CWC19: Bad Umpiring – How do we solve it?

The standard of umpiring has reared its head after a number of controversial decisions. How do we resolve it?

In the recent match between Australia and West Indies, which pitted the two form teams of the World Cup in an amazing match that ebbed back and forth several times, bad umpiring has led many to rue the result and some have incorrectly even claimed that there was some cheating or that the result could have changed with better umpiring.

Before I get into any discussions about what to do about the bad umpiring, I need to address the claims about the bad umpiring changing the result. There were four umpiring blunders, all against West Indies, in West Indies’ innings. This is an appallingly high number, all one way, and it is simply not good enough.

No excuse can forgive such terrible umpiring. It is the worst umpiring in one direction since the 2015 World Cup quarter final between India and Bangladesh, where four bad umpiring decisions cost Bangladesh what could have been their first semi-final. That time around, the one-way bad umpiring decisions could have changed the result, in spite of the 100 run margin. This time they didn’t.

The reason why I know that they didn’t is because this time DRS was available, and was able to be used for all four bad decisions. Had that been the case back in the 2015 World Cup quarter final then perhaps Bangladesh would have won their way through to their first semi-final. They might not have. My analysis suggested that with perfect umpiring it’d have been close to a tie. This time around, it made no difference to the result, or to the score.

There is a claim about the no ball that wasn’t called, but criticising that isn’t fair, as umpires miss no balls all the time, even big no balls. DRS can’t stop no balls that are missed. There are ways to stop it, and that is to do something like tennis does when a beeping sound goes off when the bowler delivers the ball. Or they could simply have one bowler whose sole job is to call no balls. There is no simple answer to this issue, and it seems unlikely that they will address it in the short term.

Thankfully West Indies had DRS at their disposal and thankfully they hadn’t lost their DRS early on with a bad review. Just one bad review and they would have had all four decisions go against them and lost by 100 runs or more. Then we’d be in a similar situation to the Bangladesh vs India quarter final from 2015, when people would be wondering if with better umpiring the other team might have won.

A match should not be decided on whether or not the umpires are having a good day. The 22 men on the field, 11 on each side, should decide the match, not the umpires. While we can forgive umpires deciding matches at lower levels, at such a high level, let alone in a World Cup, we cannot forgive such appalling results. What if this had made a difference to the result, and West Indies ended up 5th but would have been 4th? It’s too serious. Go back to 2015, and it actually did cost Bangladesh a semi-final spot, probably at least.

The first thing we need to do is to take any possibility of umpiring changing the result from a win to a loss. It is an inexcusable thing at this level and something we shouldn’t have to put up with. Do we even need umpires? Perhaps they should be umpiring from the stands, from TV screens, with messages sent down to the man on the field to pass on to the players. Perhaps that is better.

Of course, we are already better now than we used to be.

I remember when going to Pakistan meant that we were faced with biased umpires and you knew that anything short of clean bowled would get a “not out” call. LBWs were out of the question and even catches would be given not out unless they were incredibly obvious, while conversely the ball just had to touch the pads and it was given out, when we batted. It was an appalling situation, worse in some countries than others, and the more biased that some countries were the more biased that other countries wanted to be. India and Pakistan battled not just on the pitch but with their cheating umpires, India’s umpires cheating Pakistan out of wins whenever they hosted just as much as Pakistan’s umpires did, and both teams relying on cheating umpires as part of their home ground advantage no matter who their opponent was.

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England was always the country with the fairest umpires, and you knew that when you went there that you would get fair decisions. New Zealand were reasonable too, and West Indies were okay. While Australia were seen to be fairly good, it should be noted that Bill Lawry was never given out LBW in Australia.

The introduction of neutral umpires, originally just one of the two, but later both, was meant to combat the cheating umpires, but it soon became apparent that that wasn’t enough. While it helped, we still found umpires being accused of being bribed, such as Australia’s own Daryl Hair, who was openly accused of being bribed to call Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing, and later for simply being racism. He wasn’t the only one accused of corruption either, as several Pakistani, Indian and West Indian umpires were similarly accused of accepting bribes.

Umpires can’t be trusted if they are from the same country as the players, an unconscious bias, we are told, but they also can’t be trusted if they know that they have the power to change a match. One bad decision at just the wrong moment and the match can be changed one way or another, making a lot of money in illegal bookmaking circles. For all of the fears that a player may be involved in corrupt practice, umpires are a much bigger worry.

So we introduced DRS, which India initially refused to allow, though later they reluctantly allowed it. DRS is great, right? All of the problems we had in the past are all gone, right? Right?

