Adrian the Canadian gave us his take on the use of instant replay in the NFL last Saturday. To his chagrin, the Super Bowl was tense and exciting but lacked replay controversy (we nearly had a Hochuli moment on the fumble recovered by the Patriots, due to an inadvertent whistle, but the Patriots’ 12 men on the field penalty made it irrelevant). Today, he reaches all the way to cricket to find an example of effective, uncontroversial video review:
With the Super Bowl over, the NBA and NHL slumping through their mid-seasons, March Madness a month away, and the unavailability of the rugby Six Nations on Rogers Cable in Toronto, we’re in the middle of the dullest part of the sports calendar outside of July/August, which makes this the perfect time to broaden our sports horizons and wade into the fascinating world of … cricket! The other day, an article in the Economist caught my eye. In short, a new system of instant replay is revolutionizing the world of cricket and may have some lessons for other, more familiar, sports.
The main use of the new replay technology (the Hawkeye, familiar to those of you who watch tennis), is being used to review “Leg Before Wicket” or LBW calls. In short, an LBW occurs when a batsman uses his leg, as opposed to his bat, to defend the wicket (roughly equivalent to the strike zone in baseball, only the bowler needs to hit it just once). If the umpire sees an LBW, the batter is to be called out. The problem is that this is a difficult call to make; it is hard for the umpire to know the trajectory of the ball. Because of this, spin bowlers — who, like junk ball pitchers, rely on unorthodox bounces of the ball to get the batsman out — are often the victims of uncalled LBWs. Not only are their bounces less regular, but the ball comes in at a much lower velocity, making it easier and safer for the batsman to block it. This has diminished the use of spin bowlers and has damaged the entertainment value of the game itself (if you find three day long games entertaining to begin with).
To resolve this problem, cricket has implemented an instant replay system. Team captains on the bowling team, can demand that LBWs be reviewed, while batsmen can challenge LBWs they think are incorrect. Each team is allowed two incorrect challenges per inning (in cricket, there are a maximum of two innings per team in a game). The initial results appear to be significant. Recently, the record for LBWs in a game was smashed and, surprisingly, the technology has made referees more willing to call LBWs, not less so. As The Economist suggests, this may have made the game more civil — no longer can the umpires be solely blamed for bad calls. Indeed, this lessening of responsibility may be one reason why umpires are more willing to call LBWs.
Leaving aside technical questions of the Hawkeye’s accuracy, what I find most interesting here is that this does not represent cricket’s attempt to “get it right.” If it did, they would just review every play with the Hawkeye. Instead, cricket is using replay to address issues of spectator enjoyment and watchability. There is always a concern that replay will remove some of the mystique from the game; each umpire’s somewhat individualized strike zones in baseball being a good example. Or, imagine if the NFL allowed replay review for holds, or rugby for hands in the ruck. The dark arts of the game would be neutered, likely to no one’s benefit. Instead, cricket is not using the Hawkeye to remove the subtle art of tactical cheating from the game, it is merely tempering the batsman’s ability to use his leg to block the ball. The purpose is to make a more watchable game, not necessarily to get all cheating out.
So what can we learn from this? One thing is that replay review of quasi-judgment calls doesn’t always mean that officials are being undermined. Instead, properly structured replay review may liberate officials to make better calls. For example, the NHL may benefit from allowing certain judgment type calls — high sticks leading to goals, goaltender interference, maybe some charging/boarding type offenses — to be challenged. While referees may be reticent to call goaltender interference for fear of “changing the course of the game” with an invalid call, a challenge type system creates a failsafe that allows referees to call what they see. Perhaps there’s even room for such a system in the NBA. So maybe, just maybe it’s time for some of our professional sports to take a page from, yes, cricket.