Cricket's soft signals threatening to become VAR equivalent

Suryakumar Yadav was puzzled after being adjudged out for a contentious catch.
Suryakumar Yadav was puzzled after being adjudged out for a contentious catch.
Modified 19 Mar 2021

On 18th March, 2021, a game of cricket was tantalizingly poised when Sam Curran marked his run-up to bowl the 14th over. Prior to that, Suryakumar Yadav had blazed his way to a remarkable half-century in his first innings in international cricket.

The first ball of the over saw the Indian get down on one knee and adroitly scoop the Englishman over fine leg for a majestic maximum. The second delivery, though, had a slightly different result.

Though the initial reaction was to stand up and applaud a superlative catch on the fence by Dawid Malan, that furore was quickly doused, once the third umpire started reviewing the legitimacy of the catch.

Over the course of the next few minutes, Virender Sharma – the TV umpire rummaged through several different angles. And, somehow, despite the plethora of frame-grabs, the umpire could only arrive at the wrong conclusion.

While there might exist a temptation to label the decision as an aberration – one that was caused by the negligence of the official; on further introspection, it perhaps shed light on a regulation that has convoluted the game. That it was initially brought in to reduce hassle is pretty ironic.

For those wondering, the aspect of cricket being talked about is the "soft signal" that umpires are mandated to provide the third umpire with, whenever checking a catch or an incident in a cricket match which seems contentious.

As soon as Dawid Malan claimed the catch on the fine leg fence, the umpires had a discussion and adhered to their protocol very strictly. Post the conversation, they told the third umpire that they thought the English cricketer had completed the catch cleanly. More importantly, the "soft signal" was out, meaning that only conclusive evidence would overturn the decision.

The "soft signal" provision in cricket has quite a few demerits

However, there are significant drawbacks of the current system in cricket, and even to the layman, there seem to be plenty of flaws that need to be ironed out, if this system is to be optimized fully in cricket.

The catch took place on the fine leg fence 60-70 metres away from where the umpire at the bowler’s end stood. Additionally, the incident took place 40-50 metres away from the square leg umpire, thereby making their decision to signal it ‘out’ even more perplexing.

Over the years, a theory has existed in cricket to accord the batsman the benefit of the doubt. Though that has come under scrutiny a tad, owing to technological developments, it banks on the larger principle in cricket of not being out, without being proven otherwise. Conclusively.

However, with the umpires opining that Suryakumar Yadav was out, they effectively transferred the burden onto the third umpire, who now had to find conclusive evidence to suggest that Malan hadn’t grabbed the ball cleanly. That Virender Sharma floundered only added to the mishap that dominated Thursday’s game of cricket.

Steve Smith has previously raised doubts about the "soft signal."
Steve Smith has previously raised doubts about the "soft signal."

Previously too, several cricketing stalwarts, including Steve Smith (in 2018), have questioned the tenability of the "soft signal" - something that casts another layer of haze over the existing directive.

Prima facie, it seems that the soft signal might need to have lesser weight in cricket, especially when it comes to close decisions. While it was brought into the fold to eliminate errors and make the umpires’ jobs easier, it has unfortunately had the opposite effect.

Furthermore, on a majority of occasions when low catches are being reviewed, the ball seems to touch the grass, for the umpire is looking at a two-dimensional image for something that has occurred in three dimensions.

Thus, the soft signal makes no sense, considering it piles more pressure on the third umpire to find conclusive evidence, with him/her always working against a handicap.

The MCC had also held a discussion (early in 2021) regarding prospective changes in the aforementioned rule regarding ‘soft signals’ in cricket, although nothing ‘conclusive’ has come out of it yet. Post the meeting, they released a statement.

“The committee felt that the soft-signal system worked well for catches within the 30-yard fielding circle, but that catches near the boundary often left the umpires unsighted. It was proposed that, for such catches, the on-field umpires could give an ‘unsighted’ instruction to the TV umpire, rather than the more explicit soft-signal of Out or Not out,” the report read.

Similarly, there has been outrage regarding the ‘Umpire’s Call’ parameter when judging LBWs in cricket. While the logic behind it seems sound, especially with the Ball Tracking technology not guaranteeing a 100% success rate, the provision itself smacks of indecisiveness. And, if one were to be a little blunter, it protects the on-field umpires and technology, even if it comes at the cost of common sense.

