Thursday, 26 March 2009

Short tours

It looks like the Australian selectors have decided it is worth sending some T20 specialists along for two very short matches in the new home of twenty-over-cricket. I don't recall this happening much before - I guess it shows that the World Championship is coming up. I'm sure the relevant IPL teams would appreciate it as well, although who knows what's going to happen next in that department. The 80 overs and then the ODI series should be interesting, although I doubt that they'll live up to the Test series, even if the last Test was a bit of a disappointment from my own point of view.

In the meantime, while the weather wouldn't suggest it, it's time for another sport which fits well in a 3-hour window, even if the new sporting channel planning its whole open around the opening game of the season has decided it isn't important enough in this state...

Friday, 20 March 2009

Northern exposure

The equinox occurs in a few hours. In the northern half of the world, it is spring, and the start of a year has been linked to it in many times and places throughout history. With fairly good but not decisive meteorological justification, it is considered in some place, at least the US, the start of spring. I have talked about all these things before.

The fact that Google has decided it is one of the many events marked on it's search pages is unremarkable. The fact that it has translated it onto the Australian search page as the start of autumn is straightforward but slightly naive, since it fits awkwardly with our pretty strong tradition of starting seasons at the start of the month. But what in the world does The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the fruit it eats have to do with the "start of autumn"?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Finals and fever

There's been a fair bit of interesting cricket going on in the last week or so. There was the Sheffield Shield final, which I would like to get more excited about. However, this year, compared with last year, the final was:

  • Not at the wonderful SCG, but (playing second fiddle to a strangely timed fundraising concert) at a suburban Melbourne oval once home to a certain tubby blond legspinner*

  • Rain affected, despite being in a city which has barely seen any rain in the last two years.

  • Not at a time when I had just become blissfully "unemployed" with lots of time on my hands.

  • Most importantly, not lost by Victoria.

So my attention has been more drawn to the Indians taking on Vettori (I think there are some other sheep, oops... I mean players, on that team), and the Women's World Cup going on in this very city. Today saw the Australians' last game, it not being enough to deal out a whopping to the previously undefeated English, who must be glad that the Aussie women hadn't found this sort of form in the earlier matches. The Final, on Sunday, will now be between the two countries an Australian should never be expected to choose between.

Anyway, jokes aside, all of this hsa whet my appetite for tonight's game - Australia's final Test before the Ashes. This series (and the one before it, depending on how you view it) has been full of twists and turns and drama, so who knows what will happen. South Africa go in changed and looking to start afresh, the Australians have lost their centenarian on debut to sickness (so much of it this tour - and it's not even the subcontinent!) and added some balance to their attack with an ageing leggie. Let the game begin...

*Why not restore my tradition of offering points for questions that are unlikely to be answered? Ten for naming the batting team in this photo, Twenty for the batsmen's names!

Friday, 13 March 2009

The farce of the face who is always right (II)

In my earlier post, I described why I thought the idea that the umpire is not always right should be not about the umpires, but the good of the game, even though we all love to whinge about bad decisions. I referred to what I see as an increasing emphasis on individual umpires and linked it to a serious desire for better standards. Soulberry's comment on the banality of rejecting mediocrity expresses the point.

So how can we take the spotlight off the umpires, resulting in a quality meal rather than disappointment and discussion about the cooking process? There are many suggestions, and no cure-all, but I'd like to offer some thoughts on what this means in a world where umpires are by no means faceless.

To start with, this means choosing and training the umpires who will perform best. We are all ready to criticise, but unless there is someone who will perform better, it doesn't mean much. There are many theories, and many comments that miss the mark. For example, while it may be true that first-class playing experience makes better umpires, it is hardly helpful for a former player to come out and imply that players should respect other umpires less. If umpires need to appreciate the experience of players, perhaps Tony Greig should hold his mouth on umpiring until he has tried it himself. He is not the only one who makes demands of umpires without understanding the demands of the job.

Any strategy begins before the Test level, but it appears to me that perhaps the Elite Panel aren't performing even to their own usual standards. That would hardly be surprising. In the last four years, for example, Simon Taufel has umpired in only 10 less international games than Sachin Tendulkar has played (1 Test less). Yes, it is easier to avoid a mistake on a single ball as an umpire than a batsman, but umpiring requires even more concentration over a whole day or days. Consider also the strains that touring places on a player. Many of these also affect an umpire, yet while Tendulkar played 57 of his 119 matches in India, Taufel has travelled away from home and family for all but 14 of his matches, often rushing from one side of the world. That isn't counting TV umpire duties or domestic games, which top umpires these days show up for more often than top players do.

