Scientific innovations could soon make on-field umpires a thing of the past, reports
You're out ... high-tech signals the end of the traditional umpire

Simon Wilde
Sunday Times
September 10, 2000

ON-FIELD umpires could be virtually redundant in international cricket by the end of next year. Scientific developments are on the point of enabling all key decisions that were once the exclusive preserve of standing officials to be resolved by television replay and computer. If it happens, it would put cricket at the forefront of sports in replacing humans with high-tech accuracy. Much of the financial backing to resolve such contentious issues as leg-before-wicket appeals or whether the ball brushed bat or glove on its way to the wicketkeeper is not coming from the game's authorities but from television companies. And there is a growing belief that administrators will be unable to ignore the innovations once their reliability is proven.

Television replays are already used by an off-field (third) umpire to determine run-outs, stumpings, hit wicket, low catches and boundaries.

"It's getting to the point that the third umpire is more important than the men in the middle," said Dickie Bird, the former Test umpire. "I can see the day when every decision is made by electronic aids.

"Once they are used for all catches and lbws, there will not be much left for the umpires to do other than count the pebbles and call 'over'. Match referees already handle discipline. It will be very sad. Umpires have been part of the game throughout history. I think they will lose confidence in making decisions."

Paul McNeil, manager of the BBC's outside broadcast special facilities department, shares the sense of sadness: "Cricket is experiencing the same dilemma as tennis. At Wimbledon, they have machines that help decide whether serves are in or out, but the sport's rulers do not trust them and they use line-judges as well.

"They do not want to hand over to machines completely. Probably, in the end, they will have to, but I can understand their reluctance. After all, sport is supposed to be all about winning some and losing some."

But the march towards one group of men in white coats (scientists and inventors) usurping another (the umpires who stand out in the middle and whose word was once final) now appears inexorable.

"I expect that 12 months from now technology will be determining all the important decisions in Test cricket," predicted Ali Bacher, the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. "As long as the accuracy of the computer systems is such that we are dealing with near-certainties, rather than probabilities, then we will be using them."

South Africa intend to use the "Red Zone" and "Flightpath" systems used by Channel 4 this season during domestic matches, to help umpires decide leg-before decisions, the most contentious area of the game. Channel 4 also use a "snickometer" device to detect if a batsman has hit the ball but this, like the lbw aids, is unavailable to officials.

Bird doubts, though, whether stumps will ever be pulled on the standing umpire: "There will always be a need for somebody to supervise the players on the pitch."

Umpires are coming to appreciate the advantages of technological assistance, including David Shepherd, who stood at The Oval last week and, as television replays demonstrated, wrongly gave out Brian Lara leg-before. Channel 4's Red Zone showed the ball pitching fractionally outside leg stump. "It was a matter of inches," said Bacher. "Nobody can blame Shepherd, but television showed that he got it wrong. It was an important decision."

Umpires are only too aware that the growing use of technology by television companies is doing them no favours. It is highlighting their frailties, and it is scant consolation that players and public alike generally accept that they are doing the best that is humanly possible.

Every Test series sees umpiring errors, and, although they tend to even themselves out, they can distort the overall result, as some people - Bacher among them - believe happened when England beat South Africa 2-1 two years ago. This summer England looked the better side and deserved their victory over West Indies, but the outcome might have been different had not Wavell Hinds been "sawn off" twice in the Lord's Test - a game England won by a whisker.

Bacher believes that the television companies who are the unintentional source of embarrassment to umpires may ultimately prove the officials' salvation: "I have spoken to David Richards at the International Cricket Council about using the flightpath system and he has said that they would be willing to use it so long as it has been tried and tested at domestic level and is available to all Test-playing countries.

"I am convinced it is good enough and that the television companies that show international cricket will be the means by which the technology can be provided, just as they already provide the cameras that show whether somebody has been run out or not," he said.

Sunset + Vine, the production company behind Channel 4's coverage, is paying Roke Manor Research, owned by Siemens, around 250,000 to refine its Hawk-Eye flightpath system that can accurately predict - it is claimed to within five millimetres - what path a ball would have taken after hitting a batsman's pads and, therefore, whether it would have hit the stumps.

The system will be seen in this country next summer, when Australia will be defending the Ashes.

"We don't throw our money around lightly," said Jeff Folser, the managing director of Sunset + Vine, "but we believe this system provides something for our viewers and can help the authorities, too. We think it a worthwhile investment because we are in the business of making cricket as interesting as we can."

The "snickometer" is also being refined to establish whether the sound has been generated by wood or other materials.

TWI, which provides coverage of cricket in West Indies and Asia, and Australia's Channel Nine, have also shown an interest in using the Hawk-Eye system.

It uses six cameras mounted in stands around the ground, two behind one set of stumps, two behind the other and two square-on to the stumps. The four "straight" cameras work out the speed of the ball, how much it swung, where it pitched and where it hit the batsman's leg; the "square" cameras determine how much the ball bounced.

This information is fed to a computer which works out three facts to establish whether or not the batsman is out: 1, did the ball pitch outside leg stump? 2, did the ball hit the batsman outside the line of the stumps? 3, would the ball have gone on to hit the stumps? Generally, if the answers to 1 and 2 are No and the answer to 3 is Yes, then the batsman is out.

Bird fears that these calculations would lead to intolerable delays but Dr Paul Hawkins, Hawk-Eye's inventor, claimed that the computer can feed its answers to the umpire standing at the bowler's end, via a pager, in a matter of seconds.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the short interruptions in play that occur when the third umpire studies television replays, it is that the crowds relish these dramas. Were lbw decisions to be determined by computer, and its findings flashed up on the big screens in the grounds, it would surely provide further excitement.

Hawkins, whose system is different from the one being developed in South Africa, said it could also be used to help train umpires, provide a coaching aid to players by plotting a map of where a particular bowler or team pitches the ball or be used as the basis for a three-dimensional re-creation of a match on the internet.

He said the Hawk-Eye would be ready within a matter of weeks: "We know what needs doing. It is only a matter of fine-tuning.

"It is also fully automated. There is no need for anybody to man the computer. It can send the answers straight to the umpire."

Bacher, meanwhile, was adamant that the South African system, which like the Hawk-Eye has its origins in military missile tracking, was equally close to completion: "I am as confident as I can be that umpires will not be making the lbw decisions come the 2003 World Cup in South Africa."

The irony is that Test umpires have seen their fees rise dramatically in recognition of the pressures under which they operate, and the fact that their judgments are based solely on the evidence of one real-time viewing. Bird was paid 25 for standing in his first Test in 1973; now umpires receive nearly 3,000 per Test. Whether they will be prepared to take a pay cut if their responsibilities diminish must be considered unlikely.

Follow the goings-on in Guyana
in Guyana Today