Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Howzat? Not sure


Ken over at Militant Moderate muses on the use of technology in cricket, with specific reference to umpiring decisions.

He argues that the use of the third umpire has diminished the quality of umpiring in general, on the grounds that umpires are no longer forced to adjudicate on very close decisions and therefore no longer have to apply the same concentration they used to. He adds: "I am not yet convinced that the technology is nearly accurate enough yet to be used as a substitute (even if more accurate than human error); nor do I believe that it is desirable for the game to be held up constantly for further TV adjudication." His overall fear is of a diminution in the authority, and ultimately the usefulness, of the umpire.

I wonder if we have to ask the question, what is at stake? As Ken rightly comments, an umpiring decision can change the course of the entire game. In terms of winning or losing the match, correct decisions are critical - which would imply throwing every single decision over to the techno-umpire (the logical extension of Ken's argument, as he admits). That would, of course, be silly if the only thing at stake was whether 'justice' had prevailed. If no other factor were involved, players would have to grin and bear it if a decision went incorrectly against them, just as they used to in the mythical 'good old days'.

Sadly, there is another factor: money. While cricket may not command the fortunes thrown at and received by football or other high-profile international sports, there is a lot of cash flowing around the game. A team's earning potential is directly or indirectly connected to its progress on the field (notwithstanding subsidies). There's no doubt that the modest, if enthusiastic, crowd I sat amongst at Lord's last week for the Test against Bangladesh will be multiplied several times over when the Australians play at the same venue in July. The reason? Australia win more matches, are more exciting to watch, and present the prospect of a more evenly-balanced game with England than the so-called Tigers.

Since poor umpiring decisions can swing a game, and since television (and the cash associated with it) is becoming ever more sophisticated and powerful, how long before the gentlemanly, amateur attitude of "the umpire's decision is final" is replaced by "better let the computer judge that one - if Australia win/lose the game on the basis of this single decision, the gate receipts for the next match will go through the floor"? (There's probably a more appropriate example in that quotation than Australia, but it would depend on the context.)

Naturally, I hope I'm wrong. Cricket, despite the advent of overtly commercial stunts such as Twenty20 (spit) remains relatively unsullied by the rampage of commercialism, at least in comparison with some other sports. But Ken's article rightly raises the question: now that the Hawkeye genie is out of the bottle, can anyone expect it to be put back in? And, if not, what's to stop it taking over the running of the game completely?


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