Ashes 2019: DRS makes umpiring worse, not better

Adrian Meredith has his say on DRS.

When the Decision Review System (DRS) first came in, I was all for it. I was thinking of critical bad umpiring in match situations such as the 2005 Ashes when, after a hard-fought 10th wicket partnership between Michael Kasprowicz and Brett Lee brought Australia to within 3 runs of victory, scoring 59 runs between them, before Andrew Flintoff hit Kasprowicz on the elbow. It was caught cleanly enough, but it was not out, and it was obviously not out. It was too far up his arm and his arm was not holding his bat. It was one of the worst umpiring decisions ever made.

There are other worse ones, of course. There were times when umpires gave batsmen out when nobody appealed, or when it is struck plumb in front but the umpires refused to give it out. LBW was often the dismissal type where umpires cheated. It was said at one point that at home you would never be given out LBW but at home you would be given out every time. That was the home ground advantage, that on those decisions where they could get away with cheating, they would.

Neutral umpires fixed up biased umpires, worse in some countries than others. At first one was neutral, aimed at showcasing just how terrible the home umpire would be in the hope to remedy the bias, but then eventually they got rid of home umpires altogether, at least in internationals, and all umpires became neutral, even third umpires.

DRS, though, wasn’t there to fix biases such as the home advantage with umpires. It was there to fix blunders, such as the 2005 decision. There was no bias towards why Kasprowicz was incorrectly given out. The umpires were neutral. The issue there was that, in the spur of the moment, the umpire made an absolute blunder. The English players went up in excitement, thinking, perhaps, that it hit the glove, or an edge of the bat, and the umpire, in all of his excitement, went up with them. The English players hadn’t cheated, nor had the umpire: he just made a mistake.

That decision was crucial, of course, and not all blunders are as crucial. Few people talk about the blunder half-way through a game when the match isn’t close. It’s really the ones that are right at the end of the match that make the difference between winning and losing that really matter.

In the Indian test series against Australia the umpires made an absolute blunder when they gave Cheteshwar Pujara not out at the end of the first day. Australia still had a review in hand, but bowler Josh Hazlewood refused to call for the review. It was not only a terrible umpiring decision, but also a terrible decision not to review. That review cost Australia the match.

Check out the last time we questioned the value of DRS.

It was the first test and there were still three more to come, so nobody thought it would matter, but if Australia had reviewed it, they would have won that match, all other things being equal. Australia lost by 45 runs and the decision cost 108. Nobody talked about it in the test wrap up or the series wrap up, but if the umpires had got that right then Australia would have won the series 2-1, as opposed to India winning it 1-2. It was the difference between an Australian series win, albeit a marginal one, and a historic first time ever Indian series win.

The 2005 blunder cost Australia that test as well, somewhat more immediately. Perhaps the difference is that we don’t know if Kasprowicz might have got out the next ball anyway, while in the case of the Indian test series we know that Pujara would go on to add 108 more runs. Even still, few people talk about either. Take the umpiring blunders away and Australia would have won the 2005 series 2-1 and the home series against India as well.

Ben Stokes batted incredibly well, make no mistake about it, and, in fairness to the umpires, Australia shouldn’t have needed to rely on the umpiring being correct had Nathan Lyon not fumbled the ball when trying to run Jack Leach out backing up. Had Lyon not fumbled, Leach would have been run out and Australia would have won by 1 run.

This is not to say that Joel Wilson should be singled out as a bad umpire. After all, he had eight decisions overturned on review, and that one wasn’t one of them. In the series, umpire Chris Gaffney had seven decisions overturned at Leeds as well. Gaffney was only one blunder less than Wilson, but it wasn’t the blunder that was caught that was a problem: it was the blunder that wasn’t.

While Stokes himself claimed that he wasn’t out, and a few other commentators also claimed that the technology was wrong, the technology not only showed Stokes out, but he was plumb, half-way up middle stump, as out as you can get. It wasn’t one of these line-ball “umpire’s call” things – this was out, as out as out could be.

You can understand the umpire getting carried away in the excitement of the moment. Australia had seemingly just thrown away the test match the ball before when Lyon failed to gather the ball in a failed runout attempt. Next ball, Lyon is bowling and appeals in hope more than anything.

We can call it bad umpiring, but it’s no worse than the blunder in 2005. The feeling at the time was to go the way the umpires did. In 2005, England felt for all the world like they had won the match. In 2019, it looked like Australia had lost.

If we had home umpires in both cases, and didn’t have DRS, newspapers would have been rife with claims of home umpire bias, but the problem is that in both cases we had neutral umpires, and in the most recent one we had DRS as well. So we are left to blame Australia’s captain Tim Paine for misusing DRS, because the last review was wasted in reviewing a decision that was correctly given as not out off Pat Cummins.

But that isn’t what cricket is supposed to be about.

Sure, we don’t want to tell people that they are bad when they are just doing their job, but if their job is to umpire accurately, and they are not umpiring accurately, then they should be criticised!

Just imagine if you had a job which relied on you being accurate. Let’s imagine you were a Supreme Court Judge. And let’s imagine that all of your decisions were found to be wrong, reviewed on appeal. And they were terrible decisions. You were letting people off when they were guilty as sin, and sending people to jail who had done nothing wrong. You’d expect to be criticised. In fact, you’d almost certainly be fired over it. The Appeals Judges wouldn’t be saying that it’s okay because they had run out of reviews. Hardly. They’d be saying that you were a bad judge, and they’d be making a decision about whether to remove you. If the system was at fault for encouraging you to be such a bad decision-maker, then they’d look at changing the system.

In the justice system, they do statistics on what kinds of crimes have high and low accuracy rates, and which judges make more decisions than others. The people who do a bad job are measured statistically and if they are bad enough they get fired.

For the fourth test we are having new umpires, with South African senior umpire Marais Erasmus and rookie Sri Lankan Ruchira Palliyaguruge set to take over at Old Trafford, a result of these blunders.

Luckily for Ben Stokes and England, Australia can’t go to an Appeals Court and have the match result reversed, even though that particular decision was wrong, and, as it would have been the 10th wicket to fall, England would have lost, with 100% certainty. It is not like the 2005 test where England might have got him out the next ball, nor is it like the test series against India where perhaps, just perhaps, Australia might have lost anyway. This one there is no doubt that the result changed.

I am sure that there is some statistic or analysis that someone will come up with that claims that these things even out in the end, and perhaps they do, but such things don’t really help when England have equalised 1-1 when, if not for bad umpiring on that one decision, Australia would have extended their lead to 2-0.

This is not about taking credit away from Ben Stokes. He should have won the man of the match award either way.

The problem is that umpiring seems to be getting worse. With every year that we rely on DRS, we see more of this. In the World Cup there were a plethora of bad decisions, at one point 8 bad decisions in a row against West Indies when they played against Australia. It probably didn’t cost the match but it sure was bad.

Neutral umpires don’t even seem to be helping. Indeed, if we had DRS, we wouldn’t need neutral umpires, so perhaps we should get rid of them, and let home umpires officiate again. It’d save money and perhaps stop those bleary eyes or whatever is causing these umpires to be as bad as they are.

Oh, and while we’re at it, we absolutely need to get rid of umpire’s call. Make a decision as to what is out and what is not out and stick with it. Benefit of the doubt needs to go with the batsman, not the umpire.

In spite of Ben Stokes’s claims, or Joel Wilson’s blurry eyes, there was no doubt that Ben Stokes was out, and that Australia should be 2-0 up.

Let’s make sure that such things don’t happen again.

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