Column | 'Soft signal' debate and limitations of technology

'Soft signal' in focus
Suryakumar Yadav was unlucky to have been given out in the fourth T20I against England. Photo: AFP

Suryakumar Yadav made it to the national side for the T20 Internationals, more than decade after making his debut in first-class cricket, on the strength of consistent performances for his side Mumbai Indians in the last two editions of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Though he was in the playing eleven for the second T20I against England, he did not get a chance to bat. However, he did not show any sign of nerves when he walked in to bat during his second international match, which was the fourth of the just concluded series against England, middling the ball confidently from the word go.

He completed his half-century and was looking set for big knock when he was declared caught by Dawid Malan off Sam Curran. Suryakumar pulled a short ball from Curran uppishly and the ball was caught by Malan running in from the square leg fence. K N Ananthpadmanabhan, the field umpire, upheld the appeal by the English players but indicated that this was a 'soft signal' and sought confirmation from the third umpire. After watching the slow motion replays for nearly four minutes, Virender Choudhary, the third umpire, informed that he could not state conclusively that catch was cleanly taken This resulted in the original decision of Ananthapadmanabhan, conveyed as 'soft signal', being upheld, forcing Suryakumar to return to the pavilion.

The slow motion replays were watched, in addition to Chowdhary, by thousands of viewers on televisions, besides the commentators and the players of both sides. It appeared from the replays that the ball had touched the ground after being first held by Malan, but the evidence in this regard was not absolute. What emerged from the video clippings was Malan running in and diving forward to catch the ball, followed by a visual of the ball touching the ground before he threw it up. The impression of ball touching the ground became a talking point and commentators took it upon themselves to assail the decision of the umpires.

Michael Atherton was first off the block stating that it was not proper for the field umpires standing more than 50 feet away to communicate a decision through the 'soft signal' as there was little chance of they seeing the event at close quarters for acquiring the clarity and certainty for decision making. He added that 'soft signals' should be restricted for catches within the circle which the umpires are well positioned to see clearly. Former Indian stumper Dinesh Karthik, who has now moved to the commentary box, supported Atherton stating that when field umpires are not certain, it should be left to the third umpire to take the call. Even the usually taciturn V V S Laxman voiced his doubt as to how a batsman could be ruled out when both field and third umpires were not certain that the catch was taken cleanly.

Virat Kohli
Indian captain Virat Kohli made his displeasure known after Suryakumar Yadav was given out. File photo: Twitter/BCCI

Soon Indian captain Virat Kohli jumped into the fray questioning the the concept of 'soft signal'. He said that in those instances where doubts exists in the mind of field umpires, they should be given the option to make a “I don't know” call. He contended that this would take away the definitive content in the 'soft signal', which plays a role in influencing the final outcome. He called for “ironing out the grey areas and keeping the game simple and linear”.

No one who saw the video feed of the disputed catch would find fault with any of these observations. We have been brought up to believe that the camera tells only the truth and when the feed from this equipment is inconclusive, the benefit of doubt should lie with the batsman. This would bring one to the question as to why this basic dictum was not followed by the expert panel of International Cricket Council (ICC) who recommended that field umpire should send a 'soft signal' indicating his decision, while referring the matter to the third umpire.

To understand this, one should go a little deeper and understand the process of decision making on the cricket field, pertaining to dismissals of batsmen. Law 31 of Laws of Cricket, 2017 Code, deals with appeals and dismissals. Law 31.1 stipulates that no batsman shall be declared “out” unless appealed to by a fielder while 31.2 states that a batsman shall be dismissed if he is given out by the umpire. Thus, when an appeal is made, the umpire has to decide whether the batsman is out or not out. In international cricket, this decision can be challenged by either the batsman or the fielding side using the Decision Review System (DRS). Further, for line decisions, such as run out and stumping, where the cameras are placed in line with the batting crease, umpires are allowed to refer the matter to third umpire without taking the decision themselves.

