In the spirit of ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’ (or the far more crass ‘trying to turn chicken sh*t into chicken salad) there is a positive to take out of the DRS farce that is engulfing the Ashes.
We can only hope that this brings to an end the policy that the ICC has of allocating neutral umpires for Test matches.
The ICC has an elite panel of 12 umpires. Sadly, as 8 of these come from either England or Australia, that leaves only 4 who can officiate in the current 10 Ashes Tests.
Leaving aside for the time being any debate over the bona fides or abilities of the 4 being allowed to stand in the current Tests, the existence of the DRS, flawed and confused as it clearly is, negates the need for neutral umpires.
As far as I can recall, the issue of neutral umpires, ostensibly to remove any claims of home town bias, has its origins in the suspicion of poor decision making and local influences in Tests in India and Pakistan in the 80s and 90s. Either through crowd intimidation or a desire to protect themselves from local effigies being burnt for giving Tendulkar and Miandad out lbw, the ICC moved to first have one neutral umpire in tests then went to two.
However, having umpires with no local affiliation didn’t stop claims of favouritism from India after the Sydney Test a few years back in which they successfully argued (or threatened) for Steve Bucknor’s removal.
This policy has meant umpires of the quality of Simon Taufel not standing in Ashes matches.
I imagine the players, who it is clear are losing confidence with the decision making and, by extension, the competency of the umpires, are frustrated by this.
The key issue here is that the existence of DRS removes any suspicion of bias or home town decision making. If a team or player feels that a decision was unfair or wrong, either for umpire error or for doubts about neutrality, they can get the decision checked and it will be (reasonably or hopefully) clear for all to see.
So, the reason neutral umpires were introduced has now been negated, and the ICC can revert to what of course seems a banal and weird concept of having the best umpires stand in the games they should.
In recent years, cricket has lost a number of top level umpires due to the demands of travel, Peter Willey and Taufel being two notable cases. As they cannot stand in matches in their own country, they spent their time travelling the world. Whilst removing the need for neutral umpires wouldn’t remove the travel component, it would restrict it. Both these umpires in particular had the respect of the players and bought a standard of decency and decision making to the game that seems currently under threat.
Having just 4 umpires available is taking its toll, with these 4 being rotated through these 10 matches either on field or in front of the TV screen.
Whilst 30 years ago umpires could manage test after test, it is increasingly becoming impossible for this to occur, and the levels of concentration required are seemingly too hard for this to occur.
(On the other hand, as no balls seem to be missed or ignored and require review on many wicket-taking deliveries and the umpires know that they can give a decision not out and have it checked, it means their workload is not being taken up with traditional umpires duties. Maybe they are being overloaded working out when to take the players off for bad light when sides want to play and the sky is blue.)
I’d argue that the decision making we have seen, both on the field and in the box, is a result of fatigue and uninterrupted pressure. (Of course, it could be a matter of pure ability and umpiring competency, but unlike some decisions recently, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).
What has been missed in the coverage of the poor decisions to give batsmen out (such as Khawaja) are the blatant dismissals given not out. At least twice, notably and farcically with Ryan Harris in this Test, lbw appeals that would have crashed half way up middle have been declined, which is even more galling than the DRS howlers.
The fact that there are only 12 umpires world-wide considered good enough to be elite is an issue in itself. This is clearly not enough for the large number of Test playing nations or the existence of 5 Test series in the Ashes. The fact that ¾ of the panel come from just two countries is another glaring problem.
But the out-dated notion that an umpire like Reiffel, recently promoted to the panel, would, if he stood in an Ashes Test, make an incorrent and biased decision that favoured Siddle over Bell, is an insult to their integrity and a danger to the credibility of the game. He can stand in a one-day game, so why the Test problem.
There are a myriad of issues that need to be sorted out with the DRS. If we are looking for an improvement that the presence of the DRS could bring, restoring the idea of the best umpires standing in a match should be one positive outcome.