Are Umpires Becoming Redundant?

Technology in cricket is undoubtedly beneficial to the game; that much is clear. But could technology, and DRS in particular, be limiting, and reducing the role of the umpire?

For over 100 years, the role of the humble cricket umpire remained unchanged, not only were they the sole adjudicators of LBW decisions, they were also the games main peace keepers, no ball callers, and hat-stands. However, with the advent of DRS in the last five years, the role of the international umpire has become far removed from that of the first class or amateur umpire.

No longer are the men in the middle the sole arbitrators of the game, with players able to refer to technology, and even umpires themselves can now send almost any decision upstairs.

One question to consider about DRS and the changing role of the umpire at international level; it that of quality. Have on-field umpiring standards decreased since the introduction of DRS? While this may be difficult to judge objectively, it is worth noting that Billy Bowden was dropped from the elite panel of umpires in 2013, only to be reinstated a year later. It is of course possible that Bowden simply let his standards slip, and then went away and re-applied himself to get back to the required level. But also it could be a representation that that newer international umpires coming into the game are not of the standard they once were.

The Ashes in 2013 were marred by a series of bad umpiring mistakes, sure, these could have happened to anybody, but the regularity was worrying. Both main umpires in that series, Kumar Dharmasena and Marais Erasmus, have only ever officiated with the aid of DRS. I’m not saying they are poor umpires, simply that it is food for thought.

With regards to DRS, there has often been a school of thought that advocates putting the technology in the hands of the umpire, and allowing them to decide when to refer to it. This does certainly have some benefits. It would eliminate the use of reviews for tactical purposes, such as slowing down the game or taking a punt on dismissing the oppositions star batsman with a dodgy LBW appeal.

However, for me, the arguments against giving the umpires the power, outweigh the former. I think if umpires were aware that they could refer pretty much any decision they like, consciously or unconsciously, they would not pay as much attention to their on field decision making. I understand that international umpiring can be a pressure filled environment, but surely that pressure is needed, to facilitate the split second reactions that are required. With umpires, as with players, high intensity often brings about the greatest level of skill.

Perhaps instead of giving the power of referrals to the umpires, we simply need to make the DRS process much quicker, to avoid affecting the flow of the game. Once a decision has been reviewed, it is often clear to those watching on TV what course of action is necessary, within the first 2 or 3 replays. Yet 3rd umpires seem to spend an eternity looking at 9 or 10 replays from a variety of pointless angles. The whole process can sometimes take 3 or 4 minutes, and particularly in ODI’s, this can have a huge negative impact on the flow of the game.

Umpires also appear to be increasingly reliant on technology for the checking of no-balls. What started out as the occasional referral to check a very tight call on the front foot for a wicket taking delivery, has manifested itself into what feels like an interminable process at the fall of every wicket. Surely an international standard umpire can see if the bowler’s foot is over the line or not?

This increased propensity to refer every minute decision, has led to endless delays in the game and is starting to border on a farce. Surely an easier way to check for no-balls, would be for the 3rd umpire to simply check every delivery via a TV monitor. He is basically redundant anyway until called upon, and he has all available angles, so why not use him? He could then relay the information to the on field umpire in a matter of seconds and the game would not be halted at all.

So will there ever be a time when umpires are fully redundant? I don’t think so. DRS is now crucial to the integrity of the international game, and it can help eliminate the howler that has the ability to ruin a match, series or even an entire career. But when it is used tactically and with too many replays, the system can be convoluted and time consuming.

Cricket has made the giant leap, they have embraced technology, and there is no going back. It is surely only a matter of time, before the ICC man up and declare that DRS must be in place for all international cricket – at least I hope so!

Now that cricket has chosen to use technology, we have a choice to make. Do we want the game to remain how it is currently, with the majority of bad decisions eradicated, but with referrals limited and in the hands of the players, still allowing for the occasional contentious decision, and still requiring top quality umpiring? Or would we rather aim for 100% correctness in all decisions, which would lead to even more delays in the game and the further belittling of the role of the umpire.

I personally think that cricket officiating should have some room for a bit of human interpretation. That’s not to say I enjoy seeing wrong decisions given, just that controversial and contentious decisions are part of the fabric of the game. They always have been at amateur and first class level, and I hope it remains the same at international level for some time to come.

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