I'm not sure what sort of standard we can expect. All umpires strive to get every single detail correct, down to no balls and short runs, while most public concern is about dismissals. In any case, they are servants of the game, not part of the contest, and it is fairly clear that the cricketing community is demanding that umpires make far fewer errors than players do, and fewer than are currently made. Surely that means placing at least as much importance on training and rest as on having neutral umpires. In any case, when we need to give the umpires a face, it means not just listing mistakes and victims, but building up a capable team and understanding their limitations.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The institutionalisation of dissent

As a brief interlude to my more measured musings on umpires, discussion over at Homer's blog has made me wonder about the trial referral system. There was a lot of talk about weeding out dodgy decisions about dismassals, but perhaps the bigger effect was the "decriminilisation" of dissent in the form of asking for a tv replay. I don't want to get into the question of whether decriminalisation takes away some of the danger of drugs and things like that, but I wonder whether it softens the power of dissent.

What was once beyond the pale and subject to the usual (inconsistent) application of the Code of Conduct is now provided for in the playing conditions. Now it is allowed, it is crazy to think of anyone being fined for suggesting the third umpire could have been consulted, but at the same time, players are expected to understand that this can only be done at certain times. Once there are signals from the dressing room, or once there have already been two unsuccessful requests, players are left regretting their own actions in chossing when to refer, rather than simply angrily blaming the umpire, even though the umpire is just as much to blame as they always were. If I were even more cynical than I am, I might think that was the intent of the system...

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The farce of the face who is always right (I)

The referral system has brought into even more prominence the issue of umpiring standards, particularly as it becomes clear that it is about more than just having technology. When I was growing up, I had hammered into me a view of umpires that is probably what some mean when they talk of umpires being seen as 'godlike'. The idea we were taught was that "the umpire is always right".

There is a joke, I think originally from a baseball context, about three umpires who are also an engineer, a physicist and a mathematician respectively. After a batsman is dismissed run out, he asks the engineer umpire why he was out. He receives the response, "You are out because your bat was not grounded beyond the crease when the wicket was broken." In a similar situation, a batsman questions the physicist and the reply comes back, "I say you are out because based on my observations, it is extremely unlikely that you or your bat were grounded beyond the crease when the wicket was broken." Questioned about another run out, the mathematician replies, "You are out because I gave you out."

This is one of many similar jokes, most of which pokes fun at mathematicians, but this one says just as much about an umpire. As both a mathematician and an umpire, I have a lot of sympathy with the last response! While the physicist probably gives the fullest picture, the mathematician makes a good point. The laws themselves word things in a slightly different way - a batsman can be out by any of ten laws, but he is dismissed only when he is out and either he walks or the umpire answers an appeal. The point of the "always right" catchphrase was not that the umpires were perfect and didn't make mistakes, but that their word was final and there wasn't room to argue. This is not because they are gods, but because to not have a powerful independent arbiter is to give the players god-like status, and the game falls apart.

Of course, that didn't mean that I or my peers had any hesitation uttering the other common catchphrase oncde we stepped off the field, or perhaps even beforehand - "We wuz robbed!". Accepting the decisions of the umpire doesn't always mean being happy about the them. Cricket umpiring is not quite as subjective as officiating, say, some of the football codes, and despite or because of this we get just as upset about a dodgy decision, whether on the weekend or when watching our national team.

Having said that, I don't remember hearing people associate mistakes with particular umpires too often until relatively recently, in internet discussions. I don't know how much this is to do with cultural differences, the nature of the 'net, the establishment of a small group of umpires who are always there, or whether I just somehow managed to avoid such talk in the past, but the pastime of tracking one umpire's mistakes is a relatively new thing to me. As with all things, some people do it pretty dismally. The Tendulkar LBW on the shoulder has been attributed to Hair as part of claims of racism and to Bucknor when his efforts in Sydney were under the spotlight, before being correctly given as an example of Harper's efforts now that he is the talk of the town. However, that should not detract from the comments made fairly by those who do care for the facts.

