Umpiring great Billy Bowden being reduced to calling on the services of the third umpire (Getty Images)
Umpiring great Billy Bowden being reduced to calling on the services of the third umpire (Getty Images)

SportsDecember 29, 2018

It’s time to remove all umpiring technology from sport

Umpiring great Billy Bowden being reduced to calling on the services of the third umpire (Getty Images)
Umpiring great Billy Bowden being reduced to calling on the services of the third umpire (Getty Images)

You hate the breaks in play that come with video technology in sport. But what if we got rid of it altogether? Alex Braae ponders the possibility. 

I used to play a lot of park cricket, never at a remotely high standard. Club cricket organisations wouldn’t bother giving us umpires. Players on the batting team had to do the job instead.

I bowled slow, appetising morsels that swung late and swung hard, so LBWs were one of the best weapons. But to actually start getting them, the skill to work on wasn’t bowling. It was appealing, to win over the obvious biases of the umpire. If other teams were anything like the ones I played for, every umpire sent into the middle would be given the exact same message – if you give an LBW decision against a teammate, there had better be a bloody good reason for it.

Nobody bothers to video these games, so there’s no DRS, no third umpire, and no law but the word of whoever had the job for a 10 over spell. It wasn’t enough to simply get people out – you had to make the umpire truly believe that it was out. It had to look good both in and of itself as a ball, as well as follow along from a sustained spell of being on top of the batsman. Make them look foolish once or twice, swinging through the line of a ball that has veered into nothingness. Bowl a slower ball so comically pedestrian that it catches them in two minds so that they’re forced to pat it lamely back into the pitch.

My favourite trick was to wait for a ball to hit the pads, but be obviously going down leg anyway. Hopefully, the rest of the team go up in an appeal, but as the bowler, you can turn around to the umpire and roll your eyes at the shout. Of course, that’s not hitting the stumps mate, you say, we can be honest with each other here. Make it seem like you’ll only appeal when it’s completely plumb. Because then when a halfway decent chance comes along, you’ve already started work on the narrative the umpire will have to give his teammates on the sidelines. “It just looked too good not to give.”

This is a crucial element of sport that has been lost in the quest to make sure every decision is technically correct. Video referees, reviewed line calls in tennis, the NRL Bunker, goal-line technology in football – not a single piece of technology has ever improved the spectacle and experience of watching sport. In fact, it often actively ruins it. Because what is ruined is the narrative.

England v New Zealand – QBE International (Photo: Getty)

Take for example the defining moment of English rugby in 2018. Late in the game against the All Blacks, one point down, English flanker Sam Underhill snaffled a charge-down, completely skinned Beauden Barrett, and stormed over for a career highlight try. Only, it wasn’t. The TMO was called in, and after a dry and boring round of video replays, it was found that an English player was marginally offside and the try couldn’t be allowed to stand. The oxygen rushed out of Twickenham like a deflating balloon, and England went on to lose the match.

What a perfect moment to sum up the way sport has completely lost what matters. The try was a magnificent feat of athleticism and skill, and awarding it would have been the ‘true’ correct outcome. When a flanker can run 40 metres, beat a first five with a step, and get over in the corner – that deserves to be a try, bugger whatever the rules say. England were probably the better team on the day, and they earned the right to have a match-winning moment like that. But because now everything in top-level sport has to be endlessly litigated in real time, the moment was gone.

All sports have succumbed to this. Even in football, where goal-line technology was resisted for so long, it is now used at the top level. The Video Assistant Referee system in the A-League has been farcical, with it sometimes failing to even make technically correct decisions. And all the while, nothing is ever gained.

The thing that sport needs to remember is that it is fundamentally based on judgement, rather than anything else. The rules of sport exist only to the degree that they can be interpreted, bent or broken. Umpires and referees should be operating at the simple level – what looks like the right call in the moment? There should be times where umpires can make decisions on the flow or the spirit of the game. Take, for example, a batsman repeatedly padding up to an off-spinner and refusing to try and play strokes, for fear of edging one to short leg. The umpire should be within their rights to give them out for playing so negatively if a reasonable appeal is made. Similarly, a rugby referee should be able to decide that the skill of a backline movement was just so graceful, that it doesn’t matter if one of the passes went 6 inches forward. To rely on video technology takes the most important power out of the hands of referees – being able to call it how they see it. If it looks out, it is out. If it looks like a goal, it is a goal.

Excessive use of video technology also removes the ability for crowds to influence the course of the match, by howling when they see an infringement by the away team. Some would say that would unduly weight games in the favour of home teams, without realising that it’s actually good to send hometown fans home happy at the end of the night – more of them will turn out next week. Crowds should absolutely be allowed to be participants in the grand drama of sport, just as much as everyone on the field.

“But what if the decisions are wrong?” Honestly, who cares? A whole lot of things happen in the world that are wrong, both in a technical and moral sense. Why should sport not reflect the world as it actually is? The same argument could easily apply to those who complain that it would make biased, hometown decisions more likely to occur. In so many fields – politics, media, business and so on, we rely far to heavily on technical legalistic interpretations to define whether the right outcomes have happened. But bias is part of life. Sweeping judgements on fairness are part of life. In every field, we should be giving far more heed to morality over our current obsession with correctness, and sport can show the way here.

The simplest truth of all about sports is that it is not science and never should have been considered anything of the sort. It is a cosmic drama, where humans embody and contest the wills of the sporting gods, interpreted by their messengers on earth – the umpires and referees. We mortals are fools to try and meddle in the natural course of their affairs, by our hubristic obsession with video technology.

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