Tuesday, 28 June 2011

DRS: what's the point?

Sidharth Monga writes about the DRS discussion, particularly the fact that the discussion should be going on. The focus on the stubborn BCCI as the sole hold-out in the face of the unquestioning rollout, while to some extent necessary, is way too prominent in the media coverage. Much of the thought we could see when the proposals weren't aligned to "sides" has been obscured. Many of the objections currently are serious whatever your view of technology, especially when it comes to cost and governance.

Having said that, Monga's pices goes off the rails when it comes to the paragraph on the original purpose of the review system. Yes it is true that the ICC's cricketing committee originally wanted to
spot edges (or their absence), balls pitched outside leg and balls hitting the batsman outside off when offering a shot for lbws.

and didn't want to use technology
to predict whether the ball would have clipped the leg bail.

I could raise the minor quibble that this intention was overruled very quickly, with the restriction on the use of projections dumped even before the start of the trial, but let's move on to the more serious misconceptions.

The first error is the obvious one. Monga claims the system was introduced for the odd big mistake (true enough) and for “umpires who have trouble grasping basic umpiring rules”. I don't know where this idea came from, but it doesn't make any sense at all. International umpires shouldn't be there without being able to grasp basic rules. Even facing evidence of trouble with slightly less basic rules (2007 WC final and so on), surely the answer to that problem lies in training, selection and people management. Most of all, how does a review system help? Whoever reviews the decision (third umpire or original umpire with third umpire input) is just as likely to be wrong in that regard. For wrong understanding of the rules, the very best we can get is a forced consultation with another umpire, which might help in a small minority of cases.

The second, less obvious error, comes after another reflection on pitting computer and human predictions. He seems to be urging the ICC to make decisions based on the premise that the system is meant to eliminate howlers, with the implication that it should not adjudicate on non-howlers, or in other words, marginal decisions. That this principle sets the boundaries of the DRS has been repeated for quite a while, at least as early as December 2009, but it doesn't quite do the original explanations justice.

When the "eliminate howlers" line was first used, it was addressing high expectations, pointing out that doubt wouldn't be eliminated, stating a minimal aim rather than trying to put a limit on what umpires should overturn. Put simply, we could only expect howlers to be corrected, and others might or might not be. It was aimed at observers, but also at players, who were given the choice to review and the risk of using them up where the mistake wasn't so obvious - the 'economy of error' was put in their hands, and they needed to be aware “it was not designed to remove all errors”. As Simon Barnes put it in March 09, “It is not designed as a charter for chancers”, even if the potential for pure tactical use was obvious from the start.

It's not hard to see how the stricter interpretation gained such currency. To start with, there's a quite reasonable way of looking at referrals where the only question is whether the umpire was justified or clearly mistaken, leaving each umpire their own approach to the marginal decisions, however you define such things. Once the trials got under way, we also saw the system applied by umpires inconsistently, even overturning decisions without compelling evidence. It's only natural that thoughts turned to limits on what's overturned, and the howler statement had a whole new context.

Now, the ICC members seems to be working on what are acceptable compromises (from their point of view), with room for further developments. There's a lot more to be said, a lot of it referred to in that article by Monga (along with a couple more red herrings), but for that conversation, it's better to speak of how we think the technology should be used, not bring up twisted explanations of what it was meant to do.