‘People think that the way to solve the odd grey area in cricket is to replace it with technology’
How much should cricket want technology to be part of umpiring? It’s a question that Simon Taufel has debated during his time on the ICC’s Elite Panel and since, after retiring in 2012. The pressure of technology, Taufel argues, cannot be used to weigh down the skills of the umpires. In this interview, Taufel puts up a case against the idea of having wides and height no-balls being reviewed using DRS, and for why bails are still important. He also speaks about why cricket needs specialist TV umpires, whether the game needs to revise its conception of neutral umpires, and why players need to be educated about the laws and playing conditions of the game.
The MCC have said that effective October, they’re going to change the law governing wides to give more leeway to bowlers because of how batters move laterally across the crease. What’s your take on allowing wides to be referred to the third umpire as part of the two reviews available to teams in T20s?
I do sit on the Laws MCC sub-committee, so I’ve got a fairly good idea of how we got to this point of broadening the wide law. We’ve tried to provide a bit more latitude for the bowler for it not to be called a wide if the batter is going to move their stance while the bowler is running up. And there is more clarity for the umpire about the batter moving in their stance.
Look, my view on this really hasn’t changed a lot. I always get concerned when I see umpiring skill and judgement continually under pressure from technology. People think that the way to solve the odd grey area is to replace it with technology. I continue to see the skill and judgement of an umpire taken away from them with technology. Umpires progress like a player through the pathway because you are good at what you do and you make the fewest amounts of mistakes. I’m really conscious about trying to turn the art of officiating into a science and seek perfection, whatever that looks like, with decision-making. So with wides, for example, we’re going to potentially take a wide call and throw that back to the third umpire for them to judge on something that might be marginal and is still a judgement call.
And where do you then draw the line as to what a wide is? Because with wides, for example, you’ve still got to look at: Could the batter have played a shot? Has the batter brought the ball sufficiently within reach? And you are putting the umpires under a lot more stress and pressure around those definitions. Of course, if the ball has flicked the bat or the pad and an umpire’s called a wide – yeah, that’s quite clearly an error. But I worry about where this is going to end up. Is everything that an umpire does likely to fall under the Decision Review System?
Whenever an umpire possibly makes an error – and I won’t say definitely makes an error, but someone thinks that they have made an error – there seems to be this argument, well, we’ve got technology, we should use it. I’d hate to see our sport go down that pathway, reduced to the point where we are going to potentially throw every decision on field to the third umpire.
Taufel: ‘Is the game comfortable with two separate laws for the breaking of the wicket?’
And how much time are all these reviews going to take? I remember last year some commentators like the late Shane Warne were complaining about how an ODI finished 30 minutes past the scheduled cut-off. You cannot have a quick game and also analyse every ball – there is always a trade-off.
With something like a wide, I guess there is a potential to correct a wrong call?
What about if a batter gets an inside edge and it gets called as a leg-bye and he then gets out on 99? Are they going to say, well, why don’t we use technology to correct the scores for the batters and make sure they get every run that’s applicable to them?
In the case of the wide, you are not asking for an extra review. The team is being asked to use it judiciously. They have only two reviews – let them decide whether they want to use it for a wide, or let’s say, a waist-high delivery that might be a no-ball.
I hear what you are saying, but can you define now what a leg-side wide is? Are you going to be able to overrule an on-field call on that as a third umpire? If you look at a ball that goes across a right-hander from a left-arm fast bowler that cuts the wide guideline – that’s a pretty big call to overrule. Can you clearly define for me what conclusive evidence is to overturn a wide call, leg side, off side and on height?
Do the boundaries for that sort of thing need to be defined in the playing conditions?
But the definition is somewhat grey and opinion-based. So, for example, when a batter ducks and the ball goes through over their head, the umpire has to make a judgement call about where their head was in relationship to their batting stance and standing upright and then decide, do I either call it wide or one for the over and leave it alone?
What tools are we going to give them to be able to say that’s conclusively a wide going over head height? Are we now going to have a grid for where the striker stands and then clearly define height leg side and off side for that particular stance, for that particular delivery, for that particular batter – is that what we want to do? Because we are going to need to do that to be able to conclusively overturn a review on a wide. That’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of framework to be created.
