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The technology of sports adjudication

Sport is going through an awkward transition phase just now, caused by the onward march of technology. During this phase, the problem is that the commentators often have technology to scrutinise and generally second-guess umpiring or refereeing decisions that are not available to the umpires or referees themselves.

This is quite natural. The commentators can afford to muck about with wild technological experiments. They can stick with them if they seem to add something to their descriptive and analytical efforts, and quietly discontinue them if they only confuse. And even if it takes them twenty minutes to come up with their techno-analysis, it is still worth them showing it to their viewers. But including technology into actual game officiating is a necessarily more cautious and cumbersome process. So there is bound, at any given moment, to be this mismatch between the techno-toys the commentators have, and what the umpires and referees have.

Trouble is, again and again, this technology makes fools out of the game officials. It makes chumps of the umps.

The other day, Liverpool won the European Cup. But would they have won it if the referees of the Liverpool Chelsea semi-final had been technologically assisted. Maybe that Liverpool goal would still have stood if the officials had been able to look at all that subsequent computerisation. But at least disgruntled Chelsea players and supporters would have known that the decision was based on a different interpretation of that information rather than on the opinion of people who were standing in entirely the wrong place to have a valid opinion on the subject.

Rugby, both league and union, already uses slow motion cameras to help them decide about contentious tries. Did his foot go over the side line before he touched down? Did he touch down properly? That kind of thing. (In rugby, unlike in American football, they do not call it a touch down, but you do actually have to touch it down.)

Cricket is the sport I know most about, when it comes to adjudication technology. And cricket is, and always has been, full of tricky decisions that the umpires have to make. Technology is slowly being introduced to help the umpires make fewer errors.

Cricket umpires already use slow motion cameras to decide about run out decisions. This is when a batsman fails (or does he?) to complete a run by reaching the line that matters before the fielders hit the stumps with the ball. And this has greatly improved these decisions. With their being less doubt, batsmen now get less benefit from it, but so what? These decisions are now clearly better.

A big problem remains, however, with LBW decisions. That’s “leg before wicket” ? when the ball strikes the batsman’s leg and would have hit the wicket. Or would it, question mark question mark, argument argument. There was a series not so long ago between England and South Africa which was settled in England’s favour with a series of highly dubious LBWs in the deciding match, and that kind of nasty-taste-in-the-mouth we-was-robbed stuff happens quite often. But at least that happened, as I recall, before the age of Hawk-eye.

Hawk-eye is the machine that tells us, as well as anyone or anything can, whether a batsman was out LBW or not. And although the ultimate truth of the matter is still hard to be sure about – because, after all, the machine is still only guessing where the ball would have gone, rather than measuring anything it actually did do – Hawk-eye looks pretty convincing to me. Put it this way. If I were a batsman being given out, or a bowler begging in vain for the verdict, I would rather that Hawk-eye was supplying the verdict rather than some one-eyed umpire.

The cricket commentators also have their “snickometer” to determine whether the ball has touched the bat while passing it or not, and in some cases to work out whether the ball touched the bat before hitting the pad, and therefore whether or not a batsman can be given out LBW. (If he hits it first, however gently, it is not out.) The Snickometer produces an output that looks like a voice analyser, and expert interpreters to tell what kind of noise that spike is, and exactly when it happened. So the Snickometer can really help, with things like snicked catches to the wicketkeeper.

But, although the commentators, and hence also all the TV viewers like me, have Hawk-eye and the Snickometer, the umpires, as yet, do not. Time and again, they give their instant verdicts, based only on what they just saw, at full speed, and then moments later (fewer and fewer moments as time has gone by) Hawk-eye and/or the Snickometer have given their verdicts. Often they differ. Invariably, the technologically aided decisions are more convincing, and often embarrassingly so. In the most recent televised cricket match, during the various excerpts and live periods that I watched, there were three dodgy LBW decisions.

