How the laws of cricket are letting technology, and the bowlers, get the upper hand

By the editor, Jan 9 2018 09:35PM

Test Matches used to be run by two on-field umpires as a sort of benevolent diarchy, with absolute powers. Deference towards these despots was part of the treasured spirit of the game. But as television replays became more sophisticated, and other technology emerged, some umpiring decisions that might once have been questionable became indisputably wrong. The result has been the addition of the third umpire, sitting off-field, consulting approved technology, to assist decision-making under the Decision Review System (DRS).

Despite resistance from traditionalists, DRS is set to stay. But there remain misgivings. This blog is going to have a brief look at the relevant Laws to consider whether these misgivings might have anything to do with the way the Laws have been drafted, and how they are applied. (The current laws governing test match cricket around the world are here:

Consider for example the following scenario. A batsman given Out “Leg Before Wicket” (LBW) who reviews the decision stays Out when the ball-tracker technology (usually “HawkEye”) shows the trajectory of the ball to be just clipping the edge of the stumps; whereas if the batsman had been given Not Out to the same ball, and the bowler had reviewed, the batsman would have remained Not Out.

To some this seems perverse. Surely only one outcome should be allowed?


The outcome of the scenario above can be justified. There is a corollary here with criminal law. There is something similar to a “burden of proof” on the prosecution – the bowler – before someone can be given Out: the bowler must usually ask the umpire for a decision. There is something similar to a “criminal standard of proof” before a defendant – the batsman – can be sent down to the pavilion. So for example Clause 31.6 of the Laws state that “If… there is still doubt remaining, the decision shall be Not out.” And although a decision by the on-field umpires is “final” (Clause 2.12), there is an appeal to a higher court in certain circumstances: to the third umpire, and his use of technology (Appendix D of the Laws).

Such a means of understanding the rules makes this scenario more understandable. There must be sufficient evidence to be sure that a batsman is Out. Neither the on-field umpire nor the technology can be relied on 100%. But if both umpire and technology conclude that a batsman is Out, then the evidence is sufficient, beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, if either the umpire or the technology (or both) conclude that a batsman is Not Out, then there is a reasonable doubt, even if it may be more probable than not that he was, in fact, Out.

To adapt a maxim well-known in the criminal law: better that 10 guilty batsmen stay on the field, than that 1 not guilty batsman is sent back to the pavilion. (Though whether bowlers would agree with this is a different matter.)

Unfortunately, this neat comparison breaks down on a detailed consideration of the Laws. There is no authoritative statement regarding the standard of proof. Clause 31.6 referred to above only concerns decisions taken following consultation between the umpires. It would be odd if other decisions should be taken on a different basis, so it may be implied that the same standard applies to all decisions. Also there seems to be an understanding, or convention, that this standard applies. But that’s only an assumption. And given the wording of other Laws regarding decisions as to when Out and Not Out decisions should be made, there remains uncertainty as to whether the criminal standard applies consistently, or whether in certain cases the civil standard of proof (more probable than not) may apply.

The authority of the higher court – when the third umpire and technology are involved – is even more unclear.

There is nothing that sets out clearly which umpire or umpires make a final decision once DRS is used. It appears to depend on what type of review, and what means of dismissal, is involved.

There are 2 types of review: 1) an Umpire Review – where the on-field umpires decide to ask the third umpire for his input before making a decision; and 2) a Player Review – where one of the players asks for a review of a decision the on-field umpires have already made.

Umpire Reviews are available for most types of dismissal except LBW. Player Reviews are available for all types of dismissal except “Timed Out”. So both types of review are available for most types of dismissal, with the exception of LBW, which is only available via Player Review. (Quite why that is, when LBW is the most technically difficult issue to determine, is yet another mystery, which I won’t go into further here.)


Regarding Umpire Reviews, the Laws state as follows (Appendix D, para 2):

In the circumstances detailed in paragraphs 2.1, 2.2, 2.3 and 2.4 below, the on-field umpire shall have the discretion to refer the decision to the third umpire or, in the case of paragraphs 2.2, and 2.4, to consult with the third umpire before making the decision.

This suggests two categories within the Umpire Review umbrella. Regarding the first category (applying to paragraphs 2.1 – 2.4), a decision is referred to the third umpire, i.e. it is the third umpire who makes that decision. Regarding the second category (applying only to paragraphs 2.2 and 2.4), the third umpire is only consulted before the on-field umpire makes the decision.

Having pored over paragraph 2.2 (“caught decisions, obstructing the field”), I’m at a loss to understand the circumstances in which second category decisions, as opposed to first category decisions, should be made. The processes seem to operate in one way only, and sub-paragraph 2.2.3 states: “the third umpire shall determine whether the batsman has been caught, whether the delivery was a Bump Ball, or if the batsman obstructed the field.” In other words, it seems that despite what is stated by para 2 above, in fact the final decision under para 2.2 is always that of the third umpire, not the on-field umpires. Paragraph 2.4 (“Batsmen Running to the Same End”) doesn’t concern a decision whether to dismiss, though it too suggests that the third umpire makes the final decision.

So on balance, it seems likely that, despite the wording of Appendix D paragraph 2, where there is an Umpire Review, it is always the third umpire who should make the final decision. But the lack of clarity could obviously give rise to uncertainty, so the position is far from satisfactory.


Regarding Player Reviews, the position appears to be different. Appendix D para 3.3 sets out the “Process of Consultation”, and paras 3.3.8 to 3.3.9 state that, following consultation:

3.3.8 The on-field umpire shall then make his/her decision based on the information provided by the third umpire, any other factual information offered by the third umpire and his/her recollection and opinion of the original incident.

3.3.9 The on-field umpire shall reverse his/her decision if the nature of the supplementary information received from the third umpire leads him/her to conclude that his/her original decision was incorrect.

