Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ashes reflections (I): uncertainty is a fact of life

So it's all over, then. England have won cricket's Ashes (above). Again. Convincingly. At a canter, really - though later in the week I'll be mulling over just how close it all was, or whether it really was the landslide that the 3-0 scoreline suggests.

But this series never really lived up to the hype. Partly because it was over as a contest really before it had begun. To some extent because England actually retained the little earn in a gloomy Manchester raincloud. And also because England played a hard-to-like, play-it-safe and attritional brand of cricket.

Another culprit was the Decision Referral System - or DRS for short - which attempts to use thermal, acoustic and TV technology to look at whether a batsman is really out. Teams have a maximum of two unsuccessful appeals to blow in each innings: the intention has always been to eliminate the 'howler', or egregious umpiring error, from the game.

But England and Australia got themselves tied in knots over it. When to refer? Australia started appallingly at this, especially when one of their batsmen got out to perhaps the worst wicket-taking ball ever bowled in an Ashes Test - though they got a bit better later. Was the system accurate? Controversy raged and raged, especially when batsmen were told to walk when everyone else's interpretation of the videotape evidence was that they should still be batting. Were batsmen putting tape on their bats to avoid Hot Spot, the thermal imaging camera, noting that they had hit the ball? Almost certainly not, because that might end up with them being dismissed in some other manner, but the allegations and the cloud of suspicion lingered.

It all added up to the impression that DRS might be better abandoned. Why keep something that was just stirring up more and more rows? It's not as if the rules of the game need any more questioning, or any more doubters laughing behind their hands at don't-know-it-all administrators.

But step back a little bit and there's a little bit of perspective to be had. I know that statistics are artefacts of organised human life, and I'm aware that they can cloud as much as they reveal. But they do tell you something when we're comparing apples with apples, and in the same setting. And the figures here are absolutely clear: using DRS has upped the accuracy of umpiring decisions during the Ashes series of 2013 from about 91 per cent to 97 per cent. It can be improved further, perhaps by adding a real-time function to the 'snickometer', which looks for the tell-tale noise that bat has touched ball on the way through. But it's learing to better decision-making, but just more bad blood. It's important to remember that.

All human life is subject to uncertainties; controversies; debates. It's part of the lifeblood of any workplace, home - or sport.

The Indian cricket authorities have said that their national team will never use the DRS system until it's 'perfect'. But it never will be. Nothing is every perfect. 97 per cent will have to do for now - and 98 per cent or 99 per cent in the future. Let's face it: that's a damn sight more perfect than almost everything else in the world.