When it comes to catches, doubts can arise only with respect to two areas - did the ball touch the bat and whether the catch was held cleanly by the fielder without the ball touching the ground (bump ball). With regard to edges, when a decision is challenged, the third umpire is assisted by devices which pick up the sound near to the bat as well. However, when it comes to whether the ball has touched the ground, there are no aids other than the video footing. The fact that catches can be taken anywhere in a cricket field which has an area of 160,000 to 190,000 square feet, makes it an almost impossible task to cover each of them with the required clarity. Further, as Harsha Bhogle pointed out, video footage can provide only two dimensional images and even properly taken catches might, at times, appear to be not taken correctly. This is the real reason why it is essential to make decisions based on the observations of field umpires as real time observations of naked eye are superior to the images captured by cameras in these instances.

Followers of the game would remember the contentious Sydney Test of 2008 where India, under Anil Kumble, lost to Ricky Ponting’s Australia in the closing overs of the final day. This was a game marred by umpiring gaffes, especially from the side of Steve Bucknor. One of the dismissals that created uproar on the last day was that of Sourav Ganguly, who was adjudged caught by Michael Clarke, in the slips, off the bowling of Brett Lee. Ganguly stayed his ground indicating that he was not convinced about the fairness of the catch but the umpire ruled him out based on the word of Clarke that he had taken it cleanly. After the match Ponting informed the media that both captains had decided that when it came to catches, they would request umpires to go by the word of the fielder who took the catch, as to whether it was taken cleanly or otherwise. The cameras in Australia were the best in the world and it were the Aussies who had introduced all the improvisations that act as aids to decision making by the third umpire. However, they knew the limitations of technology when it came to detecting clean catches and acknowledged that it was better to rely on the word of the concerned fielder. The decision of the ICC to insist on 'soft signals' from umpires with regard to doubts about bump balls should be seen in this context of appreciation about the limits of technology.

From the video feed shown, it was not clear whether the Malan had dropped the ball to the ground after catching it first or whether the two dimensional nature of the picture made it appear that the ball touched the ground after he held it. This was what prompted third umpire Choudhury to say that feeds were inconclusive, resulting in Ananthapadmanabhan’s 'soft decision' being upheld. All the officials acted correctly and properly; what was exposed was a limitation of the technology currently in use. And till technology improves to capture the movement of ball as a three dimensional image, this limitation will continue.

Ananthan makes the cut
K N Ananthapadmanabhan is the fourth Indian umpire in the current international panel.

In the good old days, cricket was hailed as a gentleman’s game where the word of the players was sacrosanct and the decisions of umpires respected by all. Umpires used to go by the word of players while deciding about catches on the boundary or whether a hit landed within or outside it. But the invasion of commercial interests and increasing use of technology brought about a sea change in the attitude of players, administrators, officials and even followers of the game with the result that old value systems, that were an inherent part of the game, have completely disappeared. Instances like the dismissal of Suryakumar serve the purpose of exposing the limitations of technology and the fallacy of relying too much on it. This would indicate that there still exists a case for replying on the word of players rather rather being completely dependent on technology.

The obvious question that could be asked is what would happen if players cheat? What could be the remedy if a player deliberately misleads the umpire by claiming a catch despite knowing full that it was a bump call? The solution will be to penalise the cheat by suspending him from international or domestic cricket, as the case may be, for a period of one year so that players understand the importance of sticking to the truth. It should be made clear that lying to the umpires while claiming a catch is no less significant than altering the condition of ball. Both the acts would tantamount to cheating for which the penalty would be severe. Once this is implemented, the tendency to get a favourable decision through dishonest means would vanish, leaving the umpires free to accept the word of the players.

It is high time the players, administrators and more importantly the commentators realised there still exists scope for true and honest interventions in the game by human beings. The Suryakumar episode provides the cricketing establishment a golden chance to make a break from the trend of relying blindly on technology. Let us hope they make the best use of this opportunity.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.