In this post I offer a suggestion for a practically imperceptible change to the laws of cricket that might eliminate controversies to do with adjudications by match officials. The suggestion could apply to any other sport, so even if you aren’t a cricket lover, please read on.
My suggestion doesn’t affect the way the game is played in the slightest. It simply takes a more realistic philosophical angle on umpires’ decisions.
Cricket is a bat-and-ball ‘hitting and running’ game in the same family as baseball and rounders. In these games, each player on the side that is batting can carry on playing (and potentially scoring) until they are “out” as a result of certain events happening. For example, in all of these games, if a batsman* hits the ball and the ball is caught by a member of the other team before it hits the ground, the batsman is out.
In cricket, there are several ways that a batsman can be out. Some of these need no adjudication (eg bowled), but most require the umpire to judge whether the conditions for that mode of dismissal have been met. In the case of a catch, for example, the umpire must decide whether the ball has hit the bat, and whether it was caught before touching the ground. Contact with the bat is most often the source of contention, because catches are often made after the ball has only lightly grazed the edge of the bat.
The umpire’s position is unenviable. They have to make a decision on the basis of a single, real-time, view of the events, and their decisions matter a great deal. The outcome of a whole match (and with it, possibly the course of players’ careers) can hinge on one decision. It’s not surprising that umpire’s decisions are the cause of much controversy.
For most of the history of cricket, the on-field umpire’s judgement has been the sole basis for deciding whether a batsman is out. This is still true today for nearly all games of cricket, but at the highest levels of the game, an off-field umpire operates, using slow motion video, computer ball-tracking, and audio (to hear subtle contact of the ball with the bat). The on-field umpires (of which there are two) can refer a decision to the off-field umpire, and the players have limited opportunities to appeal against the decisions of the on-field umpires. From now on we’ll call the off-field umpire the “3rd umpire”, as is commonly done.
One of the intentions behind all of this was to relieve the pressure on the on-field umpires, but it appears that the opposite has been the case. In a recent Test Match between England and Australia, one of the umpires had 8 of his decisions overturned on appeal to the 3rd umpire. This led to much criticism and must have been excruciating for him.
Here’s a suggestion for a small modification to the laws of cricket that wouldn’t change the course of any match that didn’t have a 3rd umpire, but which would put the on-field umpires back in charge and relieve much of the pressure on them. As a bonus, it would settle another thorny issue in the game – whether batsmen should “walk” or not (see later).
I’ll use the judgement “did the ball touch the bat?” as an example, but the same principle applies to any judgement of events in the game. We’ll assume that the ball was clearly caught by a fielder, so that contact with the bat is the only matter at issue.
There are three elements to an umpire’s decision: the physical events, the umpire’s perception of those events, and the decision based on that perception. We can represent these elements in a diagram:
For our specific example, the diagram looks like this:
Because our perceptual systems are imperfect, the umpire’s perception of events doesn’t necessarily correspond to the actual course of events. They may perceive that the ball has hit the bat when it hasn’t, or vice versa. This source of error is represented by linking the left-hand boxes by a dashed arrow.
On the other hand, the umpire has perfect access to their own perceptions, so the final decision (out/not out) follows inevitably from those perceptions (provided that the umpire is honest). This inevitable relationship is represented by linking the right-hand boxes by a solid line.
Now, at present, the law is specified in terms of the physical events that occurred. This means that, because the umpire’s perception is imperfect, the umpire can make an incorrect decision: one that is not in accord with those physical events.
However, in any match without a 3rd umpire (ie practically all cricket) the umpire is the sole arbiter of whether a batsman is out or not. So regardless of the actual laws, the de facto condition for whether a batsman is out is the umpire’s perceptions, not the physical events, like this:
My suggestion is simply to be honest about this state of affairs and enshrine it in the laws.
Thus, the relevant part of the law, instead of reading (as it does at present):
…if [the] … ball … touches his bat…
…if the ball appears to the umpire to touch the bat (regardless of whether it did actually touch the bat)…
This may seem like a strange way to word the law, but it’s just codifying what happens anyway in nearly all cricket. The course of all cricket matches that don’t have 3rd umpires, past, present, and future, would be entirely unchanged. We’d be playing exactly the same game. The only difference is that all umpires’ decisions would, by law, be correct, and so the pressure on them would be removed.
The other main advantage of my proposal would that it would render 3rd umpires and all their technology irrelevant, and we could get on with the game instead of waiting through endless appeals and reviews. Cricket would once again accord with the principle that a good game is one that can be played satisfactorily at all levels with the same equipment. And the status of the umpires would be restored to being arbiters of everything, rather than being in danger of being relegated to mere ball-counters and cloakroom attendants.
I have to confess that no-one I’ve spoken to thinks that this is a good idea. There seem to be two counterarguments. The first is somewhat vague – that there’s something a bit airy-fairy about casting the law in terms of events in someone’s brain rather than what actually happened to balls and bats. I might agree with this argument if my proposal actually changed the decisions that umpires make, but it doesn’t – the only things that change are the newspaper reports and the mental health of umpires.
The second counterargument is more substantial. Under my proposal, even an umpire with spectacularly deficient vision could never make an incorrect decision. Likewise, a corrupt umpire would have a field day (so to speak). Yet quite clearly, we do only want to employ umpires whose decisions are generally “accurate”, in the sense that they reflect what actually happened. My proposal is quite consistent with maintaining high umpiring standards. At the beginning of any match, we appoint umpires, and by doing so we define their decisions to be correct for that match. That doesn’t stop us later (say, at the end of the season) reviewing their decisions en masse and offering training (or unemployment) if the decisions appear to consistently misrepresent what actually happened. Again, this is roughly what actually happens at the moment. Players (usually) accept the umpire’s decision as it comes, but at the end of the game, the captains report on the standard of umpiring. All I’m doing is changing the way we regard the individual decisions.
To walk or not to walk?
My proposal eliminates another controversy in the game: what does a batsman do if they know that the ball has touched their bat and been caught, but the umpire doesn’t see the contact and gives them “not out”?
Some people say that the batsman should “walk” – that is, give themself “out” and head for the pavilion. Others say that the batsman should take every umpire’s decision as it comes, never “walking”, but also departing without dissent if they have been wrongly given “out”. It is possible to make a consistent and principled argument for either position.
With my version of the laws, all of this argument vanishes. Only one position is now valid: batsmen should never “walk”. A batsman may feel the ball brush the edge of their bat on its way to the wicket-keeper’s gloves, but if the umpire perceives that no contact occurred, it is not a mistake – the batsman is purely and simply not out under the law.
* Batsman or batter?
In recent years the term batter has come into use alongside batsman, in some cases as a conscious effort to use a gender-neutral term. It’s interesting to note that the women’s cricket community doesn’t seem to be particularly enthusiastic about batter (nor indeed batswoman) and there seems to be a long-standing preference for batsman. See, for example, this blog post, which explores the history of the matter a little. Note also that since 2017 the Laws of Cricket have been written in a gender-neutral style using he/her his/her throughout, but nevertheless retain batsman. My understanding is that this has been done in consultation with the women’s cricket community.