Cancel Call – umpiring signal. Image from the BBC.
This post might be challenging for non-English and non-Commonwealth nation readers, being as it is about cricket – the game that, like good beer, does not always travel well but always tastes good if it is kept well.
Arms crossed over the chest with fingertips touching opposite shoulders in a pose not unlike the deceased in an open coffin, a horror film vampire or an Egyptian mummy: this the sign from the umpire that marked England’s victory in the first Ashes Test Match at Trent Bridge earlier today, when Brad Haddin was given Out on 71 to a delivery from James Anderson, following a referral to the Third Umpire, meaning that England won by 14 runs. (I will admit right now that I have not seen this yet myself so cannot comment on the delivery itself.)
It is the sign for “Cancel call”, one of the more unusual of the signals used by umpires and is very rarely used so is not a familiar sight to most cricket viewers, especially those watching on television, because the standard of umpiring at international matches has always been consistently very high. Legendary umpire David Shepherd describes its use on the BBC Sport Academy site and adds that “it doesn’t happen very often and I think I’ve seen it just a couple of times in my career, thankfully not by me because it means a mistake has been made” (although he does admit that he perhaps “ought to have used it a couple of times”, but doesn’t offer any details!).
But I think all this is about to change due to the newly-implemented Decision Referral System (DRS), and this could alter the way that people view umpires and their decisions and alter the whole notion of giving the batsman “the benefit of the doubt”, which means that the whole nature of cricket as a game at the highest level could be about to enter a period of significant evolution.
“Cancel call” is used when an umpire has given a verdict on, say, runs scored by a boundary, byes or leg byes, a no ball or, most crucially, giving a batsman Out. If new information comes to light following the decision then the umpire uses the sign to revoke the previously-given signal then issues a new signal with the revised (presumably correct) decision. This is often also for the benefit of the scorers, to ensure that the match statistics are recorded correctly. New information could come from the second umpire standing at square leg, who will have had a different view of the play; or from a fielder who may admit that the ball did in fact carry over a boundary, thus turning a four into a six; and now a revised decision can come from the Third Umpire at a Test Match if a batsman or fielding captain chooses to use the DRS, which works much like the “appeal” system in major tennis tournaments, in which a player can request a line decision be referred to a technological assessment – but only three times per set.
I once had a season as a cricket umpire in a local league and was fully trained and qualified in all aspects of duties, Laws, decisions and signals. Unlike David Shepherd, I think I did use the “Cancel call” signal twice: once when an honest fielder told me that the ball had in fact gone over the boundary (hard to tell when the boundary is down a slope that you can’t see from the middle, and there’s no rope on the line to make the ball bounce up like it does on the telly) so I had to use “Cancel call” then “Four”; and another time when a batsman admitted that the ball had in fact come off his pad rather than his bat, so I had to correct this to “Leg byes” for the scorers. In both cases I was at fault yet justice prevailed due to good sportsmanship, often so lacking in competitive games.
It is this spirit of good sportsmanship – so crucial to the ethos of cricket and perfectly well accommodated alongside the need for hard, aggressive yet fair competitiveness – that could be challenged with the DRS facility. I am concerned that the role of the two umpires on the pitch will be reduced to hat and jumper holders and decision signal referrers, with all the important decisions being made elsewhere, in a room nearby, by another umpire watching as many slow-mo reruns as he wishes. This undermines the authority of the two field umpires and may bring their every decision into question. The ICC Elite Umpires may welcome this, however, in an era when every LBW, catch and stumping decision is replayed on huge screens in front of the players and spectators so the umpire – the judge – gets judged himself on the spot. Referring to the Third Umpire may take some of the heat off, but could also add to the umpire’s embarrassment when decisions are overturned. People may lose faith in them, and my real concern here is how that might affect players’ relationships in smaller leagues where technology is not available to assist with judgments.
The word umpire is thought to derive from an old French term, nom pere, meaning “without equal”. Cricket is a game that does not have rules at its heart, as other sports do; instead it has Laws, with other competition-specific rules being overlaid on top of these. The umpires are there to act as adjudicators, which is why decisions on dismissals must be referred to them by an appeal from the fielding side if there is any doubt. The umpire’s decision is final and cannot be contested. Dissent is met with disciplinary action taken against a team after the match has finished, and this can be severe. Umpires are the symbols and the guardians of the spirit and letter of the Laws of cricket and therefore of the game itself.
When I was training, I asked the naïve question “what if I make a wrong decision?” My wise old mentor replied with, “it doesn’t matter if the decision is right or wrong – you are the umpire, your decision is the decision and will be accepted”, although I was of course admonished to make sure I was as certain as I could be before issuing a decision. I can honestly say that none of my decisions were ever questioned by players (I can’t say the same for some of the spectators …) even if they didn’t agree with me and even if I was wrong, as I will admit I was on at least one occasion.
This is why cricket has one of the most important “gentleman’s agreement” principles in sport: the benefit of the doubt. This means that an umpire has to be 100% certain that a batsman is out before giving a decision that will send him back to the pavilion. This is so important because, unlike in baseball, once a batsman is out, that is the end of his game. No strikes – one out and you’re out. So if there is any possible doubt at all involved in any criteria affecting an umpire’s decision, then he must return a verdict of “Not Out”.
But let me tell you from experience, umpiring is difficult and making decisions on the finer points – such as LBWs and catches behind – is sometimes impossible when you have already had to concentrate on the fielding layout, bowler’s run-up gait pattern and entry into delivery stride, the placement of the bowler’s feet and when he releases the ball, as is required with every delivery. The tiny thin edges picked up on the “hot spot” cameras are impossible to hear in the field, and the deviation in flight of the ball may not be discernible if the delivery is an especially fast one. And it’s not always easy to concentrate on your decision when you have a pumped-up bowler right up in your face, puce with rage and glee, yelling “Howzaaaat umpiiiiire?“, backed up by his equally loud team-mates.
So why not use the technology to aid with these, if it is available? With Test Matches and One Day Internationals we are, after all, talking about the sport at its highest level and there are no contests more fiercely fought than the eternal war between England and Australia known as The Ashes (except perhaps the fierce derbies played between Pakistan and India, but that is tinged with the social and political tensions between the two peoples rather than pure sporting rivalry). The players arguably deserve the right decision every time. A tiny thin edge is still contact between bat and ball, and if that ball carries and is caught then, by Law, that batsman is Out Caught. How many times have we watched in recent years when, with the aid of TV analysis technology, we have seen that a batsman may or may not have been out when the opposite decision was given in the field? These must be consigned to history: the umpire make the decision and it must stand.
At least in cricket the decision is still being made by a human official with the aid of technology rather than purely by a computer, as in tennis. This still gives the umpire a position of authority and value, and they will still be able to give a batsman the benefit of the doubt whilst also ensuring fairness to the bowler and fielders. It just means that the margins will be effaced and the doubt – the benefit of which the batsman is entitled to – will be significantly diminished. This will affect the game and may reduce the length of some matches as dismissals that previously would not have been given will now result in the dreaded Raised Finger. If this increases the accuracy of the fairness of the game then I am fully in support; but I suspect that this will be the first step in the evolution of cricket into a more modern form. I just hope that the important decisions about the future are made by humans who care and not by referrals to a computer.