The test series about to begin between South Africa and Australia looms as being significant not just because the winner will end up as the world number one ranked cricket team. The introduction of the new referral system (also here) promises to add further intrigue to an already absorbing contest.
Over the recent home series, the Australians struggled to come to terms with tactics for the batting power play that was used in the one-day internationals (well, they actually struggled to come to terms with the whole notion of constructing an innings, but that’s a whole other story). It will be interesting to see how both teams respond to this new tactical challenge.
Referral systems are gaining popularity in sport as a way of mitigating the errors that happen as a result of having human umpires in control of a game. The challenge is always to minimize glaring errors but not to sacrifice the flow of the game. The systems in place for NFL and tennis seem to work very well, where the a fixed number of incorrect challenges are allowed. This rewards wise use of the challenge.
In NFL, specialist members of the coaching staff watch every play and quickly review video footage, then advise the head coach whether or not to challenge. In tennis, being a one-on-one game, it’s very easy for a player to judge when to use their challenges.
Cricket, on the other hand, raises some interesting issues. For the fielding team, referrals are in the hands of the captain, so this would operate in the same way NFL challenges work – a bowler or catcher may suggest that the decision be referred, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the captain to consider the particulars, including the current situation within the innings, and determine whether or not to risk it.
The fun starts when it comes to referrals called by the batsmen. Unlike the other team sports, the captain is not in control of whether or not to refer. Only the batsmen themselves may decide, and signals from the dressing room are not allowed. This makes the decision far more interesting. The double whammy would surely be getting out to a poor shot, and then using poor judgement again to incorrectly challenge!
So how should a batsman decide whether or not to refer a decision? I suspect that batting challenges will be restricted to the more objective aspects of a dismissal, particularly relating to whether the ball hit the bat, in a caught at the wicket (‘keeper, slips, close fielder), or in an LBW decision. These are aspects of a decision where the batsman would feel far more confident about a challenge, and also would often be in a better position to judge than the umpire himself.
It will be interesting to gauge the involvement of the non-striker in deciding to refer, particularly for LBW decisions that hang on where the ball pitched. This is something very difficult for the batsman on strike to judge. Will the non-striker now feel obliged to keep a much closer eye on every ball bowled to his partner, so they can provide assistance in case a dismissal looks dodgy?
We may also see the captain give specific instructions regarding the referral policy to each batsman when they go in, or even during drinks breaks, based on the state of the game. A referral has the greatest ‘value’ early in a the team’s innings – once used incorrectly, it is gone for perhaps a day or more. So batsmen may be given more discretion later in the innings. Similar tactics are seen with regard to tennis challenges.
All of this is yet another burden on the team captain, in a sport where they are already the person with the single greatest responsibility for managing the game, particularly when the team is fielding. Is this too much for one person? There have been plenty of situations where the burden of cricket captaincy has had an adverse effect on a player’s indivual performance. In other sports such as Australian Rules football, soccer, rugby, and American football, the captain’s role is more about leadership than real-time tactical decision making. Perhaps it’s time cricket’s governing body started thinking about this issue.