Thursday, January 15, 2004

One - eyed Greek monster to Steve Bucknor's aid?

Steve Bucknor must be the most reviled man not just in the Indian dressing room, but in almost every other living room in India in the last few weeks. But as Sambhit Bal makes a case here for Bucknor and his beleaguered ilk, why should we vilify umpires for not doing their job satisfactorily when other people around them are paid much more, but still are not held accountable for their actions. In fact we just tend to brush off mistakes by a Tendulkar or a Dravid as just effects of a bad day in the office.

So shouldn't Bucknor be sympathized with, for his stellar showing even if he is right 90 of 100 situations, which I am sure he is? Of course, those 10 occasions might be match turning situations but then we talk about it only because we see these things repeatedly through the day, courtesy TV replays. In fact, if the opposing team had been like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, I am sure discussions like this would never come up. So how do we change status quo? By the use of technology or by training?

The latter seems to be a radical term to use when referring to umpires, but it could still be possible for the ICC to train umpires and sharpen their responses just like armies these days do. It is a small matter that most umpires are twice as old as the oldest international player currently active in the game, but some training is definitely possible. So how about the ICC evolving a training regimen for its umpires? Radical certainly, but well, it is possible!

Now for the former - the use of technological aids. This has been a hot topic with mixed opinions. Those pushing for the use of technology point out that the umpire has to watch out for overstepping and then within a split second look at where the ball passes/reaches the batsman's bat/pad/body. So everyone has been talking about the use of devices - actually only one device, the Hawkeye, to help the umpire judge where the ball would have hit/passed the batsmen. But the technology behind Hawkeye (which apparently has been used by ESPN and BBC in their Wimbledon coverage) has also been doubted by both cricketers (mainly Dennis Lillie) and laymen (like our man Maanga here). Others oppose the use of Hawkeye mainly because it takes the human touch out of cricket.

Technology like Hawkeye look at the batsman's side of the pitch. But how about using technology at the bowler's end - something that would signal to the umpire if the bowler oversteps? The ECB seems to have noticed something in this regard sometime after the Old Trafford test match between England and Pakistan in June 2001 when umpires David Shepherd and Eddie Nichols failed to spot at least four no-balls by the Pakistani bowlers in the last day of the test match that got them key England wickets - Nick Knight, Ian Ward, Andrew Caddick and Dominic Cork, causing an England defeat by 108 runs. But when asked about the use of technology for such decisions, David Graveney, the then chairman of the English selection committee, suggested a tennis-style system, but an ICC spokesman said it would be at least November 2002 before something could be introduced. But two years after that deadline, the issue still simmers without a decision in plain view.

As David Graveney suggested, one device that COULD help umpires judge such no-ball calls, while keeping their attention on the batsmen would be Cyclops, the infra red line-call device used at major tennis events like Wimbledon (where it has been in use since 1981) and the US Open (where it was introduced in 1986). Just after that eventful Old Trafford test of 2001, Bill Carlton, the inventor of Cyclops (for all you fellow trivia junkies, Bill Carlton also invented the plastic shuttle cock which has perhaps kept the Chinese White Goose from going the Dodo way), himself commented that Cyclops could be adapted for cricket.

This system seems to be a much worthwhile attempt. Cyclops would probably be a good idea as it would still leave the judgment of LBWs and the nicks to the on-field umpire while no-ball calls need not be worried about (if such a system can be perfected). The umpire can be looking at the batsman without any interruptions right from the time the bowler starts his run up to the time the ball reaches the batsman bat/body. And it would still be unobtrusive enough to satisfy all those advocates who have been crying out at the loss of the human touch to the game of cricket with the use of technology. It certainly seems to be a good compromise.

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