I only realised at seven o’clock on Thursday evening that an international cricket match between England and Bangladesh had begun that day, such was the excitement that this contest had not generated among England cricket followers such as myself. And what a horrible mismatch it was. England won by an innings and a lot, with almost the entire Bank Holiday long weekend to spare.

Accordingly, it really didn’t matter very much that on day one, one of the Bangladeshi batsmen was given out LBW, to a ball which Hawk-eye immediately decided would have missed the stumps by several inches, sideways and upwards, or that the following morning, England captain Michael Vaughan was given not out LBW when the commentators, and I for what that may be worth, and then a few seconds later Hawk-eye himself, all reckoned he was as bang in front as bang in front can be. Vaughan was then on 24, and went on to make 120, and the Bangladesh batsman wrongly given out in the Bangladesh first innings was their top scorer in the second innings, so these decisions did make a difference, and especially to the progress of the careers of the individual cricketers concerned. But not enough of a difference for anyone to care very much, so huge was the disparity between the two sides.

However, it is a good bet that at some stage during the serious cricket business of this summer – the small matter of a five match series between England and the mighty Australians, no less – there will be similar umpiring errors, which will be similarly revealed instantaneously to be errors, but which may have a more serious bearing on the outcome of the contest. The likelihood is that Australia will win this series handsomely. But if England play at their very best and if Australia fluff some of their lines, it may be closer than that – close enough for umpiring errors to matter quite a lot.

In the days when the only equipment that cricket had to help it decide about run outs and catches and LBWs was the eyes and the ears of the umpires, with no one else having any play-backs or slow motion cameras or computer analysis, and when any commentator who disagreed with the umpire was just backing his eyes and ears (from a hundred yards further away) against the umpire’s, this was no problem. Umpires were, then as now, human, but you just had to accept their verdicts, because how else could things be decided? Mistakes got made, but were accepted as inevitable.

Now, however, it has become technologically possible, and hence humanly necessary, to do better.

It is sometimes said that all this technology undermines the authority of umpires. That is true. But only insofar as the cricket authorities do not allow the umpires to use it.

I am not really complaining about all this. As I say, this mismatch between what is good enough for commentators and what is good enough for umpires is inevitable, and there is bound to be a lag. All I am saying is that cricket is now wading through the treacle of this lag, and that it should be the concern of the cricket authorities to make as much use of technology as they conveniently can, as soon as they can, and to do away with as many obvious injustices as they can.

I am not saying that this will be easy to organise. Should the umpires have hand held kit and make their decisions on the pitch, or should all the decisions be referred to an off-pitch umpire, as run outs are now? Should as much weight be given to what the technology says would have happened (whether the ball would have hit the wicket, if it had not struck the batsman’s pads), as to what it says did happen (snicks, balls pitching were they have to for an LBW to be given, and so on)? Should the verdict of Hawk-eye, in other words, be regarded as final? How long should everyone be made to wait for these verdicts? All very complicated. But these questions cannot be dodged, and must be dealt with.

Personally I would favour Hawk-eye’s verdict being accepted as final, and I bet a lot of the players would prefer that also, even if Hawk-eye presumably does make the occasional mistake.

In the meantime, while the lag lasts, the argument will rumble on. Some say that the answer is not to give the technology to the umpires, but to snatch it away from the commentators, but that rabbit is already out of the bag, and will be very hard to stuff back in again without accusations of Luddism. (Personally, I find Hawk-eye’s opinions fascinating, and would greatly miss them.) But more to the point, the fact that the technology is now a fact means that even if we all stop consulting it when something controversial happens, we still could have. So the arguments will not go away until the technology is accepted and made maximum use of.

In short, bring it on, and the sooner they can get it working, the better.

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9 comments to The technology of sports adjudication

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Hawkeye is also used by ESPN in its tennis coverage (who call it Shot Spot), and I can tell you it’s not always accurate.

