm on Friday. Not long before he had given Chris Gayle out lbw when the ball pitched outside the line. Now a ball from Ashley Giles brushed Brian Lara's pad. Up went bowler, wicketkeeper and Harper's finger. Out went Lara, very reluctantly, for 11, another failure in an arena where he has managed only 84 runs in five Test innings. He was so disconsolate that, while he watched for an hour from the players' balcony, he could not be bothered to remove his pads.

Lara felt strongly enough to issue a statement. According to Channel 4 this read: "I still find it impossible to walk when I know I'm not out." Since Test players are not permitted to question the umpire's decision, this was a sensation of a kind.

Yesterday morning the statement was amended. What he had actually said was: "I still find it impossible not to walk when I know I'm out." By shifting the "not" he altered the tone. You don't have to be prize-winning textual analyst to infer the real meaning, but the match referee could hardly fine Lara for a statement of principle.

Harper drew attention to the mistakes umpires make at the end of a week in which the subject has received a sympathetic hearing from Sir Clive Lloyd in his Cowdrey Lecture at Lord's. "The challenge of umpiring in today's conditions is greater than it has ever been, and speaking frankly too many mistakes are being made," he said.

ICC studies suggest that umpires are right 91 to 92 per cent of the time, which means they make a mistake in at least eight appeals out of a hundred. Having discovered that baseball umpires appear to get things right 96 per cent of the time, the ICC has adopted this as a target. The élite panel of umpires has to improve productivity by five per cent.

Lloyd's solution is to rely on more technology: "If technology is going to be used increasingly to reflect on the performance of the umpires - both by television and officialdom - surely umpires should also have the opportunity to use it to improve upon or supplement their performance. It is time to use the technology to the full extent. Umpires should be able to defer to the precision of Hawkeye."

Lloyd's proposal would have enabled Harper to refer both the Gayle and Lara questions to the TV umpire, and it is inconceivable that either would have been given out.

But the answer is not as straightforward as this suggests. Brendan McClements, the ICC manager for corporate affairs, uses an example from yesterday's play to make this point. Giles appealed enthusiastically to Harper for an lbw against Dwayne Bravo. Harper said not out. Giles looked peeved.

Hawkeye suggested that the ball would have hit the stumps. Ungenerous spectators decided that, after his fraught Friday, Harper would give nothing yesterday, no matter how good the shout.

Then Richie Benaud pointed out that Bravo had taken a long stride down the pitch, and, having done so, could not have been given out. Harper was correct. Hawkeye was wrong. After Lloyd had spoken at Lord's last week, Channel 4's Mark Nicholas startled his audience by saying that he would not rely on Hawkeye. He never advertised Hawkeye when it breaks down, but, since one of the six cameras sometimes fails, no umpire can rely wholly on technological back-up. "The TV people are the first to tell us that," says McClements.

The ICC are not resisting change. In the Champions' Trophy in September, TV umpires will call no-balls, leaving the umpire free to concentrate on what is happening at the batsman's end. "We don't rule anything out," says McClements, "but we want the game to be umpired by humans. We're not going to use the technology to change the way the game's played."

Lloyd would like players to share responsibility: "There is too much unnecessary posturing on the field, and I regret to say not enough honesty in acknowledging dismissals... and thus helping the umpires who they too easily criticise if they believe they have suffered a bad decision."

On two occasions yesterday Giles, the keeper and the short-legs shouted loud for bat-pad catches. Harper was the umpire and both times he said not out. Giles glared at Harper. He had no reason to. TV replays showed that Harper was right both times, though that does not make Brian Lara feel any better, and the argument remains to be clinched - by either side.