Friday, 13 February 2009

The Referral System

I would imagine that anyone who follows English Test cricket will want to forget the Sabina Park incident as quickly as is humanly possible. However, this match will live long in the memory – not due to the failure of England’s fragile batting line up, nor to the possible resurgence of the West Indies under Gayle’s quietly efficient captaincy – but due to the fact that this was the Test in which England met the referral system for the first time. In principle the referral system is a logical application of the available technology. I for one can still remember the devastation of watching wicket after wicket falling to no-balls against Pakistan in 2001, a situation that ultimately could have been simply avoided through the simple use of video replays. Indeed, in the West Indian innings Gayle, having been given out caught behind down the leg side, was able to immediately refer the decision and rightly continue his innings. Sarwan was given LBW for 5 and again the decision was reversed, allowing Sarwan to provide his vital innings. The referral system therefore should be seen as a great step forward for Test cricket – proof that the game is willing to march forward and evolve with time. Players, umpires and spectators can be certain that the best decision will be reached and games decided on the skill of the players involved not the vagaries of umpires.

The referral system is a logical step but this is sport and since when has everything in sport been logical? Just ask Owais Shah. Part of the attraction for me of cricket, and indeed sport in general, is the spectacle. The spectacle of cricket is not simply the majesty of a Trescothick straight drive but also the waft outside off stump with no foot movement. It is the moments of exquisite skill and the momentary loss of concentration. Umpires are no less part of this. The skill involved in making a decision and the courage to make a judgment call at a key stage of a Test are vital ingredients in this spectacle. I am (perhaps unsurprisingly) often a listener of TMS and the fall of a wicket often brings out the best in the commentators. They are caught in the moment and, to the listener, part of the spectacle. There are moments of Test cricket that I will never forget – Harmison’s slower ball to Michael Clarke at Edgbaston in 2005. This is not simply due to the significance of the moment or the skill involved but the commentary of Mark Nicholas. I was listening to TMS when the Smith, Sarwan, and Gayle referrals were made and the moment was destroyed by the system. Each decision took an age to process even though the commentary teams had a fair idea of what was going to happen within seconds.

I must admit to sneaking glances at the Six Nations on Saturday as England collapsed in Jamaica. Video technology has been in use for many years and can be said to be a success. Decisions are reached quickly and accurately without spoiling the flow of the game. The length of time needed to make the decisions during the first Test was certainly my principle concern with a full adoption of the system. I had come into the Test thinking that technology was a necessity for the modern game; however, I am not so certain now. Bad umpiring decisions, like dropped catches, are as much part of the game today as they have been in the past, and in reality how many games can be said to rest on a single decision? With falling Test crowds the spectacle of Test cricket is of vital importance for the initiation of future cricket tragics. If at the end of the summer of 2009 Ponting is trapped by Flintoff for England to regain the Ashes I want the moment to last. I don’t want technology spoiling it for me.