Clearly someone should be assessing the umpires, and perhaps the fans and commentators have a part to play. There was something attractive about treating the umpire as a faceless representative of the laws, mistakes or otherwise - after all, we want to focus on the players. It would be good to have the assessment and appointment going on behind the scenes as much as possible for a transparent process, but a combination of the modern system and some glaring mistakes have put the spotlight on the umpires and the only way to take it away is to improve standards.

To be continued...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The long haul

Apparently a team batting in the fouth innings has only lasted more than 160 (six ball) overs only 8 times. I think someone on the radio said that after 1912 Tests, that's a one in a thousand event, but perhaps they were a bit more accurate and said something like one in 200.

There's quite a bit missing, though... only 1257 Tests have had a fourth innings - that brings it down to 1 in 150. Of these, on 834 occasions the team batting last has managed to win or draw without batting for 960 balls. If we restrict ourselves to completed 4th innings, we have 3 out of 418 that were that long - roughly 1 in 140. I can't be bothered thinking about any way to make get a meaningful statistical analysis (I wouldn't be surprised if David Barry could do something in his sleep, but I'll give it a miss), but just a simple glance through some of the other long fourth innings is enough to suggest to me that the number of 4th innings that look like they could have gone on for 160 overs if needed is more like at least 1 in 75.

I would like to think that the upper hand in Durban is still very strongly with the Australians, but a draw is well within the realms of possibilities, and I think there is a chance the Saffers could win it. More importantly, they are playing like they think there is a chance. This, as much as anything else, is why they now deserve to be fighting over the top spot in world cricket.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Fish's stomach or stomach bug?

Sydney has had enough shark attack stories recently to make it seem like Perth. Apparently there are a lot of fish around, a lot of sharks eating the fish, and in the dawn or dusk they might go after a surfer or diver.

This morning the state Primary Industries Minister was on the radio responding to claims the government has neglected protection of swimmers from sharks. He said the way to be "100% safe" when swimming was to go to a swimming pool or something like that. This is a few days after news stories about cryptosporidium in public pools. If you want 100% safety while swimming, perhaps you'd better not swim. I'm not sure what "100% safe" activities you could take up instead, but summer's over now anyway.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The benefit of the camera?

Despite being caught up in things like weddings this weekend, there's so much crickte going on, that it would be hard to stay away from it. I did manage to listen to the Test in Jo'burg late last night while very close to Casson Avenue in Warners Bay!

The thing that keeps popping up is the referral system, which has reached the final stages of its trial, and is starting to turn a lot of heads. I'm not sold on the current concept, the main reasons being a dislike for the position it puts the players in and a scepticism regarding just how much the current technology can do.

One other issue worth keeping in mind is that the 'elite' umpires, whatever is said about them, are there because they have yeras of experience watching cricket from the bowlers end and square leg, and making decisions. I don't know how possible it is to develop a similarly helpful experience watching and making decisions form a flat screen, but they certainly wouldn't have it yet.

It seems particularly strange to apply camera replays to most LBWs, and yet it has happened an awful lot in the last few days. Among other things, this has led to a lot of talk about the fact that a decision by the onfield umpire is only meant to be overturned if there is a clear error. While it is not at all clear that this principle is actually being followed, one commentator described this "giving the benefit of the doubt to the umpire, rather than the batsman" as subtle shift in a fundamental part of the game, implying it is something to be concerned about, but this is nonsense.

The way the system is meant to work, the onfield umpire still gives the batsman the benefit of the doubt. In the relatively rare case that a decision is questioned, this decision is then given the benefit of the doubt. Is this good or bad?

Overturning marginal decisions might more seriously undermine an umpire's authority, but there is probably truth in both the arguments that authority needs to be maintained and that the correct decision is more important than an ego.

More particularly, used properly, this principle makes sense if the third umpire is to consider incidents where the camera doesn't tell the whole story. Sometimes it would be ridiculous to consider a dismissal only in terms of what can be seen on the screen, and any tv-watcher just has to say, "I can't tell!" So why ignore the opinion of one who has already gathered evidence from a different view?

Apart from all of this, perhaps this approach unwittingly puts the umpire in even more of a spotlight. Most would agree that the right decision is of principle importance, not judging the umpires. While umpires should be subject to scrutiny, the game shouldn't be made all about them.

In any case, this system is not taking benefit of the doubt away from the batsman. If the umpire now, when challenged, is assumed correct until proven wrong, then this simply shows how much more the role of the umpire could be changed. Traditionally, the batsman was given the benefit of the doubt, but the umpire was always right.