By Jim Birchall
Rivalled only by the let rule in Tennis, LBW takes home the rosette for the most contentious (see: stupidest) law in any sport.
Studies suggest one out of six wickets taken in a test match is by way of lbw, the number has also increased since the implementation of DRS which has led to more ‘aggression’ from umpires afraid of getting roasted over a hairsbreadth of a stump.
The ICC will consider an alteration to the Decision Review System (DRS) after the idea of a change was advanced by the MCC’s International Committee’s workgroup, made up of luminaries such as Kumar Sangakkara, Ricky Ponting, and upstanding cricketing citizen Shane Warne.
It will now consider whether the ‘umpires call’ component of the DRS is replaced in favour of a process that works on absolutes. The agent of change was in an incident Joe Root escaped via the slimmest of margins during a review off Axar Patel in the recently completed test series.
A move to make the game more attractive to the marginal viewer means making the (already complex to the lay man) laws understandable. It is not without reason either as the uninitiated are expected to absorb a process that paradoxically allows for a batter to be both out and not out, depending on the standing umpires’ view on things.
I recall the late Tony Greig verbally banging his head against the wall of the commentary box during a Sri Lanka versus Australia test in the island nation some years back. Seamer Trent Copeland had an appeal for LBW rebuffed by the experienced Aleem Dar, and Australia, sensing it was close took the review. The process showed the ball hitting (not clipping) the off stump and Greig assumed the batter was on his way. On further inspection, it was determined that less than half (50%) of the ball was “smashing” into the off pole, and the striker survived. Greig probably had a case when he argued it shouldn’t matter whether the ball was hitting less than half- if it was indeed hitting, and believed the law was giving “way to much to the umpires.”
New Zealand umpire Wayne Knights recently made a successful transition from the pyjama game(s) to the crisp white flannels of the test arena in the Blackcaps’ pre-Christmas series with the West Indies.
I asked Wayne if he felt the umpires call had made officials err on the side of caution, or conversely more aggressive with LBW decisions in light of an increase in the dismissals since its implementation. I was also interested to know whether umpires felt more vindicated when they get reviews upheld.
“I think the best thing to do is to answer every appeal how you see and hear it,” says Knights. “To a degree, benefit of doubt is removed – for example, if you think an LBW decision is hitting, give it out. Keeping it simple is the key” he adds.
I decide to play devils advocate and suggest to Wayne a world where LBW was removed all together could be a simple solution to the current forensic analysis.
“Can you imagine that? “says Knights “You’d basically be taking out bowled as well because batsmen would stand in front of their stumps. It would definitely make it harder for a bowler to get anyone out! “
In its purest form, and without the use of electronic aids, umpiring takes concentration, sound decision-making skills, and player management abilities. Sometimes, however, human nature and the Nostradamus-like guesswork required with the LBW law just isn’t enough to satisfy an angry seamer who thinks he has his man.
To an extent, the DRS, mostly employed in the higher echelons of the sport, has eliminated the howler but also can cruelly expose an otherwise good umpire who stuffed one up.
With the implementation of this technology, is there still a place for human frailties in an arena controlled by TV rights and sports betting companies?
Could a time be coming soon where white coat-clad mortals are offed in favour of a decision-making algorithm? Or a hybrid Alex Murphy- style man/machine could stride out on a grey May morning at Lords?
Knights doesn’t think so. He agrees with my earlier sentiment by saying “there is so much more to umpiring than decision-making.” “It’s the stuff people don’t see.” He adds that “match and player management, ground & weather decisions and over rate calculations” are a core component of officiating, and “so in short, it would never work.”
Knights did make one concession in that having the ability to review one’s decisions within a short timeframe, via technology “improves umpires’ decisions as it provides that instant feedback.”
Time will tell whether the ICC uphold the committee’s ideas and maybe give a bit more back to the bowlers.
Watch this space.
Jim Birchall is a local news Journalist, Sub-editor and Podcaster.On the weekends you can find him umpiring cricket.
Find him at jimbirchalljourno.com