Could we please review the Review?

by John Butler

An issue which has already commanded far too much attention this summer is the new review/referral system. So naturally I’m going to add to the clamour.

My initial judgement on the changes made to this system were along the lines of “much ado about nothing”; that it would be just another of those side issues to the summer that occupies pundits when the on field action is dull.

Sadly, it’s taken only seven days of Test cricket this summer to raise serious questions as to how this is all working. Events early on Day 4 of the Adelaide Test bordered on farcical, as an anxious and then frustrated Aussie skipper wasted his two referrals amidst general signs of player disenchantment. I’m sure it wasn’t meant to be working like this.

Let’s go back to first principles. The game of cricket has operated since its inception under the basic premise that the umpires control proceedings on the field. Captains and players have and will always disagree with various judgements, but the final authority of the umpire was unquestioned.

The impetus to amend this convention with a process of third umpire review is a response to improvements in technology. Improved cameras, super slomos, hot spots and such like now show on-field actions in detail previously unachievable. It is obviously presumed that we can no longer accept the occasional howler from an umpire now that it can be replayed and highlighted ad infinitum in high definition. Justice must be served.

This judgement is not unfounded. We need only to cast our minds back a couple of years, to the Australia vs. India Test in Sydney, to be reminded of the rancour that can be caused as a result of a few umpiring errors. The referral system is an attempt to deal with incidents of obvious error.

So how’s it going so far? My contention would be not well, and at too high an associated cost.

In practical terms, the flaw with the current arrangements is that they require the players to initiate the referrals. I can’t ever see this working very well. It is the nature of batsmen, at whatever level, to be disbelieving when they’re dismissed. Even if the middle stump is sent cart-wheeling, many batsmen still pause to consider their options before accepting their fate. How many times have you ever heard a batsman concede he was LBW? The very reason Adam Gilchrist’s “honesty is the best policy” approach was so debated was because of its singularity.

Captains are likely to be little better. Under the pressure of scrutiny that modern Test cricket attracts, it would only be human to allow wishful thinking to override objective judgement at crucial moments.

All of this serves to create the likelihood that the two available appeals will generally be spent before the crucial moment when they are most required arrives. It seems almost inevitable that this has already occurred on at least a couple of occasions.

This is not even to pursue the argument that technology has repeatedly proven to be far from conclusive in many circumstances.

The referral system is new, and it’s likely captains and players will learn from early mistakes. But even if it begins to work better at Test level, I believe it will sow seeds of deeper philosophical discontent for the game.

Most levels of cricket will never have access to the technology discussed. Yet the influence of happenings on the test field are pervasive at all levels. Over the longer term, I worry about the effect of ongoing questioning of the umpire.

Any junior coach will attest to how much influence the behaviour of Test stars has on formative minds. In my own experience, Brett Lee only had to pull the chainsaw a couple of times, and I would be spending the next month trying to persuade teenagers that it wasn’t such a good look for them.

Once the idea that the umpires should be challenged is planted in the mind, I am worried as to where it will lead us on the suburban fields. And what happens in the suburbs can likewise feed back up the food chain.

So where to now? For the coming international season, the die is probably cast. Once tour playing conditions are signed-off, they are seldom altered.

If it is considered necessary to persist with a review process into the future, I find myself in the alarming position of agreeing with Tong Grieg. Take the players out of the equation, and empower the third umpire to intervene if an obvious mistake has occurred. This is on the proviso that technology enables a review with sufficient speed so as not to interrupt the natural flow of the game.

If this isn’t possible, then I think we should go back to the way things were. Accept that technology isn’t an answer to everything, that to err is human, and that much in the world is imperfect. And that the umpires usually make fewer mistakes than those who criticise them.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. John – agree completely. Give the decisions to the umpires and that’s it. What’s more, if anyone disputes a decision they should be at least reprimanded. Perhaps the best approach is to give the umpires better training?

    What I’ve found very interesting with the referral system is that the technology often sheds no light on the decision; its very often inconclusive. All it does is take the decision off the field and put in the hands of another bloke who also has to make a decision – and usually based upon a flawed system. So what have we gained? nothing. What have we lost? the spirit of the game.

    This nonsense is also creeping into AFL – four goal umpires, another field umpire, off field technology to “assist” in close scoring decisions. It’s pathetic.

    You hear the shrill, excitable screeches from those in the media saying something must be done because one day a howler of an umpiring decision might cost a team a final or a world cup or some other holy grail – complete rubbish. Every game is full of thousands of mini contests and split decisions, all of which contribute to the final result. It’s never about one umpire’s call. We all bag umpires, we all wish they would be perfect, but they’re not and never will be, and neither will technology.

  2. Easy for you to say Dips, after Tom Hawkins hit the post and got the goal that turned the Grand Final… :-) (Just stirring.)

    John’s points about the potential impact are valid. But in terms of interrupting the game, I don’t see it as a problem if teams are limited to two incorrect referrals per innings. When you think about some of the other things that cause a delay: electronic sight-screens that stop working, or where the advertising gets stuck; ignorant, itinerant spectators getting in the way of the batsman’s line of site; the sun glare reflecting off a poorly placed/designed window. Those delays are maddening. At least the referrals involve a little bit of tension.

  3. John Butler says

    All good point Dips

    Gigs, agree absolutely about all the various delays.

    In terms of reviews, I agree the time factor is the lesser problem.

    I just think the new system has actually caused more visible dissent than before. Tellingly, once the referrals run out thins have seemed to settle down. Even Bollinger’s dummy-spit was an indirect consequence of having run out of reviews.

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