I love discussing cricket with just about anybody, but I always find a sensible contrarian view the most engaging. At times, you get a better insight into the game by listening to the game’s detractors instead of its fans. One view that I often hear from such people is that cricket, as a sport, is too complex to follow and has too many laws that are hard to understand.
What makes matters worse is that the laws of cricket are in a constant state of flux. It’s common to find a cricket fan who watches all the games but doesn’t understand all the laws or the changes they go through. Heck, even international cricketers often admit complete ignorance of laws, most recent being the case of Peter Handscomb whose “unawareness” of the DRS (Decision Review System) laws lead to the term "brain fade" trending on social media for several days. I don’t know what ICC should have done about Steve Smith’s gesture towards the dressing room and Virat Kohli’s allegations in the press, but admitting to not knowing a basic law of the game before playing it at the highest level should get the player a match ban.
Cricket’s lawmakers have long had this habit of doing a half-baked job of a new rule. It seems they discuss something over a table and just impose it at the international level without thinking it through; the super sub rule being a classic case in point. With some laws, the problem is not just lack of cricketing sense, but a lack of common sense in formulating them in a way that can be enforced by match officials. The ball-tampering laws fall under this category where the umpires are somehow expected to know the exact chemical composition of the saliva that players are using to shine the ball and the brand of candy and face cream they used in the dressing room.
But perhaps no other system that has had so many flaws over the years gets strong backing and support as the DRS. When it was introduced in 2008 on India’s tour to Sri Lanka, it was so badly spelt out and left so much to interpretation that it scarred the Indian players who participated in the series. India didn’t go back to accepting the system again until almost everyone who played that series retired from the game.
The rules of DRS get changed more frequently and more arbitrarily than a TV reality show. Last year Mahela Jayawardena gave us an insight into how well thought out the rules of DRS are when he said, "We sat in the cricket committee last week and we decided that the 50 percent rule should be reduced to 25 percent. Yes, a committee of ex-cricketers just “sat down” and “decided” because they “felt” it’s the right thing to do.
It took studies from biomechanists to decide the degree of tolerance for an elbow flex allowed for bowlers. Similarly, we need to have more qualified scientists on that table than ex-cricketers to decide the accuracy of ball-tracking technology. There should be independent, open studies to find out the mean percentage error and a tolerance level should be set based on that instead of any hunch or expert judgement. To think that only ex-cricketers can sit down and devise all the laws is as absurd as suggesting that only ex-cricketers have the authority to write or speak about the game (but it’s going to continue anyhow). Scientists, lawyers, media can all help make better laws, but for that to happen the ICC needs to become “Inclusive Cricket Council” first instead of running like a private club as it does now.
A saner DRS requires more than a few discussions over the table, it needs rigorous analysis spread out over months. Let’s look at some of the reforms that fans and players have been more vocal about.
The DRS gets a lot of slack for the “umpire’s call” part. Many feel that the system should give an absolute call irrespective of what the on-field umpires think. The umpire’s call to my mind is a fair system to have at the moment as it still respects the position of umpire’s view in the game, something that is central to the game’s underlying philosophy. We still trust umpires to run the game and make reasonable judgements. The idea behind DRS always was, and still is to eliminate “howlers” from the game instead of picking on the small mistakes of umpires.
After the recent spat between Kohli and Smith, signalling at the dressing room for help on DRS has become a big issue. One way to resolve this is to give the players less time, say only five seconds to decide whether they want a review. The batsman always knows if he has hit the ball, the non-striker can give a quick signal on where he thinks the ball pitched and where he thinks it is headed and a decision can be made whether or not to go for the review. Or to make things even simpler, we can even consider the option of not restricting dressing room signals at all as long as the player's teammates in the dressing room haven’t seen a replay. Commentators often have little clue about matters without the benefit of slow-motion replays, players can’t be much better. Trust your dressing room at your own risk.
The fielding side has a captain on the field who takes the call on what to review, a batsman is his own captain and that leads to a situation where one is not sure about taking the review, especially in the case of an LBW. A bungled up marginal review then spoils the whole game plan for the rest of the innings. This happened recently at Bangalore, when David Warner used up one review and Australia were too cautious to use it for Shaun Marsh.
During the Bangalore test match, Harsha Bhogle tweeted about the tedious task of the non-striker when DRS is in use.
I greatly fear, with these referrals, that there is too much pressure on the non-striker to play umpire
— Harsha Bhogle (@bhogleharsha) March 7, 2017
On a tough pitch when batsmen are grinding it out, the additional pressure of getting a review right puts them under immense stress. Earlier, batting coaches used to advise players that they should try to get a single and take stock at the non-striker end, but it’s impossible now as a batsman can’t switch off even as a non-striker.
One way of making matters easier for the batsman and the non-striker is to possibly review every “out” decision that the umpire gives in a Test match. The fielding side should continue to get only on-demand reviews just like the current system. Yes, a lot of time will be wasted, but it will give the two batsmen in the middle some much-needed respite. Plenty of batsmen have already said that they prefer to just bat and let umpire do his job. The third umpires as it is review a lot of no-balls these days after a batsman is given out. They may as well go the full distance and review everything.
If we can reduce the turnaround time for a referral, then those extra reviews aren’t going to cost as much. The third umpire can immediately spring into action as soon as a batsman is given out. ICC, on their part, should have trained specialist third umpires instead of letting on-field umpires double up as one. Understanding camera angles and technology is a different beast from taking charge of the game on the field. The specialist third umpire’s room should be equipped with better technology than just one LCD screen. He should get a simultaneous feed from several angles on different screens that he can play and pause himself as many times he wants. This alone will save several precious seconds wasted on reviews.
Of course, the ICC will need to exhibit a lot more will and common sense over the years for all of this to happen. If they want an easy way, then may I suggest them to just hand it over to the greatest DRS judge of them all, MS Dhoni. He can be paid to watch every game on the planet on his TV screen and tweet whenever he thinks the third umpire needs to called upon.