COVID-19 times gives ICC opportunity to address the 'umpiring' problem

COVID-19 times gives ICC opportunity to address the 'umpiring' problem

The wait has finally soon. With several top-flight football leagues resuming on-field action in Europe, Formula One set to hit the race tracks and tennis having an unsuccessful crack at the resumption, all eyes are fixated on the Wisden Trophy between England and West Indies that commenced on Wednesday.

England and the West Indies have braved all odds to hit the ground running, for which both their players and respective board officials deserve applause. The same must be reserved for those in Pakistan. Despite the unfortunate run-ins with the coronavirus tests on players throwing up alarming results, they will take on England to put more speed to cricket’s return to normalcy.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has ruined itineraries and schedules across sports, does not look like ending its devastating spree anytime soon. Yet, players and officials from England, the West Indies and Pakistan have carried out their jobs to near-perfection, ensuring that the sport does not get left behind in the tricky race of global sports’ resumption. 

Like industries, governments and several other sports across the globe battling the pandemic, cricket too did not see what was headed its way. Not long ago, crowds thronged to the stadiums, cheering for their favourite players who trotted from one part of the globe to another and it was business as usual. 

For cricket was entering an extremely vital season — the IPL 2020 was going to be a premium competition for players to sharpen up for the T20 World Cup — and the calendar itself was designed in a way to ensure readiness among players.

No international cricket was played since mid-March till the start of this Test on Wednesday. An eerie silence marred the March ODI between Australia and New Zealand in an empty Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) as players began adjusting to new environments. But that was the only contest played behind closed doors—the rapidly spreading virus led to the postponement of the remainder of matches and cricket was thus shut out of its own field. But the game is ready to make a comeback after a four-month-long break. The players have undoubtedly had a resting period like never before. They so have the people associated with running the game.

The ICC, meanwhile, has not been idle and amid the global mayhem. Apart from upping its presence and impact on social media to keep the fans both hooked and entertained, the global sports governing body has been nimble. And by adopting a scientific approach to resuming the game, it has shown that rules and laws can be changed to felicitate smooth running of cricket. 

Apart from its rulings on the use of saliva on cricket balls— predominantly for the red ball in Test cricket—the ICC has also displayed one of the biggest qualities of flexibility to ensure that cricket returns sooner than expected. By allowing substitutes for injured players who are required to go to hospitals for check-ups, the ICC has proven that it is ready to take all necessary steps. 

With its commendable acts in place, the ICC can perhaps now turn its attention towards areas that have been crying for attention. If addressed, these may give a new look to the cricket that is ahead of us. The ICC has twice trialled the use of third umpire, also known as the TV umpire, for monitoring the bowlers overstepping the crease. The first trial took place during a series between England and Pakistan in 2016 during an ODI series, and the second was held during the 2019 series between India and the West Indies.

That it is the need for cricket to have an umpire with a TV keeping an eye on where a bowler’s front foot is landing is an urgent requirement, something that was vindicated with IPL’s announcement that a special TV umpire will be there only to monitor such errors from bowlers. 

With the increase in the volume of cricket and the ICC not really expanding its base of Elite umpires for Test cricket, mistakes should not be surprising. In November, two seasoned umpires in Richard Kettleborough and Richard Illingworth missed as many as 21 front-foot no-balls during the second day’s play of the opening Test between Australia and Pakistan at The Gabba in Brisbane. 

Just how important it is to take some workload off the on-field umpires was seen throughout the year 2019. In the nerve-wracking first innings of the first Ashes 2019 Test at Edgbaston, there were an overall seven wrong umpiring decisions with five overturned by Decision Review System (DRS). Kumar Dharmasena’s decision to award England six penalty runs during the 2019 World Cup final was an error which the Sri Lankan later admitted. 

In November 2018, Sri Lanka bowler Lakshan Sandakan was reported to have overstepped as many as 12 times in 30 balls, but none of them was called. Evidently, the umpires were not doing enough. 

All sports need to keep inventing something new within itself, to try new ways and methods and shrug off those that keep them in the past. With technology making further inroads in cricket, it is only imperative that it is used to bring in more fairness and accuracy. Permanently, getting the third umpire to keep an eye on overstepping or maybe adding another umpire for the job will only make cricket a more fair sport in the post-COVID-19 world.

(Devarchit Varma is a sports journalist who has worked with Hindustan Times and CricketCountry. He tweets at @devarchit.)

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