The recent match against West Indies is not the only example of bad umpiring ruining a match. In the first test between Australia and India in Adelaide, India’s Cheteshwar Pujara was incorrectly given not out but Australia chose not to review, after Josh Hazlewood, the bowler, said it was not out. He went on to add 120 runs and India won by 49, going on to win the series 2-1. Had Australia reviewed, they would have won the test match and the series.

You can complain that it’s all Josh Hazlewood’s fault, and you’d be right, but that doesn’t change the fact that it shouldn’t be like this. The umpire made a mistake, and that mistake should be corrected not because a player realises it’s a mistake but just because it was wrong.

Imagine if, instead of relying on DRS, the third umpire just reviewed every contentious decision as a matter of course. It takes only a minute at most, and usually just a few seconds. They could have said that, yes, Pujara was out, and that would be the end of that, whether Hazlewood realised he was out or not.

The argument that it is wasting time is not relevant at the highest level, as time can easily be added. Not only that but they don’t even have to stop play to do it. It can be done as a matter of course as the match continues. The third umpire can send a message down to the ground whenever a decision needs to be reversed and they can adjust accordingly. It’d make the third umpire’s job more difficult, but perhaps that’s for the best. It seems rather strange to pay someone only to work for perhaps five minutes per day.

It is also inherently unfair not to review every decision. Runouts are reviewed every single time, as are any runout-like thing, like a stumping. Indeed, every time that someone is given out, they automatically review a no ball. So why not do that all the time? Why not have the third umpire analyse every delivery in case it was a no ball? Review every time when it might have been out, and when it was given out. It’d be simply enough to do and not all that costly. Done properly, it wouldn’t cause any delays at all.

Then we get to a bigger problem – the issue of “umpire’s call”.

There are times when we aren’t sure that the ball has hit the bat before it is caught, or if it carried without touching the grass. Under such circumstances, the benefit of the doubt goes to the batsman, not the umpire.

The concept of giving the benefit of the umpire is completely and utterly ridiculous, as if umpires are some poor creatures who need their egos stroked, lest they get too upset and go cry in a corner somewhere.

With LBWs, we need to find an area where it is out and an area where it is not out, and stick with it. So let’s say that the ball has to be hitting the wickets by a certain margin, more than a feather, but less than half the ball. Perhaps one-quarter of the ball is enough. Whatever the margin is, they need to stick with it and give any doubt to the batsman, not the umpire.

While West Indies may be relieved to find that when Gayle reviewed his third LBW and it was seen to be umpire’s call that they didn’t lose the review, it’s cold comfort when they lost Gayle, not the least because, on review, the ball before should have been a no ball and hence it should have been a free hit. Had the umpiring standards been better, not only would he have been not out because the benefit of the doubt should go to the batsman, but that no ball should have been checked.

It is glaringly obvious what the standards should be but right now we are all unified in saying that it shouldn’t. We care too much about the umpires’ feelings and too little about getting the right result.

Think about this for a moment.

With better umpiring, that catch by Herschelle Gibbs off Steve Waugh in the final Super 6 match of the 1999 World Cup would have been given out, South Africa would have won their Super 6 match and qualified first for the semi-final, where they would have faced Zimbabwe, a fairly easy affair, with Australia eliminated. Pakistan would have easily accounted for New Zealand, as they did, and then we would have had a South Africa vs Pakistan final, with South Africa winning and lifting the World Cup trophy, and they would never have been called chokers to begin with.

Take that one bad decision out of the picture and South Africa’s entire World Cup image would be changed, not the least that Australia may not have gone unbeaten in 2003 and 2007. They wouldn’t be struggling to overcome their chokers tag because they wouldn’t have had it to begin with.

Now let’s imagine in 2005 when Australia’s Michael Kasprowicz, with 2 to win, edged the ball behind, only it didn’t hit the bat or the glove – instead coming off his elbow of the arm that was not touching the bat. It was a bad decision that cost Australia the match and the series, breaking England’s 16 year Ashes losing streak. Except that, with better umpiring, Australia would have won.

That loss spelled the end of Australia’s period of dominance, but it was all because of a bit of bad umpiring. Take that away and the confidence would never have left them.

Then we’ve got Bangladesh’s 2015 quarter final loss to India, Australia’s test loss to India, and, more recently, Australia’s win over West Indies.

Bad umpiring costs matches, and often a lot more than that.

Perhaps one day we will have a system that eliminates bad umpiring altogether. We just have to be prepared to hurt some egos before we can get there.

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