Time to let TV camera act as third eye for the umpire

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The Independent Online
Ten days ago I took my wife to her first football match. It was at San Siro in Milan. The classiness of this debut was not lost on her, nor on the students in her A-level history class, to whom she proudly showed the tickets on the first day of term. The match itself wasn't all that classy - Milan v Verona, who had just been promoted. And our seats were not classy at all - we turned up at the gate, paid pounds 10 each, climbed a concrete tower, and sat on seats perched so high that my wife got vertigo.

We saw Verona take a shock lead through De Vitis; we never discovered his first name, but the De marked him out as something special. We saw Milan change their formation at half-time - sitting in the upper atmosphere, you know all about formations. We saw them duly score two lordly goals. And then we left, to beat the rush out of the car park. Next day, at the airport, I picked up a newspaper. The headline wasn't "Milan fight back after early shock". It was "Weah: a UFO over San Siro!" Ten minutes after we'd gone, George Weah had received the ball direct from a Verona corner, dribbled 80 yards, and scored one of the goals of the century.

I told this story to my colleagues in the office. "Oh yes," said one. "I saw it on Channel 4." This was in the middle of last week, when I still hadn't seen it. I have now. The one consolation is that it's much better on television than it would have been live. As soon as you see a goal like that, you want to see it again. But San Siro won't allow it. They'll make you a cup of espresso, but they won't switch on their video screens during a match.

This is possibly the only area of the sport-audience interface where cricket is more advanced than football. This summer, for the first time, there was a big screen at every Test match, as well as the one-day finals. They didn't show live action, but they did offer instant replays. Knowing the Test and County Cricket Board, you would have expected anything remotely controversial to be avoided, but to the Board's great credit, nothing was censored out altogether: the man in the van behind the pavilion was merely instructed not to show inflammatory incidents more than twice.

Cricket could have been invented with replays in mind. Five hundred times a day, there is a little lull in the proceedings; and the finer points of the game are often the whole point. The camera is much better than the naked eye at working out what Mushtaq Ahmed is up to, or whether Glen Chapple is moving the ball in the air, off the seam, or both. For spectators brought up on television, live action is less attractive than it used to be. And this may be one reason why every Test ground outside London has been struggling to sell out. There is no substitute for being there; but there is also no substitute for seeing exactly what is happening. Clearly, the best option is to combine the two.

But no sooner has the big screen arrived than it is in danger of being taken away. The one argument against it is that it gives the crowd the chance to express its verdict on a decision, by booing or aahing, and therefore puts the umpires under even more pressure than they are under already. This view is the one that seems to be prevailing. Naturally, cricket's old-buffer tendency is anti-screen. But so are some of the game's more moderate and modern voices - among them Jonathan Agnew, the BBC's excellent cricket correspondent, and Mike Brearley, the most independent- minded of all England captains.

Brearley wrote a lyrical piece in the Observer likening the spectator who expects an action replay to the tourist who is forever taking pictures rather than enjoying the view. And he argued that the lull between deliveries was part of the essential rhythm of cricket, and conducive to its drama.

This is a bit like saying in 1890 that sitting in a bumpy carriage for several hours if you wanted to get anywhere was part of the essential rhythm of life in the country, which should on no account be disturbed by the arrival of the car. Rhythms, like everything else, evolve. The tourist analogy, too, disintegrates under close inspection. The big screen isn't doing the job of the individual automatic camera; it's more like a pair of binoculars. It doesn't stop anyone watching the game live, because it's switched off.

The umpire problem is a problem, but the solution is not for the crowd to see less - it's for the umpires to see more. If Merv Kitchen had had a TV set on the final day of the Oval Test, he would have given Robert Croft out lbw to that yorker of Wasim Akram's which swung in towards leg stump, swerved back towards off, and was heading, in the opinion of anyone who saw the replay, for middle. Shortly before that, Wasim had had John Crawley caught at gully off a no-ball that Kitchen didn't call. Shortly afterwards, precisely the same thing happened to Croft. Crawley, too, had been lucky to survive an lbw shout, so it all evened up in the end. But the point is that a good umpire made three mistakes in quick succession, which would all have been prevented if he had had a replay at his disposal.

This could be done either by extending the reach of the third umpire, who is often under-used; or by giving the bowler's-end umpire, a little TV monitor; or by leaving no-ball calls to an electronic eye, as in tennis. In the end, a line may have to be drawn: the game may decide, as American Football did, that all this hi-tech justice is just getting in the way. But you can't decide that until you've tried it.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly