The Future is Now
Manan Sanghavi and Adi Raghavan
Cricket has lost its simplicity. No longer merely a battle between bat and ball, it is now strategic warfare, at the center of which is technology. Despite the chagrin of the sport's legends, the game is being dragged into the 21st century.
The most significant consequence of the advent of technology is the changes to the game's umpiring. In the old game, the umpire was the ultimate decision-maker. In recent years, human error has been acknowledged, and the first significant change to umpiring occurred- the 3rd umpire, one with camera access and a disconnect from the game's passions. This system evolved into the Umpire Decision Review System (DRS)- which has stood the test of time, now mandatory in all international cricket matches.
One aspect where the DRS's impact is apparent is in the multitude of records being broken in modern-day cricket. Now, cricketers benefit from more thorough technological procedures that can change the game's direction. Did the legends of old suffer due to the absence of technology?
For example, the absence of DRS in the 2013 Ashes series changed everything. In the 117th over, Stuart Broad edged one to second slip. However, he was given not out and went on to add another 28 runs to the total. The final margin? A 12 run England win.
Before introducing Hawk-Eye technology, which projects ball trajectory, a Test in 1999 saw Sachin Tendulkar dismissed 'shoulder-before-wicket'. The delivery bowled by McGrath didn't carry, and with no real evidence that the ball would have ended up hitting the wickets, the umpire rose his finger. Chasing 387, India was stranded without their star batsman, leading to crushing defeat.
This aspect of human subjectivity in umpiring continues to plague the game. While one of the purposes of introducing technology in cricket is to remove unintentional bias from professional umpires, the DRS system that takes in input from the on-field umpires, as well as technology, carries problems of its own.
Why is it that the DRS gives the on-field umpires, which are limited to the extents of human senses, the power to make decisions when the technology has a lesser chance of error? When the evidence is inconclusive, the final decision lies in the hands of the on-field umpire. So, suppose less than 50 percent of the ball hits the stumps. In that case, the decision cannot be overturned, and the batsman's decision to question the umpire's decision becomes futile, making the system still heavily dependent on human limitations.
As Sachin Tendulkar describes it, the hawk-eye rules are “ambitious, harsh and unfair”. The laws for LBWs before simply required that the ball must hit the wicket. If the technology is reliable, then why acknowledge the uncertainty in the first place? Hawk-Eye Innovations Ltd, the manufacturer for DRS, has estimated a margin of error of 3.6 mm. A cricket ball's size is between 224 and 229 mm, meaning that the potential error is at worst 1.6 percent. Is that worth the 50 percent uncertainty of umpire's call?
Confusingly, the technology only extends to certain types of decisions- specifically LBWs and run-outs. With short runs, the 3rd umpire cannot interfere if the on-field umpires conclude. This recently impacted the IPL, where the umpire incorrectly called a short run in a match between Punjab and Delhi. This match eventually went to a super over, where Delhi won. Consequently, Punjab missed the playoffs. One wrong decision butterflied to impact a team's entire tournament, simply because the 3rd umpire could not interfere. For the technology to be useful, the umpire must be able to interfere in egregiously wrong decisions. Weakening the potential of technology by accounting for umpire judgment invalidates the DRS's very purpose.
Moreover, modern cricket teams have the opportunity to tailor their squad and analyze conditions to gain the upper hand. Bowlers can come in with pre-planned strategies before the match to execute methodically rather than strive to get a “feel of the pitch” like the legends before them. Technology has taken the game's analysis to the next level, making it more straightforward to understand what to do but harder to master the skilful game.
However, technology widens the gap between the top and bottom-tier teams. Considering the high costs of using technology in facets like team selection, its usage is unfairly skewed towards the richer boards, such as Australia or India. The economically disadvantaged boards cannot match the facilities of their counterparts. This inaccessibility makes cricket exclusive and does not even out the playing field.
Even though DRS has been transparent in cricket, it is the consistency of these technological advances in the sport that need to be discussed before additional rule changes and intervention regulations should be decided. Like VAR in Football, we are likely to face more criticism of being on the edge of using both traditional and technologically advanced methods. However, as long as these methods can be used in tandem, and consistently, cricket will only continue to grow fairly and sustainably. Finally, the application of technology doesn't stop at officiating decisions. Successful teams in the future will be teams that use technology to analyze where it is that their strengths and weaknesses lie, giving us more innovative ways in which batsmen and bowlers continue to learn and improve their game, but also to entertain us, break barriers and evolve alongside the sport. The future is undoubtedly now.