Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A couple of cricket mumblings...

Don't we just love cricket umpires? The crooked finger of Billy Bowden, the dull Caribbean monotone of Steve Bucknor, the downright loveable and iconic Dickie Bird, the slow death arm of Rudi Koertzen: they all convey their own personality to this most gentlemen of sports and the game wouldn't be the same without them.

The last thing any cricket enthusiast would want to do is alienate them, you would think.

But it seems that technology is doing its absolute best to achieve this. No longer is it so easy to simply accept an umpire's decision and walk off the pitch with dignity and respect that originally were two of the game's hallmarks.

That is the archaic view anyway. Ever since 1998 when Channel 4 and Sky won television rights from the BBC various high-tech graphics like a batsman's wagon wheel, super slow motion replays and snickometers (snickos) clearly showed the direction in which cricket was heading.

If we include hot-spot, hawk eye, dart fish and stump cameras into the equation you're left with very few excuses to have an umpire on the field of play at all. (Although you might need umpires to deter Michael Clarke away from saying to Jimmy Anderson, "get ready for a f****** broken arm," which happened in the first test of this current ashes series. The player was understandably fined 20% of his match fee.)

In a test match between New Zealand and Pakistan in 2009 at Dunedin, the cricketing world was introduced to the infamous Decision Review System (DRS). Without sounding overly hasty or malicious, cricket has never been the same since.

It's had mixed results; in the 2011 World Cup DRS had a success rate of 28.13% whereby more than one out of every 4 decisions reviewed went in favour of the team who asked for the review.

Considering that a team have felt ill-judged by a decision, that number is not very high. Perhaps players go for a review out of sheer desperation or when they have nothing lose.

Billy Bowden - New Zealand umpire on the ICC's elite panel - has given the system a blossoming review declaring it allowed him to give, "strong umpiring decisions."

Simon Taufel, Bowden's Australian colleague, is pragmatic about DRS.

He said: "No matter what system of technology review/referral we implement in our game, it will not be perfect or 100 percent."

There is one man who is joyfully outspoken about all aspects of technology in cricket. Barry Dudleston, who played 295 first class matches scoring 14,747 runs at an average of 32.48 before becoming an umpire after retiring in 1983, remembers the very first time technology was used in cricket.

He said: "It was inevitable that it [DRS] came in. If I go back 15 years I remember the ECB committee I was on decided to use technology for run outs and stumpings for televised games - this was the first time mechanics were used in any form."

Spectators of cricket know that there can be elongated spells where very little happens, but other times in which multiple things occur in a short space of time. Another factor umpires have to deal with is that close run-outs are almost impossible to judge.

"If you were six inches in or out," continued Dudleston. "The umpire would have to guess; therefore the decision would go to the batting side. With super slow motion cameras you could easily tell that decisions were false so clearly something had to be done."

If we compare officiating football or tennis to cricket, the most profound difference is the time scale. All football games last 90 minutes - with the exception of special circumstances and extra time for cup matches of course - and tennis matches never normally run longer than three or 4 hours (again with the exception of epic five set matches and when John Isner faces Nicholas Mahut). Test cricket lasts all day which puts officials under torrents of strain.

"I went to the O2 Arena and watched the ATP World Tour finals," reminisces the Stockport-born umpire. "For the line judges they have to deal with balls that are going 130 mph. That's fantastic, but there is a difference. They are 90 degrees to line and it is first bounce that counts, also the set of judges changed every 30 minutes.

"When a player serves the line judge has to be totally fixated on the line: that's similar to looking down the line of off stump in cricket but it would be impossible to do that for six and a half hours.

"People say: 'why do we need technology in cricket?' Mainly because you don't know when something is going to happen, you have that warning in tennis just as a player serves or shapes to take a shot.

"Let me tell you, it's far easier officiating tennis."

There is a perception that using technology gives cricket umpires far less power and authority. To be constantly undermined by players, pundits and coaches challenging and criticising a decision must have a detrimental effect.

In a contrasting view, Dudleston said: "I would've loved technology when I was umpiring; it would be silly not wanting to be proved wrong.

"People always ask me in the pub: 'there must be huge pressure on you when TVs are on.' I give a genuine answer and say: 'no. I wish there were TV cameras at every game I did,' that's because I back myself to be proved right by all the replays.

"If technology is there, it would be crazy if the millions of people watching on TV know the answer and the only people who don't are the two people who have to make the decision."

At the time Dudleston was umpiring, members of the ECB committee never thought that technology would be used regularly for most decisions. But as said before, just using slow motion cameras for run outs escalated to software like hotspot, hawk eye, dart fish and wagon wheels (not the chocolate kind). The growth of technology in cricket has very much been exponential.

"I said to the ECB we must be very careful of opening Pandora's Box; in ten years' time we'll be using technology for LBWs," explained the Yorkshireman. "They all fell about laughing. I reminded them 10 years later of that day."