Sanju Samson signals for a review after a wide call did not go his team’s way. Simon Taufel says you could refer decisions about wides to the third umpire but you’d need to create a complex technological framework for them to be able to decide – and you might still end up with debatable decisions
The devil’s in the detail here. If you want to write a playing condition or if you are going to work on the technology, every time a new batter comes to the crease, short, tall, medium-sized, someone with a long reach, someone without, we are going to have to put that framework in place for the third umpire to say, leg-side wide is here, off-side wide is here, height wide is here. Who’s going do that for us?
And it’s going to be the same with over-the-waist no-balls.
Every time a new batter comes to the crease, we are going to have to have a line drawn where their belt height is, in terms of the guidance that the MCC offers around what the definition of waist is. That’s going to have to happen at the popping crease. If they then intercept the ball in front of the popping crease, ball-tracking is going to have to be accurate enough to show the position of the ball when it would have got to the popping crease. Here again you are opening up ball-tracking technology to be accurate.
And at the moment, we still have an umpire’s-call margin for height for ball hitting stumps. So is there an umpire’s call margin for over-waist-high no-ball, and what does that look like?
And then we are going to have the ball-tracking stop at the popping crease for that to be judged accurately, and make sure that that striker is superimposed, standing upright in their crease too – not crouching down or not moving out of their crease, but where they were standing at that particular time, standing upright.
So there is a lot of detail that is necessary to, one, determine the height, and two, to try and decide what is conclusive, and three, provide the guidance and interpretation to the third umpires as to when do they overturn or not overturn. And again, we’re taking another decision away from the on-field umpires and slowing down the game.
Earlier this IPL, this full toss to Rovman Powell wasn’t called a no-ball on height, which led to Powell’s captain, Rishabh Pant, saying the third umpire ought to have intervened
Traditionally bails have existed because when you break the stumps, the bails were there to indicate that and help the umpire. In white-ball cricket, when LED technology is used, is it okay to only have the bails light up (and not necessarily fall off) when the ball hits the stump, for bowled, run-out, stumping and hit-wicket dismissals? I don’t know if you saw the Yuzvendra Chahal-David Warner incident?
I didn’t see it but I know of it. And I know where you are going with this. So then we are going to have one Law for what amounts to the breaking of the wicket at the highest level and we are going to have another Law for every other form of cricket below that. Is the game comfortable with that? Why is it that a bowler actually has to get the bails off in every other form of the cricket except for what we see on TV? And that might be confusing for a lot of people.
So let’s say first-class cricket, where you don’t have lights on bails and stumps – the keeper takes the ball, brushes their gloves through the stumps, the bails are disturbed, but they don’t come off, the batter is out of their ground. By the time the keeper then says, oh, we haven’t taken the bails off and then does it again, the batter’s now in their ground. And the keeper says, on that first go-through I actually touched the stumps with my gloves to run them out. So why aren’t you giving that out?
And so all of a sudden, the umpire is conflicted because the glove with the ball in hand had touched the stumps, but the bails didn’t come off – though they might have been disturbed. So you are making the decision of run-outs and those other sorts of dismissals more difficult for the umpire. You might solve one problem at the highest level by only having the lights go on, but you are creating a whole set of new problems for every other game of cricket around what is breaking of the wicket. When you look at these things in isolation, they might seem okay, but you create a myriad of discrepancies and disparities for the game in other ways.
Should TV umpires be specialists?
I’ve been advocating that since 2014. It’s the hardest role in the team. Just because you are a good on-field umpire doesn’t make you competent in the third umpire’s box. I have gone on record before, saying that the two biggest skills that a third umpire requires are composure and communication. And that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of umpires in that role. And to be able to juggle the technology and communicate effectively, being clear and concise with an on-field umpire, match referee, a technician and a broadcaster director is extremely difficult.
Getting rid of the bails might seem like a solution to the sticky-bails problem, but what happens at the levels of the game where you don’t have light-up bails?
© Cricket Australia/Getty Images
Having gone through this FairBreak tournament here in Dubai, where I have got umpires who are doing it for the first time, it’s a massive, massive jump. I believe that if we actually had specialist third umpires, we could become a lot more time-efficient, we could become a lot more accurate in the way we use technology.
Why I say that is because when we set up the protocol, we set it up for the lowest common denominator. So when we have an lbw, we go: front-foot no-ball check, then we go for did it hit the bat, and then the point of impact, and then, was it hitting the stumps? Now it may well be that the only issue of contention is: did it pitch in line or outside leg stump, but because of the protocol, we go through a lot of other areas first before we look at where it landed. If we have specialist TV umpires, we are able to check ball-pitching first using live comms to air, explaining the process, and we are able to look at a particular area of concern first and deal with that, and then go back and review the decision elements, if necessary, and save a lot of time and anxiety.
