The first Test between Australia and South Africa was a test for viewers as well. Thanks to what’s become known as "the digital review system", we had to watch no less than three important wickets be referred to a third umpire, then oh-so-slowly declared "no balls". Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Morne Morkel all took vital scalps, only to have some guy with a video camera simply take them back.
"I think it makes sense," said Aussie skipper Michael Clarke, in response to the multitudes who clearly did not. "Any time you bowl a no-ball front foot, it should be picked up."
Noble words, El Capitano – but clearly they’re nonsense as well. If the game seriously needed umpires to pick up every single no ball, they’d be calling for digital reviews at least six times an over. "Sundries" would be the new Bradman, and the third umpire would become a major celebrity because his careful deliberations would take up half of each game.
The plain fact about perfection is that it comes second to entertainment. Umpires effectively say "yes" to a certain number of no-balls to give us a game that people actually watch.
But when a wicket falls these days, that attitude seems to change. Umpires who have been able to quell all sorts of faint doubts about dozens of other balls will suddenly get in touch with the man upstairs. "Reprieving a batsman on a late no-ball call is vastly preferable to wrongly calling one and having a batsman dismissed," is how journalist Brydon Coverdale explains the approach.
Or it could be that they’ve just lost their nerve. "In my book if an umpire does not call a no-ball then whatever happens, happens," declares former South African batsman Barry Richards, a fierce critic of umpires "hiding behind technology". "The digital review is creating more problems than it is solving … In trying to get cricket down to a finite centimetre, the common sense has just gone out the window … Umpires are afraid to call close no-balls and are instead waiting to see if a wicket falls before reviewing it."
And if this is true, then who can blame them? Umpiring, after all, is an almost idiotically difficult profession: five days of standing stock still in the sun, just so you can work out what may or may not have happened in the blink of an eye. Journalists go nuts when you make a mistake – and when you don’t, you’re just doing your job.
What journalists need to remember is that making mistakes is part of the job. Or at least it is if we want it done by a human. Umpires have been missing no-balls for over a century and, strangely enough, the game has survived.
But give a man a safety net, and chances are he’ll use it. The more review mechanisms umpires have access to, the more review mechanisms they will use – and the less confidence they will have in their own ability.
A century from now we could well have a game where no one’s ever out immediately, a game where a wicket can only fall after three slow-motion replays from at least four different camera angles, and lengthy consultation with a panel of experts.
A game, in other words, with less drama. And Test cricket, let’s be frank, needs all the drama it can get.
How about umpires just umpire? Let’s review the digital review.
The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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