Despite umpiring only two international test matches (England vs. West Indies at Birmingham in 1991 and England vs. Pakistan at Lord's in 1992) and four One Day Internationals, Dudleston still has stories from around the world to tell that reinforce his opinion on why cricket needs mechanical analysis.

"There was a young South African umpire," he began, "who gave the Australian left-hander, Ed Cowan, not out caught behind. The decision was reviewed by the fielding side and the third umpire gave him out based on a noise from the stump microphone, not snicko. The batsman was adamant he didn't hit it and was utterly livid.

"The off-field umpire heard a click as the ball passed the bat and had to bear in mind the batsman was playing away from his body and there was clear daylight between himself and his bat. Based on that, his decision was very understandable.

"Two days later I had a call from a few techies I know explaining they were trailing a 350 frame per second camera which is over 200 frames faster than the cameras used for the review.

"Coincidently, they happened to be filming the ball that dismissed Cowan on review. I took one look and I saw quite clearly he'd missed it by two inches due to the extra frames. I didn't need to see any other piece of equipment like hot spot because it was so obvious.

"But now I thought, where did the noise come from? The third umpire said that everything was in sync; it couldn't have been anything else but an edge from Cowan's bat. But knowing that there wasn't, as Cowan was playing off the back foot I saw his heels connect with each other and that was directly in sync with the noise picked up on the stump microphone. In the end, the third umpire had to admit he was wrong.

"Seeing this new camera and witnessing this new development, I know that cricket will only get better for it and that technology is here to stay."

DRS has not completely stolen the headlines of international cricket recently, psychological illness has been plummeted back into the limelight. Depression's latest casualty was of course Jonathon Trott who had to withdraw from England's current ashes tour due to mental illness.

His case doesn't stand alone; Marcus Trescothick had to pull out of England's 2006/07 tour down under with the same diagnosis. With depression being an enigma during that time, the public were far less sympathetic towards the Somerset batsman compared with the glowing support Michael Yardy (who left England's World Cup squad in March, 2011 with the same condition) and now Trott have received. It is seen as a sporting injury or serious illness in the modern day era, whereas before you could be portrayed quite simply as a wimp.

Trescothick - known as 'Tres' amongst his peers - is notably open about his troubles with his mind.He talks of the, "shiver," he feels before he breaks down and, "the beast that lives inside me," likening his depression to Marvel's very own green monster, Hulk.

Even iconic Englishmen such as Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison who took 700 test match wickets together confessed to psychological illnesses.

The question that medical experts still don't know the answer too is where does something like this come from and why does it happen?

The ideology that one can be unhappy whilst playing cricket for England does sound like "poppycock," as Geoffrey Boycott would concur, but what people are now taking into consideration is the enormous air miles and lengthy spells away from home the modern day cricketer has to partake in.

For instance, the last competitive match of this current ashes tour is a Twenty20 at Sydney on 2nd February, 2014. Considering England arrived on Australian shores late last month (25th October to be precise), that's at least three months being 10000 miles away from home. Admittedly some players are purely test match specialists, so they'll get to go home a month before.

But every individual is different after all; the velocity of the stress that long distance travelling can cause and eruptions of homesickness evident in Trescothick's case could be linked with a person's upbringing.

Adam Rouse - 21 year old Hampshire CC wicketkeeper - grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe and travelled to England when he was just ten years old. This included a two month pit stop on the way in South Africa where some of his family lived.

Now a settled professional cricketer at Hampshire CC, Rouse's early experiences as a child clearly had a lasting effect. He spent six months in Australia from September 2011 to March 2012, missing Christmas with his family, to work on his game. He also went to the Global Cricket School in Pune, India in February this year as well as stopping in South Africa along the way (again).

This is just the same, if not more, amount of air miles Trott, Trescothick and Yardy have to do in the same time span, yet this clearly doesn't faze him.

Rouse said: "Once I'm away, I'm away; I'm not one to feel homesick. I went to boarding school when I was young so I'm used to being away from the family for long periods of time.

"Naturally in cricket you're away three to four days a week anyway so I guess you get used to it. I enjoy it; new places, new people - you're learning every day. And you don't have to do your washing when your Mum tells you to!"

It's evident with the wicketkeeper's youthful smile and jokey nature when he replies to questioning about travelling around that there is a huge chance he will not suffer from depression like some of his cricketing colleagues. Tres, the born and bred Bristolian, could not have had a more contrasting upbringing to Rouse so here might lie a stimulus.

Maybe the biggest anomaly of all is cricket itself. A less keen sports person understands football, whereby you kick a ball into a net. The same person would probably say, "I just don't get cricket." Psychology and technology are vaguely scratching the surface of this hideously complicated game.

But we'll save that for another day.
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