On Umpire's Call

Tendulkar, Warne and Sangakkara say it should be eliminated. But they don't seem to understand what it is or why it exists.

“Umpire’s Call” remains a matter of aggravation for some of the greatest names in cricket. Kumar Sangakkara once likened Umpire’s Call to a “feather of a nick” which “doesn’t show up on hotspot but only on snicko”. Sachin Tendulkar has never liked DRS and the review system and has come out against Umpire’s Call. Shane Warne has been waging a campaign against Umpire’s Call for several years now.

My association with DRS and its main parts - ball tracking, snickometer and hotspot go back a whole decade. I covered it a great deal back in the days when it was first introduced and I maintained a blog [1, 2, 3, 4, a longer list], and later for ESPNCricinfo [1, 2, 3, 4]. This is arguably the one of the more complete discussions of DRS in the world of cricket writing. ESPNCricinfo’s coverage of DRS and technology related issues is superbly comprehensive. Their coverage is collected in these two lists [1, 2]. ESPNCricinfo is cricket’s publication of record and on DRS and the role of technology, their coverage is unmatched anywhere else.

DRS is a protocol which specifies how evidence from machines (ball tracker, hotspot, snickometer, video replay) which record the action is to be used to review umpiring decisions. It is a system for reviewing decisions, not appeals. The appeal is the question, the decision is the answer. They are not the same thing. The umpire makes a decision from a different standpoint (literally) and using a different method. The umpire’s method is best described as disciplined expert observation. DRS reviews umpiring decisions using evidence from the available machinery.

The ball-tracker provides an estimate of the trajectory of the ball, and and consequently, an estimate of where the ball would have crossed the plane of the stumps at the batting end. Therefore, it estimates whether or not the ball would have hit the stumps.

The current design of DRS mandates that the original decision of the umpire (whether it is out or not out) be left as it is if the estimate shows that less than half the ball is hitting the stumps. This is known as “Umpire’s Call”.

The radius of a cricket ball is 1.4 inches. The size of the stumps in cricket is 28 (height) x 9 (width) inches. So if the trajectory (i.e. the centre-line) crosses the plane of the stumps anywhere within that main 28 x 9 box, it is “hitting”. But if it crosses through an outer frame which is 1.4 inches wide, then it is Umpire’s Call.

The animation shown on TV shows the ball breaking the stumps regardless of whether it is in the outer frame or in the main box. In the former case it is orange, and in the latter it is red. This is a reasonable way to deal with the marginal case, but a terrible way to visualize and present the marginal case given that it is on the question of whether or not the ball is likely to break the stumps, that the marginal case is marginal.

If “Umpire’s Call” is eliminated, then the review essentially turns into a review of the appeal and not the decision. In such a case, what is the purpose of asking the umpire to make a decision in the first place? The appeal can be sent directly to the TV Umpire who can say whether or not its out.

Appeals where the ball-tracker cannot provide a reliable estimate (it cannot for deliveries where the distance between pitching point and impact is less than 40 cm), would presumably automatically be ruled not out.

The problem is that the ex-players who advocate this change seem to misunderstand the current system. I wonder whether they would still advocate the change if they understood the nature of the ball-tracking estimate correctly. For example, in the video below, Sachin Tendulkar says “It shouldn’t really matter whether the ball is hitting 10% of 70% of the stumps because…” (he continues with an irrelevant analogy of the batsman getting bowled). He then goes on to say that he understands that “the system is not foolproof”. This is a uniquely bad way to describe the problem. The ball-tracker is not foolish or arbitrary. It provides estimates with measurable confidence.

The difference between an estimate which says 10% of the ball will hit the stumps and an estimate which says that 70% will hit them is that each of these estimates is not equally confident that the ball will hit the stumps. That’s why the information conveyed in the 10% case and the 70% case is not identical. Contra Tendulkar, it does matter whether it is 10% or 70%. Simply put, if the estimate is wrong by a quarter of an inch in each case, then in the 10% case the ball misses the stumps, but in the 70% case it still hits the stumps. Since the consequences of being equally wrong in each case lead to differing conclusions on the core question - Would the ball have gone on to hit the stumps? - the two estimates are not equally confident.

Logically, splitting the difference between the umpire’s decision and a marginally confident ball-tracking estimate is a robust way to deal with the marginal case. Marginal cases are not confusing. It is not that difficult to understand that when there is a boundary between two areas, a point which is close to boundary is harder to place in one or the other area than a point which is further away from the boundary, and that as the point moves closer and closer to the boundary, identifying which side of the boundary it falls in becomes progressively harder.

The word of Kumar Sangakkara, Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar carries a lot of weight. What they are advocating though essentially doing away with the on-field umpire’s involvement with the LBW entirely. After all, what’s the point of asking the umpire to rule if that ruling has no bearing on the subsequent review? Going by what they say, it is not clear that these ex-players recognize the implications of such a change or that they even understand why Umpire’s Call exists. It is not a good situation for the game to find itself in.