Off the ball

The recent controversy between Michael Holding and World Cup broadcaster Sunset & Vine has highlighted an issue that the International Cricket Council (ICC) urgently needs to address. Earlier this week Mr Holding had sharply criticised the umpiring in a match between the West Indies and Australia, describing as “atrocious” decisions against two West Indian batsmen. His comments attracted a cautionary letter from the production head of Sunset & Vine to the effect that the broadcaster’s duty is “not to judge and highlight mistakes”. This is a strange objection: A commentator’s job is to bring his or her expertise to an assessment of the game for the benefit of the viewers. Umpires are very much part of the game and their decisions influence it as much as any player on the field. To withhold comment on umpiring decisions, including rank bad ones, is likely to puzzle viewers or, at the very least, raise doubts about the commentator’s knowledge.

To be fair, Mr Holding’s criticisms may have been open to censure on two counts. First, the fact that the decisions concerned West Indian batsmen may have raised questions about the unrealistic iron neutrality that former players are supposed to cultivate as commentators (and which viewers don’t expect, anyway). Second, perhaps “atrocious” was too strong an adjective. Mr Holding could as well have been asked to tone down his criticism. This, in fact, is the convention that tennis, football and rugby commentators follow. Over the past decade, in response to referee complaints about unfair criticism (because commentators see slo-mo replays to which refs don’t have immediate access), even the most salty of football commentators employ less incendiary adjectives about controversial decisions. The English Football Association also imposed the reasonable restrictions of requesting commentators to refrain from criticising referees ahead of games. 

But Mr Holding raised another pertinent point in his sharp reply to the broadcaster. He pointed out that had a football referee made such blunders in a World Cup game, he would have been asked to pack his bags. Is it, as Mr Holding asked, “the objective to protect the umpires even when they do a bad job?” This same scrutiny is true of hockey and tennis. Last year, two umpires were made to stand down after controversial decisions during the US Open — including the highly experienced Carlos Ramos, whose uncharacteristically ham-fisted umpiring at the ladies’ final sparked Serena Williams’ high-voltage blowout. It is true that technology has raised the stakes for umpires and referees of all sports and made them more vulnerable to scrutiny. But the best of them have proven that the human eye is a match for the computer algorithm. The incidents that attracted Mr Holding’s withering comments suggest either a dereliction of umpiring duty or sheer ineptitude. At the very least, umpires are expected to spot no-balls or judge the line of the ball accurately — they are closer to the action than any player, after all. It’s the run-outs that are not always easy to call, as even the great Dickie Bird acknowledged. Indeed, it is worth recalling that referrals initially were limited to run-out decisions and expanded to all decisions only later. Since teams have a limited number of referrals per innings, serial poor umpiring can impact results significantly. In that respect, cricket broadcasters have been kind to umpires, often refraining from replaying no-consequence No Balls, for instance. Mr Holding had threatened to quit if the gag were imposed but he and the broadcaster appear to have reached an understanding. That is good news. Mr Holding, one of the best fast bowlers of his time, is also one of the most acute and respected commentators. The World Cup will be richer for his criticisms.