    At the French Open, the ball leaves a mark when it bounces. Consequently, it’s not uncommon for the umpire to get out of his chair, come down to the court, and examine a mark to determine whether a ball is in or out. On several occasions in the past few years, the computer simulation has come up with a different result from the actual mark left on the clay.

    The irritating thing is that in these cases, the ESPN announcers treat Hawkeye as though it’s infallible, despite what the #@$#@$! empirical evidence shows.

  • Ric Locke

    Fooey.

    It’s true for any and all fast-moving ball sports that the errors do exist, but the mistakes of the umpires are an integral part of the game. The rules should reflect that fact, and the umpires should not be burdened by having to deal with technogadgets on the field, any more than the players should be allowed robot substitutes.

    What to do about the television commentators that have to use technogadgets to second-guess the umps is left as an exercise for the student. Shooting them seems excessive, at least at the moment, although as time passes… bastinado perhaps?

    Regards,
    Ric

  • Ric Locke

    Fooey.

    It’s true for any and all fast-moving ball sports that the errors do exist, but the mistakes of the umpires are an integral part of the game. The rules should reflect that fact, and the umpires should not be burdened by having to deal with technogadgets on the field, any more than the players should be allowed robot substitutes.

    What to do about the television commentators that have to use technogadgets to second-guess the umps is left as an exercise for the student. Shooting them seems excessive, at least at the moment, although as time passes… bastinado perhaps?

    Regards,
    Ric

  • Ric Locke

    Fooey.

    It’s true for any and all fast-moving ball sports that the errors do exist, but the mistakes of the umpires are an integral part of the game. The rules should reflect that fact, and the umpires should not be burdened by having to deal with technogadgets on the field, any more than the players should be allowed robot substitutes.

    What to do about the television commentators that have to use technogadgets to second-guess the umps is left as an exercise for the student. Shooting them seems excessive, at least at the moment, although as time passes… bastinado perhaps?

    Regards,
    Ric

  • Ric Locke

    Fooey.

    It’s true for any and all fast-moving ball sports that the errors do exist, but the mistakes of the umpires are an integral part of the game. The rules should reflect that fact, and the umpires should not be burdened by having to deal with technogadgets on the field, any more than the players should be allowed robot substitutes.

    What to do about the television commentators that have to use technogadgets to second-guess the umps is left as an exercise for the student. Shooting them seems excessive, at least at the moment, although as time passes… bastinado perhaps?

    Regards,
    Ric

  • Ric Locke

    Fooey.

    It’s true for any and all fast-moving ball sports that the errors do exist, but the mistakes of the umpires are an integral part of the game. The rules should reflect that fact, and the umpires should not be burdened by having to deal with technogadgets on the field, any more than the players should be allowed robot substitutes.

    What to do about the television commentators that have to use technogadgets to second-guess the umps is left as an exercise for the student. Shooting them seems excessive, at least at the moment, although as time passes… bastinado perhaps?

    Regards,
    Ric

  • steve

    The problem with technology and football, as opposed to rugby and cricket is the flow of the game. Both rugby codes, and even more so are stop start affairs enabimh technological answers without unduly slowing the game. With the Liverpool Chelsea game, maybe the game could have been stopped for a few seconds, but what about offside decisions, these will interrupt the flow of the game, and enable a leading team to constantly take the speed out out the action

  • John B

    One of the main complaints about this intrusion of technology into sports (by officials) is the slowing of the game. Video reviews of goal crease transgressions in hockey were driving viewers insane and was finally stopped. On the other hand, video reviews of disputed goals has been beneficial.

  • Anonymous

    Very informative article. Good work, keep going…
    In India Vs England match, Indian fielder were not able to hear nick of Struass which ultimately costed them the match. Snickometer is of at most importance in these critical situations.
    I found an interesting article on snickometer titled “Innovation in Cricket – Snickometer Patent” To read more plz check http://www.sinapseblog.com/2011/02/innovation-in-cricket-snickometer.html