Keeping a check on progress

So I’ve decided, and please bear in mind it’s quite probably a by-product of the agony my arm is putting me through, that I don’t like technology in sport.

Obviously such a blanket statement can’t possibly be true. I’d rather we play football with modern balls than pig ones, of course. So I’ll narrow it down. I don’t like the video review systems now used.

I accept them, and I can do nothing to change them. And, yes, the awful decisions made by referees/umpires/whoever is in charge are slowly being reduced. But is this actually a good thing? Have we ever stopped to think, while staring down the barrel of progress, about the consequences of actions like these?

Cricket is a pretty slow sport as it is. You meander along, and to the untrained eye, not much happens. You remember the big moments though; the ones where a wicket falls down, or a ball is hit for six, or whatever. Except now, they are checking whether it’s a no-ball, whether it cleared the rope on the full or bounced before hand, whether a fielder had their foot on the rope when they caught it etc. And that’s before we even get to the possibility that one of the sides might want to review it!

I watched the highlights from the 2005 Ashes recently and the umpires got an awful lot of decisions wrong. For those who aren’t aware, cricket reviews relies heavily on a not-always right decision review system known then as hawk-eye and now as ball tracking. In 2005, hawk-eye was only available, in an albeit primitive form and I’m not sure how reliable it was, to the TV broadcasters. Nowadays, pretty much anyone has access to it. Whenever an LBW decision was made in the 2005 Ashes, the out (or not-out) batsman couldn’t review it. And Channel 4 would play the hawk-eye ball tracker for a good few overs after it happened.

A lot of the time, at least according to this version of hawk-eye, the umpires were wrong. I haven’t done the maths on it, but an argument could be made to say that the series would have been very different with DRS.

Fast-forward to 2013, and James Anderson got Brad Haddin caught behind to complete a dramatic win in the first test at Trent Bridge. Except Haddin reviewed it. It was still out, England still won, but the celebrations had been naturally muted by a review that took time and allowed the initial jubilation of getting a wicket to fade. That’s actually a fairly poor example of what I’m trying to say as it was a big series and a big moment and the celebrations were still fairly huge, I’m just 100% certain they would have been bigger without the review.

It’s obviously a good thing that we get the right decisions, or at least so everyone says. Is it though? Is it really? At the end of the day, sport has put the powers of decision making in the hands of humans. If we had robot umpires and robot referees (just imagine the abuse they’d receive), I’d want every decision to be correct – there would be no reason why it couldn’t be.

To err is human.

And there’s my problem with video-led technology changing on-field decisions. To err is human, but we’re removing all erring from the game. And there are times where the technology is quite frankly abused. I remember a tennis match once when the bloke Andy Murray was playing clearly hit a ball long on match point but reviewed it simply because he had reviews remaining. Actually, more to the point, Mr Murray constantly abuses reviews. Because they are there, people feel the need to use them.

But people argue, referees aren’t always sure with what they award. No, they aren’t. But are penalty takers really sure when they choose to kick the ball to the left of the goal? Are batters really sure they want to play through the covers? Is anyone truly 100% sure 100% of the time? Again, this comes right back to the point of being human. We are designed to not trust our own decisions. It’s one of our major flaws. And it makes sport more fascinating.

Take for example a football match, the one sport where the video technology is so new it’s confusing, between Brazil and Argentina in a crunch World Cup qualifier. A partisan, noisy and possibly aggressive Brazilian crowd go up in unison as Neymar falls over in the box. The referee isn’t sure, but as David Luiz raises his arms in frustration, he awards the penalty. The crowd are jubilant, the Argentinians furious, Neymar smiles the smile of a diver.

For the entire remainder of the match, the referee is constantly wondering about that moment. Did I make the right decision? I wasn’t swayed by the crowd, was I? (I don’t buy that referees can just put those moments out of their head – to overthink is human). How fascinating is it to watch as he decides to give more yellow cards than he needs to Brazilian players? Maybe the next time Messi goes over in the box, he’ll award Argentina a penalty. Was that two-footed challenge from Thiago Silva?

With a human in charge, and a contentious decision made, the match has already taken on an extra dimension.

There is some technology I agree with in sport. The beep when a serve hits the tennis net is efficient and correct, goal-line technology is necessary (and quick) because there is no way a referee can see that, and I’d like some form of beep or watch vibration when a bowler oversteps in cricket. Notice the theme? All are quick, instant decisions which are very difficult to judge with the naked eye.

Video replays take time, they become subjective, and they ruin the natural flow of the sports. You think cricket was slow anyway? I can guarantee you it’s slower now than it ever has been (just look at over rates – by no means the whole picture, but certainly interesting).

We can’t stop video technology, but we should at least find a way to contain it.

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