Intolerant Of Imperfection: The Umpire Review System – OpEd


“You still want the umpires to use their judgment. If you’re going to use it, it should only be used specifically for one or two things but not to question every little thing that happens with umpires.” Joel Garner, Guardian, Dec 10, 2009

Human frailty, the fragility of reason and the imperfect decision are the hallmarks of judgment. Chinks in the armour are far better than flawless deliberation. Sport is nothing if not drama – to remove that sting is to deny it its raison d’être. Intolerance of imperfection can be dangerous – it leads to the consumption of steroids; an undermining of the integrity of contests; a fear of the human factor. It calls for consecrating gods rather than accepting the limits of human excellence. The pursuit for the perfect record is ruinous, and produces wounded figures, of which Lance Armstrong is the classic example.

The perfectionists are incapable of understanding that operating principle. In order to eliminate a fundamental feature of the sporting world, technology is being resorted to with annoying frequency and potentially dulling consequences. The International Cricket Council decided to take things to another level on November 24, 2009 by employing the first instance of the Umpire Decision Review System in a test match between New Zealand and Pakistan at Dunedin. Since that moment, teams are starting to resort to it with to an unhealthy degree.

Novel technologies are often introduced by fabulous public relations teams with personalities of saw dust. Names suggesting spice and thrill are given to liven things up – the use of, to take one example, “Hawk-Eye” technology. Such a term suggests razor sharp utility, convenience, and, importantly, a sense of distributive justice. That technology is meant to be our salvation, a correcting device that will root out those nagging injustices and poor judgments on the sporting pitch is troubling, but challenges are proving too few and far between.

Former West Indian fast bowler Joel Garner made a point of questioning the reform when he attacked the totality of it in reducing umpires to pygmies of a system. By all means, use it to determine close run out situations, or to scrutinise whether a ball has pitched outside leg stump. “But not for every little thing you can think about to question the judgment of the umpire” (Guardian, Dec 10, 2009). In the end, the results will be more than a case of annoyance – they will stymie games, destroy initiative and impair the pleasure of spectators. Relegating a fallible umpire to the status of compliant being, prostrate before technology, will eliminate a wonderful variable in the game.

This became evident during the first test match between South Africa and Australia at the Gabba. Reviews on no balls, reviews on whether the ball had made contact with the bat, reviews on whether the ball had been grassed. Commentators were reduced to a loop of endless replays – did Kallis glove the ball? Was it the cage of his helmet that caused the noise? Hell must be a version of this – Channel 9’s mentally corrosive cricket commentary, an endless speculative ramble about nothing in particular, an Ionesco play about urbanised banality.

The system of review for this Australian summer continues to be limited to two challenges, suggesting that the element of excitement has not been entirely excised from the game. These are to be used sparingly, lest the side exhaust their options at crisis moments. The writing is however on the wall.

One can see the reason why these initiatives have been introduced, though they suggest, as usual, an uptight disposition in the face of sporting realities. They are meant to take the sting out of the tail of injustice. In so doing, they act as a terrible sedative. One can only imagine how the match at the Adelaide Oval in 1992 would have ended had Craig McDermott actually been granted the appeal. It is clear that Courtney Walsh’s sharp delivery eluded the bat. But it is equally clear that Australia and the West Indies fought one of history’s closest Test matches – a stunning one run victory in favour of the tourists that is immoveable from the cricket record. Those who lost that day grieve, but such grief is only ever temporary.

The intrusion of technology – for it is an intrusion – risks converting the game to a sterile theatre of dull actions. Drama is being gradually defanged. Test matches might in time loose their testing quality. But the technology gurus and high priests are holding sway – for the moment. The only way they might be defeated, it seems, will be the costs of implementing a referral system.

Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]

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