x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Instant-review gadgetry drains the drama out of sport

High-tech tools were supposed to help officials regulate the play in sport. Instead, they're making officials redundant, and slowing down play.

Some days you wouldn't swap for a king's ransom, and Thursday here in London was one such occasion: England were playing Australia at Lord's, the ground was full, the sun was beating down, and all was right with the world.

Best of all, I was invited to an official sponsor's box, where I found myself discussing the vagaries of the game with a bewildered American tourist and Sir Mick Jagger.

The rock star proved to be an aficionado of cricket and a thoroughly beguiling companion, shy and gracious. And his immense knowledge of the game impressed my American friend enormously, even if she didn't have the first clue what we were talking about.

Yet all the tradition and panoply of this gripping Ashes series cannot conceal a worrying trend that threatens to disrupt the ebb and flow of the sport and reduce it to the status of an interactive game show. I speak, of course, of the curse of modern living - technology.

Who'd be a cricket umpire nowadays? You have to stand for hours on end in searing heat making split-second decisions, on which not only the result of the match but entire careers may stand or fall. Your only resources are your eyes, your ears, and unwavering concentration.

Everything is stacked against you. Bowlers make appeals they don't necessarily believe in, batsmen rarely "walk" even if they've nicked the ball, and fielders claim catches they know they didn't make. Add to that a backdrop of 30,000 chattering spectators and you get an idea of just how difficult the job is.

So when television technology was introduced a few years ago to aid officials in their deliberations, it seemed like a no-brainer.

No more howlers or wrongful pronouncements: now the most sophisticated electronic innovations were at their disposal.

"Hawkeye" could calculate whether a ball ruled leg-before-wicket would actually have hit the stumps or passed harmlessly by. The "Snickometer" could provide an aural footprint of leather on wood, and "Hotspot", a heat-sensitive high-tech imaging camera, could tell whether contact had been made between bat and ball. Even in the closest calls, justice would now be done. And thus the Decision Review System was born.

But, just as in science fiction, our faithful robotic servants are turning into monsters: where once the umpires' decisions were final, now their pronouncements are little more than a basis for negotiation.

During my day at Lord's, each and every appeal for a catch or an LBW decision, however tenuous, became the subject of frenzied mid-pitch debate among the players. Did the umpire get it right? Was it worth asking for a second opinion? Did anyone hear a nick? Might it have been a no-ball? What do you think? And you? While we're about it, let's ask Joe Bloggs from the boundary.

While this cricketing equivalent of a knitting circle argued the odds, all drama gently evaporated. With each successive referral the match became more like a slowly deflating puncture.

Most depressing of all, the poor umpire, emasculated and foolish, stood twiddling his thumbs like a schoolboy anticipating a detention, while his latest ruling was picked over by teams of boffins in some darkened studio far way from the pitch.

Fewer wrongful decisions may well result from all this, but the time-honoured patterns of play - the frenzied appeal, the finger going up, the long walk back to the pavilion or the sigh of relief when the umpire shakes his head - are all rapidly becoming things of the past.

I may be old-fashioned, but I fear the game is flirting with danger. For once sport of whatever description is reduced to what one seasoned observer described as "little more than a form of PlayStation', it's only a matter of time before it loses all drama and immediacy. And without those priceless commodities, what is left to enjoy? That, at least, is what Mick and I concluded.

Of course, all this was lost on my female companion, who smiled adoringly at her hero and asked "who's winning?" every time we drew breath.

Still, at least she didn't commit the solecism of US actress Pauline Chase (1885-1962) who, upon being taken to her first cricket match at Lord's and seeing the officials in their customary white coats, said "Excuse me, but what are the butchers for?"


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London