Is that Bob Taylor behind the stumps?

I watched a little cricket yesterday, and it really took me back. It reminded me of my childhood, when the TV coverage was simple and the action replay came with a big flashing ‘R’ in the corner, in case you were confused.

I used to watch a lot of cricket. Botham and Willis, Gower and Lamb. Many times, with Leg-before-wicket (LBW) decisions, the BBC commentators would agree with the umpires. That delivery would have missed the stumps. On the instant replay, the same delivery was heading directly for the stumps! Boycott, or Jack Bannister (that I could never and still cannot stand) would say- ‘it’s going down leg side’. I just assumed, as with many things, that I was in the wrong, I didn’t really understand. I made sense of these intuitions as an engineer might. Balls that I thought might have hit leg stump would definitely have missed, and those that looked to be hitting leg and middle were possibly missing. Any ball that bounced in a regular fashion after pitching was “going over the top” of the stumps. The stumps were effectively a very small target, and on good pitches, batsmen had an easy time of it. They could get in “a big stride” and then get the benefit of the doubt if the ball evidently was heading straight at the stumps. That was the system. The beautiful thing was, that no-one’s intuition was ever challenged.

That comfy authority changed when technology was introduced to TV coverage of cricket, and later to the game itself. The replays for line calls (is the batsman “in”?) have been more recently augmented by spatial calls (would a delivery that hit the batsman’s pads go on to hit the stumps?). This system, and related technologies of augmented reality, such as fading out the batsman or drawing digital lines on the pitch, have caused a sport-wide reassessment of a simple question. How big a target do the stumps represent?

In the last few years, we have been treated to the great and good saying how they don’t trust the Hawkeye (now also used very widely in tennis). But this complaint is a bit like David Brooks, Nate Silver and magic. The methodology used to track a flying object (the ball) is tried and tested. It’s almost trivial. The Hotspot, which ingeniously picks up the infrared emission following frictional heating caused by brushing contact between ball and bat or glove, is said to be unreliable. But I’ve barely seen an example where it didn’t give a clear (and obviously correct) answer. The snickometer (a sound recording that reveals the click of bat on ball for glancing contacts, synchronised with the video to show the timing of the click) takes too long to be used in a Test match, but is also fantastically revealing on television.

A real difference to the way the game is played comes with LBWs. Graeme Swann has a won a good fraction of LBW decisions in his relatively brief career, and about half have been upheld with the aid of the umpire decision review system (DRS). There is a great analysis here. Only a few not-out LBW decisions have been overturned in Swann’s favour. However, I would argue that the umpires have refined their view of what LBWs they should give, thanks to DRS. Many of the decisions which would once not have been given out, because they were close, have now been given out and subsequently upheld by DRS. DRS has enlarged the target for the bowlers. Any ball that would have hit the stumps is now (rightly, as it always should have been) considered to be a potential wicket-taking ball.

The background to this is that India (England’s current opponent) doesn’t want to use DRS. At the moment, both teams must agree to use the DRS, and for what types of decisions, for a given Test Match series. In the absence of Hawkeye and so on, the Star Sports commentary team (Paul Collingwood and Ravi Shastri) spouted patent nonsense about which deliveries would hit the stumps and which would miss. Only now, there is the augmented reality of fading the batsman out to reveal the stumps. My childhood intuitions returned! A ball pitching on middle and leg and turning so that it flies directly towards the stumps, will hit the stumps. It doesn’t matter about “the angle” (32.4; Swann was bowling around the wicket for this example). Cricinfo’s written commentary is wonderfully apt here:

32.4 Swann to Gambhir, no run, appeal for lbw as he’s caught on the back foot but that’s sliding down the leg side

No! If the ball spins the right amount (it did), it would hit the stumps. As so many years before, I’m surprised. The commentators got it wrong, and the umpire got it wrong (without the benefit of replay – no shame there). The umpires made several other errors in the match that DRS would have saved them.

As for the commentators, another suggested that Tendulkar was LBW to Panesar’s arm ball (around 5:30). The arm ball would be a non-spinning delivery that goes “straight on”; unlike in reality, where the ball turned about 3 inches (blink and you’ll miss it). So before introducing Hawkeye, glasses might be the first prescription.

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