Virat Kohli looks perplexed after another dubious DRS decision
Virat Kohli looks perplexed after another dubious DRS decision

For example, the yardstick for a ball to be hitting the stumps is that more than 50% of the ball has to hit more than 50% of the stumps. Lest one forgets, the 50% of the stumps don’t include the bails – again, something that seems pretty counter-intuitive. To put things into context, the bails get dislodged even if the ball kisses the stumps when not hitting the pads.

If cricketing jargon, or the language of the playing conditions is looked into, "Umpire's Call" is a situation where the ball was hitting the wicket but the centre of the ball was not inside the Wicket Zone.

The Wicket Zone, meanwhile, is defined as a two dimensional area whose boundaries are the outside of the outer stumps, the base of the stumps and the bottom of the bails.

As far as the "impact" of LBW decisions in cricket is concerned, the law seems even more ambiguous. For a ball to be deemed to be "Umpire's Call" on the "impact" parameter, some part of it should be inside the Impact Zone, while the centre of the ball was outside the aforementioned zone.

Impact Zone, for those wondering, is defined as a three dimensional space extending between both wickets to an indefinite height and with its boundaries consisting of a line between the outside of the outer stumps at each end.

Basically, it means that in cricket, if the impact is just about in line , and the umpire has already given it out, the batsman will be sent packing. On the flip side, even if a miniscule percentage (lesser than what is required) of the ball is outside the Impact Zone and the umpire has given it not out, the batsman will survive.

Unsurprisingly, there have been countless instances where batsmen have either survived by the skin of their teeth or have perished. More incredibly, a batsman can be out or not out on the same ball, just because the on-field umpire has deemed so.

To put things under an umbrella, ‘Umpire’s Call’ and the ‘soft signal’ in cricket have only increased the subjectivity surrounding these decisions. In turn, it has started involving three different people in cricket – each with their own interpretation but with each having to somehow corroborate their theories and arrive at a collective decision.

Ideally, technology’s goal should be to make decisions as black and white as possible, for it can assess things in a manner the average human can’t. Yet, with such safeguards in place, neither do the umpires get the luxury of deciding for themselves, nor are they able to rely entirely on technology – a double whammy, in more colloquial terms.

Thus, as the dust settles on another controversial decision, the governing bodies might do well to revise the regulations in place in cricket. To that end, they might want to consider completely doing away with the soft signal in cricket, at least when catches are taken outside the 30-yard circle.

Most tellingly though, the umpire needs to be accorded the choice of not giving a soft signal, instead allowing the third umpire to look at the incident from scratch and make up his/her mind.

On congruent lines, it might be better to eliminate the Umpire’s Call from cricket and restrict it to a black and white ruling – one where the batsman is either out or not out, based on how much of the ball is hitting the stumps. If technology can’t be trusted beyond a point, a policy must be evolved to make these more pristine.

For example, if 50% of the ball hits more than 50% of the stumps, it must be ruled out and vice versa. Basically, it eradicates the grey areas and enables the third umpire to focus on his decision, without having to worry about the on-field call.

As things stand, the decision review system (soft signal and Umpire’s Call) in cricket finds itself perilously close to its close cousin – the Video Assistant Referee (VAR). So far, the latter has irked the footballing community and has been touted as a development that has killed the game.

Though there haven’t been similar stern allegations against its cricketing counterpart, there are murmurs hinting that the decision-making process is bordering on being farcical.

Suryakumar Yadav
Suryakumar Yadav's dismissal is set to dominate the back pages.

In fact, on Thursday, with a rip-roaring game of cricket finely poised, the dismissal of Suryakumar Yadav hogged the limelight, rather than the extraordinary innings that preceded it. Or, for that matter, the wonderful bowling display the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Hardik Pandya, and Shardul Thakur stitched together.

And, even though the third umpire didn’t particularly cover himself in glory, it only highlighted the fundamental flaws that currently exist in the system. Maybe, just maybe, cricket might be better served removing elements that complicate the sport further.

After all, technology is meant to reduce human effort, isn’t it?

Also Read: 'Jos Buttler the finisher' could be final piece in England's T20I jigsaw

Published 19 Mar 2021
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