This article is from Snehal’s Column in the Hindustan Times

After the recent passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I read a profile written on her in The New Yorker in 2013 that shed light on a few slices of such an inspirational life. One case in this profile, and her position on it, caught my eye. In 1973, a Texas state court effectively declared unconstitutional every law in the country that banned early-term abortions. While Bader Ginsburg was in favour of a woman’s right to an abortion, she had concerns about the judgement. ‘Ginsburg believed only the Texas law should have been struck down, prompting legislators to then re-examine laws in other states.’ That particular case ‘‘invited no dialogue with legislators’’ the article quotes her as saying.

After Sunday’s IPL game between Delhi Capitals and Kings XI Punjab, amidst calls for the third umpire to intervene in a decision that was ‘obviously’ wrong, I thought of this position. Umpire Nitin Menon made a mistake, one that was obvious in slow motion replays but was a marginal call in real time. That call meant that KXIP’s total was docked one run. The game eventually slipped into a Super Over, which they then lost. And the social volcano erupted, lambasting Menon and demanding that the third umpire step in when a call that has been made on the field is shown to be incorrect by TV replays.

We all want the right decision to be made, but if the TV umpire for that game, Paul Reiffel, had actually radioed the on field umpires and told them that they had made a mistake, it would have been a bigger case of overstepping than a compilation of the worst no balls in history. The playing conditions simply do not allow the TV umpires to intervene except in very well defined circumstances, the recent front foot no ball being the latest. The fact that an appeal has been lodged with the match referee against the call is incredible, and smacks of recency bias at the very least. Would the match referee be busy filing paperwork had that short run been at the start of the innings? Data have shown that wickets that fall in the Powerplay have a bigger impact on the total than wickets falling in the death overs. So then should Chennai Super Kings also be lodging an appeal against umpire Chris Gaffaney in the tournament opener, for giving Murali Vijay out LBW when replays showed the ball was sliding down leg?

If you want to argue that the standard of umpires the world over needs to improve, then fair enough. The level of rigor that umpires face in cricket is a way off from what referees in some other sports face. There are no chants of ‘Ref you suck!’, as we often see in ice hockey. There are no viewer-driven websites that analyse and publish each and every call made by a referee in their career. There are no facilities like the NBA’s Replay centre, a decentralised room with 90 monitors and 20 workstations that analyse every NBA decision from multiple angles in real time. These systems provide the right decision to the fans, but also the right information to the administrators on the performance of each referee, which have led to studies about home advantage and even racial bias. 

Menon’s call alone doesn’t make him a bad umpire, just like Shreyas Iyer’s inability to read Mohammed Shami’s knuckle ball didn’t make him a bad batter. These are professionals doing their jobs, and they can make mistakes. If they make too many, they lose their jobs. Quality umpiring comes from competition. In cricket, it is up to each member board to nurture umpires, who then officiate in the IPL and the ICC Elite panel. And there is much ground to cover: an Indian umpire recently picked on the ICC Development Panel was turned away from umpiring exams by local cricket authorities multiple times, because she is a woman. 

But to say that every line call should be re-examined by the third umpire requires an extraordinary  overhaul of the existing framework, one that will make the game unwieldy in my opinion. Will the TV umpire police wides, above the head, down the leg, even off side? That’s a matter of one run as well. Will we wait until each ball is examined, and then only bowl the next? And let’s not forget that umpires sometimes get it wrong even with the benefit of a replay. All decisions are judgement calls, some with more information than the others. 

When and where the third umpire can overrule the on field umpires is something for the various Cricket Committees to decide, not the third umpire himself. Sunday’s ongoings are exactly the kind of incident that can prompt the ‘conversation with legislators’ that Bader Ginsburg described. And with the aggrieved party being coached by Anil Kumble, who also is the Chair of the ICC Cricket Committee, these matters might be taken up sooner rather than later.