These provisions appear – fairly clearly – to reserve the final decision to the on-field umpires. It would seem that the third umpire acts here in a consultative role, akin to an “expert witness” in a criminal trial. In theory, it would appear open to the on-field umpire to stick to his decision even following a clear conclusion from the third umpire, based on the technology, that the original decision was wrong.

But why should the third umpire make the final decision following an Umpire Review, and the on-field umpires make the final decision following a Player Review?

But before we can start speculating about that, unfortunately there are other features of the decision-making process under Player Reviews that suggest that the on-field umpires are not free to take the final decision in all circumstances.


There are numerous provisions of the “Review of LBW Decisions” at para 3.4 that, in effect, force the on-field umpire’s hand. For example, regarding the use of ball-tracking technology to determine where the ball pitched, para states: “…the batsman shall be Not out if the ball pitched outside leg”. The point here is that the Laws make it clear, albeit by inference, that whether the ball actually did pitch “outside leg” is determined by the technology. In this case, the batsman “shall be” Not Out. The on-field umpire – and the third umpire for that matter – appears to have no discretion at all to overrule the verdict of the technology.

Regarding two other issues – where the ball impacted the batsman, and whether the ball went on to hit the stumps - the on-field umpire’s original decision is certainly given considerable weight, since the technology reports whether the ball was predicted to be only partly within the impact Zone and whether only a part of the ball was predicted to have hit the stumps. In both cases, these are “Umpire’s Calls”, and the on-field’s umpire’s decision would stand either way, provided other conditions are met.

It is unclear, though, in what way the on-field umpire has any deliberative role in the review process on any of these 3 factors. (The third umpire clearly has no such role: he is simply a messenger, relaying what the technology tells him.) With one possible exception, it appears that the review process regarding these 3 factors is simply a matter of the technology reviewing whether the original decision should stand, irrespective of any further determination by the umpires. The one possible exception is set out in para 3.4.9, which states that “the predicted height of the ball after pitching… shall remain a judgment of the bowler’s end umpire”. Does this give scope for the on-field umpire to decide whether the ball would have hit the stumps? It’s hard to see what this would be, given the provisions that treat the technology’s predictions as conclusive. And even if there is this power, why does it only apply regarding height, and not regarding any other matter?

There are other factors that may affect LBW decisions – for example, whether there was a No Ball, or whether the ball hit the bat before hitting the batsman. The third umpire shall “judge” those matters (para 3.4.1), though perhaps we should assume the principle in paras 3.3.8 – 3.3.9 still applies: the third umpire and technology are there to assist, but ultimately the decision is for the on-field umpire.

If so, it seems odd that the ball-tracking technology is to be treated as determinative, but the other technology as merely informative.

Besides, this distinction doesn’t seem to be followed in practice. Witnessing DRS in action, it seems that the same deference is shown to technology indicating whether there has been contact between bat and ball as there is to technology indicating whether the ball was likely to hit the stumps. The difference in practice is that the latter technology sometimes appears less than definitive, and so the third umpire’s own interpretation comes into play.

And note also that it does seem to be the third umpire, rather than the on-field umpire, who makes the final decision. This appears to contradict what is stated in the Laws.

And finally, the admission of at least some technological evidence as determinative is likely to contribute to confusion as to the correct standard of proof. Consider Pitching, for example. Here, the technology is treated as infallible. There is no “Umpire’s Call”. So if the original decision was Not Out, on the basis that the umpire thought the ball probably pitched in line, but wasn’t sure, and the technology indicates that the ball just pitched in line (and all other conditions for LBW are met), this in effect confirms the umpire’s view (ie the ball probably pitched in line, but it was too close to be sure), but appears to change the decision from Not Out to Out. The justification for this may be that the technology is more reliable than the umpire on this point. But if so, why is it less reliable on other points? This muddies the conceptual waters. If the on-field umpire still has doubts whether the ball pitched in line, and given that the technology can’t be trusted 100%, isn’t that sufficient to amount to reasonable doubt? It’s unclear if there’s any scope for the on-field umpire to overrule the technology on this basis.


What really happens under DRS appears much simpler than the convolutions described above, no doubt in part as a pragmatic response to the difficulties of interpreting the Laws. The third umpire consults the technology, and when it provides evidence that the batsman was probably out or not out, the original decision is confirmed or reversed accordingly (subject to the “Umpire’s Call” provisions on LBW decisions).

When the evidence is inconclusive, there is usually a significant delay while the third umpire makes up his mind, while several technological aids are played and replayed (it never appears to be the on-field umpires making up their minds). This is despite the rule in para 3.3.6 of Appendix D stating that, on Player Review at least, inconclusive evidence should mean “that the on-field decision should stand”.


Regarding the standard of proof, it seems that in theory there needs to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt before a batsman can be given Out. But that principle is not laid down with certainty in the Laws. And the provisions on DRS appear to dilute it. In practice it seems likely that review decisions are made on the balance of probabilities.

It is difficult to pin down who is responsible for DRS decisions. But it seems that in theory there are 3 different ways that such decisions should be made, depending on the type of review, type of dismissal, and element of dismissal to be determined: 1) the final decision is made by the on-field umpire, 2) the final decision is made by the third umpire, or 3) the final decision is made by the technology. In practice it seems likely that the decision is made by the technology whenever it comes to a clear conclusion, and by the third umpire whenever the conclusion is unclear.

So the umpires are now the servants of the technology, even if the reverse might have been intended. Marginal decisions are now agonised over off-field, rather than being decided on-field, in favour of the batsmen. So it’s the machines and the bowlers who’ve ended up in the ascendant. A system that was meant only to stop blunders has ended up fundamentally altering how decisions are made.

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