Allan Massie: Considering the controversy over DRS

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There was only one DRS review on the first day of the Lord’s Test. Yet questions about the use and possible abuse of technology won’t go away. They may well, tiresomely, dominate what ­otherwise looks like being a very good series.

Whether we like it or not, technology plays a part in sport at the highest level. It has done so for some time now, and its use is being extended. The ­umpire or referee on the field is no longer the sole judge of fact. He has a colleague sitting in front of a television screen and, in some sports, notably cricket, supported by various technological devices, to assist him, to confirm the original decisions or reverse them. This is quite reasonable, but it does mean that officials who are judged to be the best make fewer decisions themselves than their supposedly less competent colleagues do week in, week out.

When we watch club rugby on Saturday ­afternoons, we see referees decide whether or not a try has been scored. When we go to Murrayfield, we see the ­referee in similar circumstances appeal to higher authority.

It is of course television itself which has made this development unavoidable. As soon as producers, in the interest of ­offering a better experience to the viewer, started using ­repeated replays, from different angles, some of them in ­slow-motion, refereeing and umpiring ­decisions came under ever more intense scrutiny.

Though the television showed that officials were far more often right than wrong – might indeed be right 90 per cent of the time or even more than that – nevertheless it was the occasional mistake that was highlighted.

Then technology moved on. We got Hawk-Eye and Hotspot and Snikko in cricket (though the last of these is not yet ­officially approved because it takes too long for the result to be available). They have all added to the television viewers’ enjoyment and understanding of the game. Then the ICC (International Cricket Council) incorporated the first two devices into the game and introduced the DRS (Decision Review System). Some dislike the use of Hawk-Eye ­because of the predictive element in lbw appeals – that’s to say, showing the predicted course of the ball after it strikes the pad. The objection is illogical, because umpires have themselves always had to make the same prediction.

Actually, the use of Hawk-Eye had one benefit even before the DRS was introduced. It has proved to be one of the few ­innovations which favour the bowler rather than the batsman, because it has indicated that far more balls will go on to hit the wicket, and far more lbw appeals should be upheld, than was previously supposed. England’s Graeme Swann has been a chief beneficiary. Spinners of previous generations can only wish that Hawk-Eye had been available in their day.

DRS is really controversial only because it puts the onus on players to use it judiciously, since both teams are restricted to two unsuccessful reviews per innings. This can mean that an obvious umpiring howler, like Aleem Dar’s decision to give Stuart Broad not out when he nicked a catch at Trent Bridge may go uncorrected if the fielding captain has already made two unsuccessful requests.

The sensible response to this is “too bad; use your reviews intelligently”. It’s the same in tennis where players are permitted only three unsuccessful Hawk-Eye challenges to line-calls per set. Without such a restriction, there would be many more hopeful, or futile and ­time-wasting, calls for a review.

Some would like to see reviews called for only by the umpire, not the players. This is attractive on the face of it, and of course umpires already go regularly to the television official when there is a question of a run-out, stumping or no ball.

But I suspect umpires would soon refer all decisions as a matter of course, just as ­international rugby referees do when a try appears to have been scored.

It’s also the case that the use of technology doesn’t in reality end all argument, because interpretation remains a matter of human opinion. We’ve all seen tries awarded when we think they shouldn’t have been – and vice versa.

The use of technology invites other questions in flowing sports such as rugby and football. In rugby the question is, “how far back in a movement should you go to see if any ­offence has been committed which would rule out a score?”

Given the number of phases that may occur before the try line has been crossed, this could lead to absurdity.

Football has so far resisted the call for technology to be used, sensibly, I think. But it now looks certain that the use of what is called “goal-line technology” may become permissible, and this is likely to be the thin end of the wedge. How long before a television match official is regularly asked to judge ­whether a penalty offence has been ­committed, or, indeed, whether a player was offside or not when he put the ball in the net?

It’s pretty clear that the march of technology can’t be reversed, probably not even halted. But the authorities in all sports should be very cautious about sanctioning new uses and new devices. It’s driven by television, and television’s natural wish is to make the game more interesting to viewers. This could have been prevented only if severe restrictions on its use had been written into contracts.

The opportunity wasn’t taken. So questioning of decisions made by ­referees and umpires became more frequent, and more ­technology was employed to remedy a situation which the use of technology had created.