Lawrence Booth: Hawk-Eye affair shows cricket still distrusts innovation
May 26th, 2010 by Lawrence Booth
Cricket serves up some painful paradoxes at times, but few have felt as exquisite as last night’s Hawk-Eye lecture at Lord’s. It wasn’t that Paul Hawkins, the brains behind the technology, fouled up his talk: on the contrary, he was fluent, under-stated, persuasive. But only a few hours earlier it had emerged that the much-trumpeted Umpire Decision Review System would not be used in the England-Bangladesh series starting tomorrow at Lord’s … because no one can agree who should pay for it. Cricket, eh? Bloody hell!
The excellence of Hawkins’ presentation only confirmed the teeth-grinding stupidity of a situation in which the ICC and Sky are unable to come to an arrangement that is plainly for the good of the game. Not everyone will agree with that last clause, but if Hawkins proved anything last night, it was the fallibility of old cricketing orthodoxes. Question: when is the ball slipping down leg? Answer: less often than you think.
More about that in a moment, but it was instructive to follow the second part of the evening – a Q&A hosted by Jonathan Agnew in which Geoff Boycott and Billy Bowden were wheeled out to argue the toss, and the now marginalised Hawkins did his best to rise above the inevitable pantomime that arises when you pit one shrinking violet against another.
Broadly speaking, Boycott was pro-technology and Bowden anti. And although Boycott kept over-egging his Yorkshire pudding with that familiar combination of bombast and oneupmanship, it was he who came across as the more enlightened. “There are too many people in cricket who have closed minds,” he began, before Bowden more or less demonstrated the point for him by objecting to Hawk-Eye, Snicko, Hotspot and the rest on the grounds that it put extra pressure on the umpires.
When Boycott said it was more important to reach the right decision than cater for the umpires’ feelings, a titter went round the room, and Bowden was allowed to wriggle free by joking that he hoped Geoffrey wouldn’t be commentating while he made his decisions over the next few days. But Boycott was right: old habits die harder in cricket than in most sports – even when the evidence is staring you in the face.
I’ve argued before in this blog about the benefits of the UDRS system and the misunderstandings that allow its critics to use the cliché about it not being cricket. But one sequence during Hawkins’ lecture was especially persuasive in its attempts to dismantle cherished truths.
Hawkins showed footage of India legspinner Amit Mishra drifting one towards leg before striking South Africa’s Jacques Kallis on the pads. He then asked the audience to adjudicate, with the ball frozen at the point of impact. About 15-20% of the room said “out”. Hawkins went on to show the ball would have hit leg-stump easily, despite wicket-keeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s misleading presence outside leg-stump: irrelevant, said Hawkins, who has studied enough of these incidents to speak with authority on the matter.
He then replayed the same Mishra delivery, this time replacing Kallis with an imaginary left-hander, the result being that the ball pitched on off-stump before straightening. A small gasp: stone-dead!
The point, of course, was that seasoned cricket watchers have a gut reaction against the Kallis-Mishra moment producing an out verdict – purely because it was a leg-stump delivery, which we are brought up to regard as poor bowling. “Part of the cricketing fabric,” Hawkins called the tendency, one which Bowden confirmed repeatedly with his answers.
It is a matter of perception, and part of Hawkins’ problem is that most commentators and broadcasters – many of them old pros who subscribe to the “missing leg” theory of lbws – have the final say on his creation, and the viewers duly absorb their wisdom.
And so, asked at the end of the talk whether it had helped change anyone’s view of Hawk-Eye, only a third of the audience raised their hands. This could have been because Hawkins was preaching to the converted. Then again, it could have been because sceptics simply refused to believe the evidence placed in front of them.
The UDRS raises plenty of issues, but the question of perception seems the most fundamental to its acceptance. That, and money. Last night, cricket’s faltering relationship with innovation was laid bare. And you ended up wondering whether the game deserves it.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail