ICC World Cup: Like it or not, umpires’ call the last call in DRS

Two contentious LBW appeals in Friday’s Pakistan vs South Africa game raked up an old cricketing debate

The DRS demon: (right) Tabraiz Shamsi gets struck on the pads in the match against Pakistan before taking a DRS call; (left) Shamsi & Keshav Maharaj celebrate after the winning hit  (photos: screengrab from Disney+ Hotstar)
The DRS demon: (right) Tabraiz Shamsi gets struck on the pads in the match against Pakistan before taking a DRS call; (left) Shamsi & Keshav Maharaj celebrate after the winning hit (photos: screengrab from Disney+ Hotstar)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Does an umpires’ call still have a place in the technology-driven decision review system (DRS)?

We certainly haven't heard the last of this debate nearly 15 years after the system was first put into place, to eliminate the chances of error of judgement on the part of umpires!

And therein lies the catch. What does it mean when one has to fall back on human judgement when the use of technology is proving to be ‘inconclusive’?

It’s been the talking point — or raging point, if you will — again since the thrilling South Africa–Pakistan game on Friday, 27 October, where a couple of match-defining LBW calls were made based on the umpires’ judgement, leading to a lot of frustration across parties.

No doubt, Pakistan — the losing side on Friday — is hurting the most amongst them, as the crucial appeal against Tabraiz Shamsi eventually cost them the match by one wicket. Struggling to stay afloat in the tournament, the green shirts came agonisingly close to inflicting a defeat on the in-form South Africa team. It could have seriously resuscitated their chances...

While there has been a chorus of disharmonising voices on the credibility of that decision — including that of former Indian spinner and TV pundit Harbhajan Singh — the beleaguered Pakistan skipper, Babar Azam, refused to put the blame on the umpire.

‘’It’s part of the game," Azam said later. "This is the umpires’ call so I think it’s just part of the game. Had he given it out, it would have favoured us.’’ And that's all he would say, exemplifying graceful sportsmanship. 

Before getting down to the nitty-gritties of that call, though, it may be worthwhile to recall master batter Sachin Tendulkar’s skepticism on the DRS years ago.

It was primarily Tendulkar's resistance to the DRS which is believed to have initially held back BCCI from agreeing to be a part of the rollout.

Tendulkar had said at the time:

I am not convinced with the DRS rule at all. Once you have gone upstairs to the third umpire, then the on-field umpire’s decision should not come into the picture at all.

It doesn’t matter whether the ball is hitting 10 per cent or 15 per cent or 70 per cent, because when you get bowled, none of this matters. Even if the ball is just clipping the bail and the umpire has given not-out, that decision should be overturned when they have referred to the third umpire.
Sachin Tendulkar, on the DRS rule

It is too confusing and is unfair to bowlers also,” Tendular had said.

But what is the umpire’s call? 

Let’s try to understand the process that ball-tracking technology follows to take the crucial call on LBW decisions, before analysing its merits and demerits. 

First, some definition of terms:

Pitching Zone: This is a two-dimensional area on the pitch between both sets of stumps, with its boundaries consisting of the base of both sets of stumps and a line between the outside of the outer stumps at each end. 

Impact Zone: This is a three-dimensional space extending between both sets of stumps to an indefinite height vertically and with its boundaries consisting of the base of the stumps and the outside of the outer stumps at each end. 

Wicket Zone: This is a two-dimensional area with its boundaries consisting of the outside of the outer stumps, the base of the stumps and the top of the stumps. 

ICC definitions:  

The ICC playing conditions define the Umpires’ Call as:

Umpire’s Call is the concept within the DRS under which the on-field decision of the bowler’s-end umpire shall stand, which shall apply under the specific circumstances… where the ball-tracking technology indicates a marginal decision in respect of either the Impact Zone or the Wicket Zone. 
...some part of the ball was inside the Impact Zone, but the centre of the ball was outside the Impact Zone, with the further sub-category of Umpire’s Call (off side), where the centre of the ball was to the off side of the Impact Zone and the bowler’s-end umpire communicates to the third umpire that no genuine attempt to play the ball was made by the batter.

In layman’s terms, if there’s a doubt as to whether the ball would have actually hit the stump (when it’s marginally hitting a stick or bails), then the original call made by the on-field umpire will stay valid.

A team doesn’t lose its right to review for an umpire’s call verdict.

ICC accepts error  

An informal chat with informed sources in the ICC suggests they are convinced that the provision for DRS should stay — especially given imponderables such as the variable nature of wickets.  

Incidentally, the computer graphics for ball tracking can also be ambiguous, as happened in the case of South Africa’s Rassie van der Dussen in the same match.

In the 19th over being bowled by Pakistan spinner Usama Mir, the first replay showed that the ball was clearly missing the leg stump. However, as this was taken off, it was replaced by a new graphic that showed the ball was clipping the stump. The decision was referred to an 'umpires' call'.

Ultimately, van der Dussen was declared out based on the first replay, since on-field umpire Paul Reiffel had declared him out and the third umpire saw no reason to change the double ‘umpire’s call’ verdict on DRS.  

An ICC spokesperson clarified the matter of the two different graphics on one LBW appeal: ‘’In today’s match between South Africa and Pakistan, an incomplete graphic was erroneously displayed during the LBW review of Rassie van der Dussen. The completed graphic with the right details was ultimately displayed.’’ 

However, by then, the damage had been done!  

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