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Saturday August 05 2006

Another day of test match cricket, another clutch of umpiring errors, proved by the off-field technologists to be errors within seconds of the errors having been made.

Opponents of using technology to assist with cricket umpiring decisions bang on about two things.  First, they say that technology isn’t infallible, and that often technology doesn’t settle things.  Second, they say that the authority of umpires must not be undermined.

The truth is, however, that the authority of umpires is now being undermined, to the point of absurdity.  When umpires give top order England batsmen not out (Pietersen was wrongly given not out when in single figures, and again a little later on, and went on to get a hundred), and then within a few seconds, a camera slow-motion close-up and a graph from the Snickometer prove that the umpire got it wrong, to the complete satisfaction of however many millions of crickets fans the world over were watching, well, will you please tell me how the hell you could devise a way of more completely undermining the authority of umpires than that?  At present, the umpires are being made to look like chumps.  Chumpires, you might say.  It has to stop.

What is required – and it is a matter of when rather than if – is for the umpires to have at their fingertips the very same information that the commentators and then the massed ranks of the spectators now have, and to be able to include that information in their decisions.  The technies need to be told to speed up their analysis even more, and to devise ways of feeding the info to the umpires just as fast as that can be done.

Of course this technology, “Hawk-eye”, the one that now analyses LBW (leg before wicket) decisions, is in particular not infallible.  If Hawk-eye reckons that the ball would have clipped the top of the leg stump and that therefore the batsmen should be given out LBW, but if the umpires have their doubts, then the benefit of such doubts should go to the batsman.  If the umpires, for instance, reckon that Hawk-eye’s version of the swing of the ball after it has hit the pitch is too approximate, on a day where the ball is wobbling around wildly, then fine, they can say: NOT OUT.  If we fans then saw, after the umpires had already seen it, the Hawk-eye version, in which the ball just glances a bail, we’d understand.  We’d get it.

Meanwhile, even if Hawk-eye guesses about where the ball would have gone may be suspect, Hawk-eye better-than-guesses about where it did go, and in particular where it pitched, which is all part of whether a batsman is out LBW or not, are surely much more dependable, and should now be included in umpiring decisions.

What we punters do not get is what happens now.  Now, the umpire, with no help from slow-mo replays or sound analysis, misses something while it happened at eighty five miles and hour which, seconds later, is made obvious to us all when it is slowed down and when the sound it made is analysed.  Yet the umpires first and erroneous impression (or lack of it) is the one that is now allowed to stand.  There is no way the umpire would have made that decision had he had the info that we spectators have only moments later.  Yet he is stuck with his first impression.  Crazy.

Giving the umpires the technology would give them back the authority that they are rapidly losing all shred of now.

This is not about “technology versus human judgement”.  This is about judgement informed and assisted by technology, versus the unaided human eye and ear.  And the fact is that I, with the technology, can, again and again, do better than the umpires, without it.  That’s insane.  It has to change.  And despite the pratings of the luddites, it will change.  Soon.  The only question is how soon the techies can make it happen.

If the argument is that the technology is not, yet, quite quick enough to work without endless delays, well, that’s a respectable argument.  Maybe we could now have a complicated appeal system, with the attendant delays but with penalties for frivolous appeals.  Or, maybe it would be better to wait a year or two, and then go straight to a system in which the umpires get all the info in something very like real time – which is obviously how things will have to be in a few years time.  That’s a serious argument.  But the idea that technology must never be used to help cricket umpires to make correct decisions, but only, ever to hold incorrect decisions up to ever more instant ridicule, is just ridiculous.

I now find that I have said all this before, even the umpire chumpire joke, at Samizdata.  Oh well.  I’ve said it all before, and I will say it all again, and again, and again, until they get this nonsense sorted.

The trouble with Hawk-eye is not so much that it is occasionally wrong, but that Hawke-eye is subjective. This computer software to make it work was written by one programmer. A different programmer writing software to do the same thing would likely make slightly different assumptions or approximations, and would end up with slightly different results. The internal workings of the system are inpenetrable probably to everyone other than the programmer that wrote it. This leads to a variety of potential problems, one of which is vulnerability to corruption. (If you think this idea is far-fetched, consider some of the other seemingly far-fetched things that have occurred in sport - say the business with the Boxing judges at the 1988 olympics for instance). I think essentially outsourcing the rules of cricket to some private organisation with commercial motives (which is what adopting Hawk-Eye for decisions now would be) is asking for trouble.

If Hawk-eye or similar is to be used, it has to be an entirely non-proprietary system in which all the source code of the software is completely and publicly available, everybody can see how it works, and ideally everyone can run it for themselves on their home computers in order to verify every decision. Getting to this position would take a bit of work, as I suspect the people who developed Hawk-Eye at the moment see all this as a trade secret. However, until this is done, I cannot support using computer software to make umpiring decisions.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 06 August 2006

I did not see the particular incidents mentioned by Brian, but I recall a hat-trick by Dominic Cork, where it was arguable that at least one of the wickets ought to have been awarded.

American football ("gridiron") has gone from no replays, to automatic replays, back to no replays, and now has a pretty good compromise.

The coach of each side has three losing appeals available per match. The way it works is that:

1) The coach can call a timeout at the point that a foul has been called (or where there is a breakdown of play after the alleged foul took place).

2) The timeout proceeds exactly like any other, except that the umpire has a booth where he can view the disputed incident.

3) If the umpire agrees that the appeal was justified, he overturns his call and the timeout is not deducted from the number the team has (I think four in a game).

4) If the umpire refuses to over-rule his earlier decision, the timeout is used up. A coach can basically make three unsuccessful protests in a game.

The biggest advantage is that the coaches have to be careful about the incidents that they appeal against. The sort of English fooball manager-speak would almost disappear where every penalty given against is wrong, every red card given was “I didn’t see it myself, but I’m sure it wasn’t a foul” and every opposition player a cheat . “Sir Alex, if you thought it was a clear cut penalty fir your player, why didn’t you appeal it?”

A bit like the number of criminal appeals might drop if the cost of a failed appeal was no parole.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 August 2006
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