But I go back to my original point that I don’t think that there are a lot of third umpires out there who are really suited to this role. Some really do struggle with it. You don’t get selected to be an Elite Panel umpire because you are a good third umpire. You don’t get selected to be a first-class umpire because you are a good third umpire. It’s the other way around. To me, it’s a specialised job; it’s unique. The smaller the panel, the higher the quality, the better the outcome.
You have seven full-time ICC match referees to go around the world and do international cricket. You could probably get away with a similar number of specialist third umpires for every series if you wanted to.
Neutral umpires – does cricket still need them?
It’s a really interesting question. Having been part of the ICC cricket committee for many years, we always had the view that if we took neutrality off the table, it was one less problem for the game to deal with. We do have to provide opportunities for new umpires coming through and that’s important. But the issue of neutrality is not necessarily about bias anymore. If the ICC assessment of officiating is strong enough, and it’s independent enough, and if there is DRS available, you can possibly relax the restrictions around neutrality and leave it open for appointment discretion.
“Whenever an umpire possibly makes an error, there seems to be this argument, well, we’ve got technology, we should use it. I’d hate to see our sport go down that pathway”
Mark Brake / © Cricket Australia/Getty Images
For me it’s about providing for a framework where you can have flexibility. For example, you have got two umpires in one country that are very good and are available, then appoint them [to the Elite Panel]. Similarly in a particular country you might not have an appropriate local international umpire who is good enough and available for a Test series, so you might need to actually put two so-called neutral umpires into a Test match. I think it’s about looking at the circumstances of the series, looking at the match officials that are available, and appointing the best available, given all those other contextual considerations.
One thing that we have seen with Covid, and having seen probably 14 or 15 umpires debut at Test level over a similar amount of months, is that all of that development work that the ICC umpire coaches have put in over the last ten years worked out. They actually performed really, really well against the standard of the Elite Panel. In some cases they performed better than some of the Elite Panel members. And that’s a really good outcome for cricket.
We need to make sure that we continue to invest in officiating. The majority of the Full Member countries still do not have a dedicated umpires’ manager, don’t have a national umpires’ education manager, don’t have a national umpires’ coach, don’t have a strong assessment and accreditation system. Can you imagine a national team operating without a national coach or a physio or an analyst? But it seems to be okay for umpires.
And that’s why when it comes to neutrality, it’s about having the flexibility to appoint the best available given the circumstances and the opportunities rather than saying we have got to have all neutral or one home and one away.
Calling a wide when the ball is well over is straightforward, but not when it’s less clearly high and the batter’s stance and position need to be factored in
Do players and coaches themselves need to be educated about umpiring laws and things like that?
It’s a great point. So you tell me one country in the world that actually has an umpiring component that’s part of their high-performance programme for their players. I think there’s only been two Australian captains who have actually been qualified umpires in the history of cricket, Sir Don Bradman and Brian Booth.
What’s the downside of putting an officiating component into the high-performance pathway for the players’ development? There’s plenty of upside: they get to understand the role of the official, they get to appreciate how difficult it is, they get to understand the rules or the laws of the game and to be able to use that to their advantage. It’s really up to the boards to show leadership, guidance and direction in this area.
If we look at it in its raw form, under DRS, and on average, the players get it right around 25% of the time and the umpires get it right over 90% of the time, so who should be umpiring the game of cricket? And surely, edcuation might actually help improve the players’ DRS percentage too?
And they could contribute constructively to a debate as well.
I’ve made the offer to Cricket Australia through Pat Cummins’ manager. I’ve said, I reckon I can help you and your team achieve a higher success rate with the DRS if you start to think more like an umpire and less like a player when it comes to a DRS review. Hopefully Pat might return my phone call soon.
Perhaps what’s missing in our game is a little bit of understanding and education on why we do certain things a certain way. There seems to be a view that because something isn’t quite right from a viewers’ perspective, we haven’t thought about it, that there is a magic solution we have missed. I’d really like viewers and your readers to understand that we don’t just make stuff up, we actually do think it through. And our game is not perfect. There’s a lot of stuff in our game that just doesn’t have a perfect solution.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo
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