Day 3 of the Fifth Ashes Test between Australia and England:
- Alastair Cook on 99 not out. Michael Beer bowls and Philip Hughes takes a low catch at short leg. Out.
- Ian Bell on 67 not out. Watson bowls and Bell nicks a catch to Haddin. The umpire raises his finger. Out.
Except both men called for a TV review and both were successful. Cook went on to make 189 and Bell 115.
Without those 138 runs, England would be on 350, only 70 ahead of Australia’s first innings score, instead of being more than 200 runs ahead. Those reviews mean this series is over: England will win the Ashes.
Is This A Good Thing?
Not England winning the Ashes, of course that’s a good thing – but is the use of technology in sport always a good thing?
Technology in sport is a controversial subject. India are currently refusing to play with a referral system in their series against South Africa. But that kind of stand is the exception: the use of technology is widespread at the highest level in cricket, rugby and tennis. It is currently being tested for use in football.
But who’s driving the change? Do we really need technology? Who is it for?
These are questions that get to the bottom of what sport is and what it is for. Here are my observations:
1. Technology is only used at the top level of sport
During the 2010 Ashes, at least 99.93% of people were spectators, not participants (33,000 average daily attendance at the Ashes, 22 players – not including the millions of people like me listening on the radio or watching on TV).
- Therefore the injustice of a wrong decision is only directly felt by a tiny minority of people involved in the sport. Of course fans are passionate about their team – but so are the opposing fans. We cancel each other out.
- And therefore the purpose of the sport is not to be just to the players, but to entertain the overwhelming majority of people involved in the spectacle: the spectators.
2. Technology is used to correct bad decisions by the officials
These bad decisions could be the result of incompetence, the extreme difficulty of making the decision or dishonesty (throwing the game one way or another).
- Sport has an integrity that should be protected. Dishonesty of all kinds, at all levels, should be policed.
- Therefore technology can play a part in protecting the sport from outside manipulation.
3. There is often still an element of human judgement required
Take the Bell ‘dismissal’ last night. The review pictures was inconclusive so the umpire on the field had to make a judgement call. He decided to change his decision and gave Bell not out. In fact, a technology unavailable to the umpire, the snickometer, appeared to show that Bell had nicked it and should have been given out.
- Therefore, even with technology, wrong decisions are still made.
So Why Use Technology?
Given these observations, before using technology in sport, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
1. Given the fact that most of the people involved in the sport are spectators, watching for their entertainment: does the technology add or detract from the drama of the spectacle?
2. Given the fact that the integrity of sport should be protected and that technology can be used to monitor the decision-making of officials: are the officials at risk from outside manipulation (i.e. match fixing)?
3. If wrong decisions are possible, is “justice” still a valid argument for using the technology?
The Logical Conclusions
I expect a lot of people will disagree with these, but hey! This is what logically follows from the statements predicated above.
1. If technology doesn’t add drama for fans: don’t use it
The only people to benefit from the limited justice it provides are the players and the purpose of their sport is to entertain, not to be fair to the participants.
2. Use video replays after the event to monitor sport integrity
Football has the right balance at the moment. (2019: Oh shiiiiit…*) The FA use television reviews after the game to ensure the integrity of the game by punishing players who got away with offences during the match, or by striking out unfair punishments.
This not only protects the integrity of the sport, but also means that the players (who are, after all, professionals) get fair treatment from their employers. What happens on the field, however, is entertainment. They still get paid, whatever happens.
After the event reviews can also be used to check up on the integrity and capability of officials. There’s nothing wrong in trying to make sporting officials better at their job.
3. If technology increases the drama of the spectacle: use it!
Tennis is, by nature, a very stop-start sport and the Hawk-Eye review system is arguably quite exciting for spectators. So use it, by all means.
But remember that justice has very little to do with it. The Hawk-Eye review system is 75% drama and perhaps 25% justice.
Why? Not only can the technology (occasionally) be incorrect or unhelpful, but players are also only allowed three incorrect challenges. I understand this is to stop abuse of the system, but this rule doesn’t match the idea of “justice” in the real world. If you have been correctly convicted at trial for theft three times, it doesn’t mean you should be jailed without trial for a fourth theft.
I think the jury is still out on whether the review system in cricket is a good thing or not. Cricket, like tennis, is also a stop-start game, but almost ALL of its drama is compressed into those moments when the umpire raises his finger and gives a batsman out. The review system takes that drama away as soon as the batsman calls for the big screen.
And that’s a real shame for the spectacle, even if England have profited recently!
* UPDATE, October 2019: Football has totally screwed things up with VAR. There is no aspect of its implementation that is satisfactory for the game, according to my logic.
The only fair (to players, referees and fans) use of technology in football is the use of goal-line technology, where the decision is (more or less) black-and-white and (more or less) immediate.
Every single other decision in football is your interpretation of various shades of grey: ultimately, it’s an opinion, even offside. All that VAR has done is add another layer of disagreement, while stripping the immediate drama and enjoyment from the game.
For what it’s worth, James Milner agrees with me.