DRS: Solution or Problem?

AR Hemant
Yahoo cricket editorial blogs
The LBW of Phil Hughes in the Kandy Test and prompted Simon Taufel to use it as a an instance of Hawk-Eye's failing.

Phil Hughes' LBW in the Kandy Test has prompted Simon Taufel to use it as a an instance of Hawk-Eye's failing.

During India's 2002 tour of England, a primitive version of today's ball-tracking technology was in use. The DRS was still a few years away, but since the idea was to illustrate points for the benefit of viewers, no red flags were raised even when there were doubts about its accuracy.

Then, in the Leeds Test, it finally threw up explicit evidence of its fallibility. Harbhajan Singh bowled Andrew Caddick in the first innings. The ball made faint contact with the top of the stumps and dislodged the bails. But the replay showed the ball going over the stumps.

It proved we were still years away from "fool-proof technology". It's a wonderful expression. Fool-proof technology. Like unicorns, elves and fairies, it exists in our heads.

Fast-forward nine years to the Phil Hughes dismissal in the Kandy Test.

Umpire Simon Taufel has been prompted to use the dismissal as a case against Hawk-Eye's inaccuracies. Replays showed the ball thudding into leg-stump. Some are saying that the ball was actually turning away from the off-stump.

It isn't the only Hawk-Eye-related incident that has caused heart-burn. Conspiracy theorists from Pakistan have been alleging that a tampered review saved Sachin Tendulkar from what looked like a plumb LBW in the World Cup semi-final. Almost always, it's an LBW decision that divides opinion.

Alleging tampering may be as far-stretched as Jonty's reach at backward point, but the point is still made: Hawk-Eye, and the laws pertaining to its use, have their problems — and by extension, the DRS gets reduced to a joke at times.

A good example was seen during Stuart Broad's hat-trick against India. Harbhajan Singh was given out LBW despite a huge inside edge. The DRS wasn't extended to LBW decisions due to BCCI's opposal to Hawk-Eye. Yet you don't need Hawk-Eye for all LBWs. A simple replay could have sufficed.

It prompted Nasser Hussain to call BCCI's stand a disgrace. Much mud was flung at the BCCI. Would Hussain rethink his stand now? The Hughes dismissal matters since a top-class umpire has spoken against Hawk-Eye. Taufel was the least-reviewed umpire at the World Cup. His views command respect, and hence lend weight to BCCI's position.

Multiple instances during the India-England Tests have shown that even the holy cow of umpiring technology, HotSpot, isn't above doubt. But what nobody talks about enough is that when the laws of cricket themselves are full of holes, you can't expect technology to be fool-proof.

[Update: Saturday, 8.30 pm] Rahul Dravid's dismissal in the first ODI is another baffling case. TV umpire Marais Erasmus not only over-ruled the on-field umpire's decision (not out), he also over-ruled the evidence offered by HotSpot.

Simply put, it implies that an ICC-elected umpire has rejected HotSpot. The ICC must explain why this has happened.

Snicko offered circumstantial evidence of an edge, but you need explicit evidence that proves beyond doubt that the edge had occurred. But the worrying bit here is that Snicko wasn't part of the DRS package. So under what provisions of the law was Dravid given out?

So many ifs and buts compound cricket's laws. The LBW law, in particular, seems to have become cricket's answer to football's off-side rule. An LBW is never straight-forward and will always need a nuanced understanding of the game.

Miniscule elements — a gentle breeze, a pebble on the pitch, a tiny crack, a strand of grass — can cause the ball to deviate a degree or two, and make the difference between an out and a not-out. How can a computer program take these into account?

This is confirmed best by Ian Taylor, CEO of Virtual Eye which is a competitor to Hawk-Eye. Taylor concedes it is impossible to correctly predict a ball's behaviour each time:

We got involved in cricket for the exact same reason. To help explain the game of chess that is being played between the bowler, his captain and the batsman. Initially we rejected the idea that we could use technology to track balls and then predict "exactly" where they would have gone after they had hit something. We moved into this area because of the uptake of the Hawk Eye technology but we have always maintained that whilst we are very comfortable the with actual tracking of the ball, after all we are recording it using multiple cameras each recording at over 160 frames per second, the question of predicting where it would have gone after making impact is definitely one we choose not to be as bullish about as our counterparts at Hawk Eye. We have in fact taken the unusual step of stating at times that we did not get enough information to make an informed prediction. We see our function as providing Umpires with tools they can use to assist them when they need it - and I personally share the view that in the end the Umpire should be the arbiter of what happens on the ground and that they and the players need to be confident about the processes we apply.

Technology can have a place to play but we believe we need to be open about the strengths and weaknesses of the various technologies being used and look at how we can combine the best of those to create tools that give everyone confidence in the information we are presenting. Unlike Paul (Hawkins) I would never claim that our predictions are always correct - how could I - just like an umpire our computer is also taking a best guess at what might have happened and, like the umpire, that guess is totally reliant on what the computer has observed. Furthermore, our computer is not standing behind the stumps feeling the wind, observing the variations in the pitch as the day proceeds and all of those other countless variables that skilled umpires have learned over many many years of standing in matches.. If the technology is to be used then it is our job to do all we can to constantly improve it and we can only do that by recognising that there are limitations and we need to find ways to deal with those. That won't be achieved by blindly arguing that we are never wrong and that people who question us are our academic inferiors. It will only be achieved by constantly working at improving the technology and never losing sight of the fact that we should be there to provide reliable data to the person who actually makes the calls - the Umpire.

What Taylor is saying is that despite any technological advancement, an LBW will  involve guesswork, and therefore, it will forever be hand-in-hand with human error. In any case, cricket's laws have tended to get increasingly confusing, even to people who follow the sport for a living.

In Douglas Adams' book, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, there's a passage about a race of super-beings who create a super-computer the size of a city in order to determine the meaning of life, the universe and everything. After seven and a half million years of computing, the day comes for the computer to announce its answer. The answer is short, sweet and brilliantly vague: 42.

Fans of The Guide have floated many theories about what Adams meant by "42". Perhaps, Adams, a cricket fan, was merely referring to the number of laws in cricket — some of which make no sense at times.

When you ask technology the wrong questions, it will give you the wrong answers. Like the super-computer says when pressed about the correctness of its answer: "I checked it very thoroughly, and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you is that you've never actually known what the question was."