James Lawton: Cricket has seen the future. Now Fifa must take another look at replay rules

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The Independent Football

It cannot be said that cricket, the game and some say the foundation of the old British Empire, and football, the one that belongs to the world, have exactly walked hand-in-hand. But then perhaps never before has there been a better case for it to happen.

By historical coincidence and potential significance an impressive experiment that might just rid both games of the worst examples of failed justice is currently going on less than an hour's drive from the World Cup final stadium of next summer where, who knows, a certain Thierry Henry may get another chance to imprint himself on the most important football match played in any four years.

That this could conceivably happen so soon after that flagrant instance of his cheating – for that is what it will always remain, whatever smokescreens are wafted over it by the rulers of the world game – is a possibility that would certainly be made redundant by the system of technological review being used in the current Test match between South Africa and England here.

Being respectively Swiss and French, Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, presidents of Fifa and Uefa, the world and European ruling authorities of football, may reasonably claim absolute ignorance of events at Centurion Park cricket ground over the last few days. They are, however, missing something which might well be the solution to those problems which most persistently bedevil the world's most popular game.

We all know the little raft of ills: the kind of blatant exploitation of the failure of match officials to see the Henry handball that will always besmirch France's passage to the World Cup finals – which start here next June – at the expense of Ireland, the institutionalised diving of forwards and the unchecked ability of defenders literally to wrestle down some of the great attacking players.

That last scourge, though ranked in the minds of most observers below the recurring horror of utterly shameless diving, is considered such a smear on football by some great former players – including Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton – that on occasion it can induce physical nausea.

Yet what do Blatter and Platini propose in the way of an antidote? It is the installation of goal officials, extra sets of eyes which will still be vulnerable to human error and the possibility of being unsighted for perhaps a vital fraction of a second or two.

What is rejected, apparently as a matter of doctrine, is something which is being mostly brilliantly utilised in the Pretoria Test match – and which would have wiped out the Henry controversy, one which has done so much to damage football on the approach to its great festival, in the time it takes to flick the video re-run switch.

Here on Thursday's second day of the Test the wicket of one South African batsman, Morne Morkel, was saved when he used one of his team's two review appeals to prove that England's Graeme Swann, despite appeals which might have been heard in some distant kraal, had not trapped him lbw. One of Morkel's team-mates, the wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, was also saved, this time by another option, the one that the umpires can take when they are critically unsure of the right decision.

England, incidentally, have by some distance come off worst in this latest attempt by sport to see that justice is not only done but seen, with absolutely certainty, to have been done. They frittered their two appeals when captain Andrew Strauss, perhaps against his better judgement, submitted to the passionate claims of two of his bowlers.

Yet Strauss admits that the system is almost certainly part of the future and that he, along with everyone in cricket, has to work both to understand it and show it in its best light.

It would be wrong to suggest this is the overwhelming view in cricket. One of the most persistent complaints – and no doubt it would be redoubled in football – is that the process is guaranteed to break the flow of the game. One experienced observer at Centurion says: "It just feels wrong. Fans celebrate the fall of an opposition wicket one minute, then the next they are cast down. Better to let the breaks come as they may, and just get on with it."

But can this really be a viable view at the end of the first decade of the 21st century? If sport is worth any kind of trouble, should we not endeavour to get it right when a wicket or a goal is illegitimately claimed?

One misconception, surely, is that both cricket and football would be subject to constant breaks in the "flow of the game". This claim seems particularly risible in cricket, where there are invariably breaks for all kinds of reasons, including drink intervals, the changing of a batsman's equipment – shockingly in the case of England at a critical point in the first Ashes Test in Cardiff last summer – and the carelessness of spectators wandering behind the bowler's arm, one of whom this week might have earned fiercer censure had she not been dressed in extremely colourful and tight-fitting clothes and had not been rather beautiful.

Yesterday, England's Stuart Broad was certainly angry that South Africa took so long to challenge a reprieve granted to him when part-time spinner J P Duminy rapped him on the pads. They did so only after a signal from their dressing room after the first rerun had been seen. This is against the spirit and the letter of the system, but then it was also a procedural glitch that could be remedied easily enough. Anyway, the reality was that once again the right verdict was reached. Broad was out, the video showed it without a hint of doubt.

In fact, technological review is quite brief in the context of the rhythm of cricket and might prove in time, as it has done in both codes of rugby, to bring another element of drama to a match. Drama, though, reinforced by the certainty that there will be no outrageous distortion of the contest by the awarding of tries and goals and wickets that did not happen according to the laws of the game.

In football the concern, it seems here, is more seriously founded – but again at the mercy of quite logical rebuttal.

No one in their right mind would want to see every free-kick and corner and throw-in subject to review. That, plainly, would be nonsense.

The priority in football is the avoidance of the outrageous and the grotesque, categories into which the game plunged when Henry was able to get away with an offence that was, no doubt, at first instinctive but then almost instantly lapsed into active cheating. The great player celebrated the goal, and the near certainty that his team were in the finals, long after most of the world knew of his deceit – ie about 1.2 seconds – and it was some minutes before his face took on the haunted look of someone who knew that he had betrayed both the game he professed to love, and perhaps himself.

This, rather than some bizarre and time-wasting monitoring of every contentious decision, is the kind of disaster that technology would banish instantly. It did, we have reason to believe, prevent, albeit unofficially, the last World Cup final referee remaining ignorant of Zinedine Zidane's vicious headbutting of the Italian defender Marco Materazzi.

Yet four years on football might again be spared such a potential embarrassment on its greatest stage only by a fourth official with the nerve, and the television back-up, to take on responsibility which has not been written into the rules.

This situation is more than anything else an abdication of duty. It is a requirement to ensure that a game is properly, competently run. The argument that it doesn't really matter if a great batsman like Jacques Kallis has his innings ended falsely, as he might have done this week if technology had not shown that he should continue towards his 32nd Test century, because in time such injustice will "level out", can surely no longer be sustained when a solution to the problem is so readily available.

It's true enough that technology will not always be omnipotent. Though it is reasonable to believe that its modern version would have been able to determine, emphatically, whether Sir Geoff Hurst's vital goal in the 1966 World Cup was true, and, much more easily, detected the hand of Maradona that came 20 years later, there will no doubt be rare times when an unequivocal verdict cannot be given. This will be unfortunate but in no way an argument against applying an overwhelming law of averages – and simple justice.

Certainly this is the growing conviction here as South Africa and England fight for supremacy in an intriguing Test match. It is a contest, you have to believe, hugely enhanced by the increasing certainty that it will be able to reach a fair and absolutely unsullied verdict.

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