Technology to the referee’s aid

There is nothing more frustrating and cringeful for a sports fan to watch than the replay of a play on which the on-field umpire made a wrong call. Whether that call was in favour of your team or against, means little when the contract of fair competition is breached. Fans are left to reconcile their rationales and emotions using few techniques. The fanatics among us choose to vent frustrations quite vocally and in an increasingly intolerant trend, even by physically destructive means. The casual follower is more forgiving and sympathetic to the plight of the umpire who is expected to make that split second call under immense pressure while the rest of the public is awarded the benefit of reviewing the play on television from many angles, at varying levels of optical and digital zoom as well as in ultra-slow motion. In other cases a heat sensing camera, a high sensitive microphone and other gadgets from the espionage trade are employed.

Chalking off such incidents to human error has been the best soothing balm that administrators of the sport have offered for the longest time. However, some sports, over the last couple of decades, have decided to leverage the technological advancement as a viable option to rectify this. Real time decisions could either be deferred or reviewed by off-field referees. This has eliminated a lot of heartburn among the sports fans. Precluding any chance of human error as well as any possibility of malicious intent has proven to be a success among the fans. Nobody likes to hear or talk about the mistakes of the umpires once the match is over. The focus should be on the competitors and the competition.

Cricket, surprisingly, has been at the forefront of such adoptions. It’s surprising because cricket with it’s upper-crust lineage had always leaned towards orthodoxy. Nonetheless, it was as early as 1992 when an on field umpire deferred a run out decision to the off field umpire, who with the aid of television replays signalled an abrupt end to another innings of promise by Sachin Tendulkar on a sunny afternoon in Kingsmead, Durban. Fans on both sides supported this wholeheartedly and nobody has doubted the validity or relevance of this system ever since.

Tennis is the freshest sport to have inducted the review system with the help of Hawkeye. The Hawkeye technology uses a computer program to processes frames of high speed video captures to trace the trajectory of a moving ball. The ATP and WTA bodies (administrators of tennis) showed little hesitation in altering rules so that players could challenge any call made by the line-judge or the umpire. Empowering players with the ability to challenge a line call has successfully brought about a sense of fair play to the game. Players no longer dramatize their grievances on a contentious decision and more importantly the spectators feel that they are watching a fair contest. Too often have the fans watched a player self-destruct while wallowing in their perceived injustice. With the spirit of contest all but lost in such encounters only the schadenfreudists among us would derive any joy. The quarter final encounter between Jeniffer Capriati and Serena Williams at the 2004 US Open was one such match that has been tainted by biased officiating. Something that has been eliminated for good by this new innovation.

To people who correctly comprehend the emotions of the supporter of a sport, the importance of the application of such technology should be a no-brainer. Especially when the cost of incorporating such a system is negligible in the context of the overall budget.

However, many other sports are still dragging their feet over adopting such systems. Football (FIFA) is the leader of this laggardly pack with it’s adamant refusal to incorporate any sort of review system. For a sport that is clearly the most popular in the world (at least in terms of membership) this is a modern day scandal. It is also a sad reflection of the general malaise that is omnipresent among all governing bodies of any field (be that a school, industry, government, hospital, etc.) all around the world. FIFA’s argument that adopting such a system would disturb the non-stop action that the game promises is not entirely without merit. In this age of live sports broadcasting with it’s intrusive advertising breaks that could very well be blamed for the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) syndrome, football is a rare sport that has managed to demand promise from the broadcasters that the viewers at home be awarded the same uninterrupted action as the spectators. I for one am extremely grateful to FIFA for not yielding to the pressures of profit. However, incorporating video review to adjudicate a goal in cases where the ball may have crossed the goal line and bounced back out would not take any more time than say an injury break or the delay in setting up a penalty kick or a free kick. The controversy over Frank Lampard’s goal (that was not awarded) in England’s knock off clash against Germany in the recently concluded FIFA World Cup was undeniably unjust. It was especially crucial in the outcome of the game since that goal, if awarded, would have levelled the score at 2-2 just before the half time break. In the context of the match it was too important a decision to not be reviewed. England, dispirited perhaps by being distracted by the blatant injustice, lost 4-1. Fans and analysts have been demanding since long that FIFA get it’s act together and modernize it’s officiating systems. How much longer can FIFA claim to uphold the spirit of the game when it continues to turn a deaf ear to the appeals of it’s fans?

In most sports where the field of play is stretched out and the pace of action is fast, it is unfair on the part of the administrators to exert any pressure on the umpire to get the calls right. With instant replay of the the botched call projected in millions of homes as well as to the players and referees (with the aid of jumbotrons), an instant review system will alleviate the immense burden on the referee. Umpires in cricket have realized the value of this aid and have found that the reduced pressure has increased their ability to get a higher percentage of decisions correct. The thousands of roaring spectators and the millions of fans at home is an undesired distraction for a referee as it is. The administrators could do well to create an environment for the referees to perform their duties with their focus firmly on the unfolding action and not the repercussions of their decisions. After all, the object of the sport is to watch players perform under challenging circumstances. It is not about admiring referees competing with technology. Technology should be on the referee’s side, not against.

Cricket has been experimenting with a challenge based review system over the last couple of years. Some of the most influential players and the most influential board of administrators (BCCI) has been objecting to the adoption of UDRS (Umpire Decision Review System). More on this in my next post.

12th November, 2010. Mumbai.

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