The Second Law of Thermodynamics applied to Umpiring

In the last twenty years we have seen the introduction of all sorts of technology in most sports. The collection of statistics, the recording of physiological states of the players, both during a match and at training and the use of what I shall call digital technology to aid (?) umpiring are now far more sophisticated and intrusive. Cricket and Football have not been immune to this trend. There is enormous debate going on in the cricket world about the various technologies that can be applied to the various decisions that cricket umpires routinely have to make but I think it is the appropriate time to ask some more fundamental questions.

What does the flight to digital technology say about our society? What does the flight to digital technology say about our sporting culture and what does it tell us about the fan who is in favour of it? Are there some areas of research in these questions that should now attract some attention from a Department of Sport and Culture?

What can we say about a fan who is in favour of digital technology? With my tongue firmly in my check I would say that they have not considered the possibility that the referral system used in international cricket disobeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics!!! Most of you have seen what happens when a batsman has been given out, but calls for a referral. The fielding team has been celebrating; high fives everywhere. Then comes the request for a referral.

What is the second Law of Thermodynamics you ask? Very roughly entropy (or disorder) always increases. A pack of new playing cards, just taken out of their packet, are in a very ordered state. Throw them in the air and they will become disordered. When I was at University we watched a video of a clock pendulum swinging backwards and forwards. It was impossible to tell if the film was going backwards or forwards. A physicist will tell you that the laws of physics work just as well with time going backwards as they do with time going forward. An egg was dropped just in front of the clock. It smashed into pieces i.e. became more disordered. Suddenly the “arrow of time” became apparent.

I have watched some spectacular videos of the space shuttle docking on the space station. Once again, without some observable increase in entropy, you cannot tell if the shuttle is docking or leaving the space station. The “arrow of time” is not apparent.

With the referral system the batsman is sometimes let off and the fieldsmen slink back to their original ordered position. Time has moved forward but (admittedly in a very rough way) entropy has decreased and to some people THIS IS JUST NOT RIGHT.

I thought about this while sitting at the Adelaide Oval with Neville Turner (a retired Law Professor) who will be well known to many reading this article. Now I am all for technology. Being a dentist I had a scientific education where getting the correct answer was paramount. There usually was a simple correct answer. Shades of meaning or values did not exist. Your crown either fitted or (too often in my case) it did not fit. This parallels most umpiring decisions on a cricket field.

I think that referral system gets the decisions correct and technology, generally, helps to expose, and curb, poor player behavior. Neville Turner hates the referral system and thinks it is completely unnecessary if players took their responsibilities seriously.

He believes that players should walk when they are out and not appeal when they know it’s not out. I find it interesting that a Law Professor appeals to the Spirit of Cricket, our sense of fair play, our better side, rather than agitate for new laws, regulations or technology. He has a point of course but I know that Neville is a romantic rather than a physicist. To Neville being able to take the bad decisions with grace is the essential part of what we call “the Spirit of Cricket”. To people like Neville the game as a whole is more important than an umpiring decision.

This is something I have great difficulty with. As an umpire myself I fret about the mistakes I make. As a dentist I worry about the treatment I provide for my patients but the dental profession has been responsible for a complete revolution in the dental health of Australians in the last 40 years. It is the wider picture that is the important thing.

Neville wants to inspire cricketers to keep the tradition of civility on the cricket field strong while I want to have 20 cameras trained on them so they know they better behave.


  1. Kelsey Smith says

    You pose a good question Phil!

    In my opinion, if the technology is there, why not use it to lower the chance of wrong decisions?

    Perhaps it just needs to be fine-tuned so to not ruin the momentum of the game.

    But they can’t please everyone.

  2. Neil Belford says

    I think you are underestimating Neville dismissing his views as those of a romantic. I would say he understands all to well the problems of Black Letter Law – they are seriously difficult problems, in system (our legal system) that has much worse inconsistencies with something as logically straightforward as holding the ball, and with far worse ramifications when a decision is wrong. Unless you employ a team of logicians to work through the statutes and bring in a system with logical closure (good luck :) ) black letter law is an aspiration, but never realisable. What make sport sport is that it is sport. Adam Gilchrist should be cherished. Cricketers should walk. They should appeal when they think it is out and not at other times. Cricket should do everything in its power to retain these vital characteristics.

    The assistance of technology to sports umpiring is an attempt at black letter law and is useful I agree. In some circumstances it is very applicable and in others not so. Australian rules does not seem all that amenable. It is the Tax act to say Tennis which is the Road Rules. Enough technology – which is plenty more than than is in place at the moment might be able to remove the need for goal umpires altogether but at this stage I would say it is much more expensive than goal umpires, the the video replay thing is more trouble than it is worth. But what I dont understand about that system is why we have to wait for the outcome. Why cant the game just continue with the goal umpires verdict being the first score recorded, and if it can be conclusively shown to be wrong within two minutes, the score can be amended.

    I do think though, that Australian rules football seems to be played with an increasing sense of fair play with every year that passes. This may be because more than ever, the draft and such things mean the players often have many friends from their youth across many teams. This is good, notwithstanding the fact that dinosaurs in commentary booths savage players for having a laugh with each other after the game, when they have ‘gone too far’. Does my head in really, but if you want an example of the extent of this insidious creeping sportsmanship, the Collingwood players, supposedly the centrepiece of a walled tribal realm, stopped dead when Wellingham ironed out Simpson. A vicious wrong had been committed and none of them really wanted any part of it.

  3. Depends at what level.

    An amateur ump who has not received high level training and does not recieve high remuneration can make mistakes and there will be little right of reply if there aren’t many options for replacement. Doesn’t make it acceptable though.

    A high level, highly paid umpire will have KPI’s and they would surely include accuracy of decision making. There should be no excuses at the top end of the scale.

  4. What’s a “KPI’?

  5. Management speak.

    Key Performance Indicator.

  6. My wife and I were at the Richmond/Melbourne game last weekend when an awkwardly bouncing ball appeared to evade a couple of attempts to touch it and go through for a goal. The goal umpire looked like he was about to signal the goal but didn’t get the all-clear from the field umpire. Then a boundary umpire intervened to add to the confusion.

    Sure enough the field umpire referred the decision upstairs. The scoreboard played the footage a couple of times and in our opinion no reasonable person could say that the ball was definitely touched. Yet to our amazement the goal umpire signalled a behind, presumably based on blurry TV footage and some doubt expressed by the other nearby umpires, neither of whom was in a particularly good position to adjudicate. They were certainly not in as good a position as the goal umpire.

    The decision had no real impact in a pretty one-sided game, but the technology appeared to clarify nothing. In our opinion the goal umpire should have stuck to his guns and awarded the goal.

    Video technology may be useful at the footy in deciding whether or not a ball hit the goalpost, but I reckon that’s about it. Using it to determine if a ball grazed a hand or leg twenty or thirty metres out from goal is a waste of time.

  7. Jeff Dowsing says

    That’s right Burkie, I was under the misunderstanding that the video was to determine whether the ball hit the post or which side it went past.

    A few other factors need to be considered in all this. One is that sport is now beholden to gambling agencies so is under immense pressure to get it right.

    The other is that the players themselves don’t always know whether the ball was snicked or not, or where it pitched exactly, depending on where they’re positioned. So the ‘romantic’ notion of expecting the players to ‘walk’ or only appeal when they’re certain is a tad unrealistic.

    There’s too much at stake – the question is not a matter of ‘if’ technology should be used but ‘how’?

Leave a Comment