Is a catch still a catch if grass grazes the ball?

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Cricket has plenty of grey areas that can’t be addressed by technology or clarified by the laws

By Scott Oliver

In sport, grey areas are “good for the game”, or so popular wisdom will tell you. They generate controversy, “talking points”, the froth and heat of column inches.

Football, the world’s most popular sport, is riddled with grey areas. Is the offside player active or passive? Is that handball or ball-to-hand? As for trying to ascertain whether a defender first made contact with ball or man, good luck with that. Even among a punditariat paid to deliver verdicts, and afforded multiple TV replays from innumerable angles and at all speeds to reach them, there is rarely consensus as to the “facts” of what happened. “I’ve seen ’em given.”

Rugby, with its rucks and mauls, isn’t so much a grey area as a black hole, although what it lacks in clarity is mitigated by players’ acceptance of refereeing decisions.

Perhaps it’s all a test of moral forbearance, ultimately edifying. Yet something implacable in us seeks justice and certainty, and so, in cricket, technology has been embraced to supplement fallible human perception and help clear up grey areas and blind spots.

Many of cricket’s grey areas tend to be matters of ethics – walking and Mankading, for instance – rather than of adjudication, particularly where technology definitively clarifies incidents previously tossed on the pile marked “benefit of the doubt to the batsman”. But there are also cricketing grey areas that, as well as being matters of ethics, not only elude the capabilities of technology but also the current definitions of the rules.

Imagine you’re an ant (as a thought experiment, rather than for a John Buchanan-esque team-building exercise). You’re out foraging in the vast forest of Feroz Shah Kotla, and one day decide to clamber the huge swaying green skyscraper plants, whereupon you see the giant, white-clad monsters that ant mythology had told you about. Are you, from this new vantage point, on the ground or not? And how about from the cricketers’ vantage point?

Will umpires eventually wear holographic glasses projecting a batsman’s “original stance” so they can better judge leg-side wides, or whether full tosses are over waist height.

Reductio ad absurdum, perhaps, yet quite often commentators watching the replay of a low catch will observe that grass can be seen through the fielder’s fingers (commonplace enough on shagpile carpet club outfields). Assuming the technology catches up to the point where all this can be unequivocally verified – perhaps through 3D modelling – if the ball flicks a blade of grass on the way through to the fingers, is it out? Can the ball hit grass without hitting ground? Is the ground a fractal surface?

Legit or not? © AFP
Legit or not? © AFP

Whether catches have carried has long been an ethical hotspot for cricket. There have been innumerable flashpoints. Just this summer at The Oval, Alex Hales entered the referee’s room uninvited and mightily aggrieved at being given out caught at midwicket. In 2008, midway through a particularly fractious Border-Gavaskar series, the tentative agreement to accept the fielder’s word on contentious catches was shelved by the captains, Anil Kumble and Ricky Ponting.

Of course, claiming catches that you know have bounced is, obviously, cheating (no ethical grey area here), but it is often extremely difficult to tell, both for the existing technology and for the catcher herself, whose head, due to the hardwired survival instinct, frequently lifts away from the ball, the eyes not watching it all the way into the hands. Mike Brearley once denied debutant offspinner Geoff Cope a Test hat-trick, catching Iqbal Qasim low at slip before, feeling unsure despite the umpire’s finger being raised and two fielders verifying it had been taken cleanly, recalling the batsman “in the best interests of the series”.

Meanwhile, the nature of images hitherto captured by TV cameras – particularly at low angles, with impinging shadow, foreshortening in magnification and general blurriness – has done little to remove uncertainty. Batsmen have often exploited this (and the benefit-of-the-doubt convention) by standing their ground and waiting for inconclusive replays. This is where the “soft signal” has been such a success, one of the few ways that statutory support for the on-field decision makes sense (because of the flaws with the technology) and isn’t a simple sop to umpires’ waning symbolic authority.

So, after an engagement that had been full of hesitations, India agreeing to the use of DRS for the home series against England seals cricket’s marriage with technology. Not that there aren’t other aspects of the game that still elude its implicit drive for absolute certainty.

Two-dimensional images can't always clarify the ball's position or points of contact with the surface © Getty Images
Two-dimensional images can’t always clarify the ball’s position or points of contact with the surface © Getty Images

How long before lasers help judge no-balls, even stumpings, perhaps after a powerful zoom shows a millimetre of heel behind a crease line that was painted unevenly (from an ant’s perspective, if not a human’s)? Will umpires eventually wear holographic glasses projecting a batsman’s “original stance” so they can better judge leg-side wides, or whether full tosses are over waist height, as with Chris Woakes’ reprieve in Dhaka? More prosaically, we have flashing stumps and bails, so what about a flashing boundary marker?

Of course, while FIFA eventually acceded to goal-line technology, football cannot adopt blanket technology because so much of it is interpretation. For instance, Law 12 states that a direct free kick is awarded if a player commits the offences of kicking, tripping or striking an opponent (or attempting to do so), or jumping, charging, pushing or tackling them “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless, or using excessive force”. Considered by the referee

Cricket is non-contact, and thus doesn’t have to interpretatively parse such conflagrations. It is primarily concerned with ballistics, with the black-and-white of line calls, or tracking lines. Yet areas of interpretation that cannot be definitively ascertained by technology remain. Take Bangladesh’s final wicket in the Chittagong thriller, as a vicious reverse-swinger crashed into Shafiul Islam’s pad several inches outside the line, whereupon Kumar Dharmasena adjudged him not to have played a shot and gave him out lbw.

Now, as anyone who has faced someone swinging the ball both ways at decent pace will confirm, it’s perfectly possible that you start out leaving the ball and at some precise point over the course of the next 0.45 seconds – the “Oh shit moment” – change your mind and decide to play.

Imagine a hypothetical techno-utopia in which you could observe this thought process on a real-time MRI scan. Those firing neurons might say: “Right, I’ve now decided I’m going to try and play this ball, but unfortunately my motor system was tardily alerted and the bat will thus arrive on the scene late – unfashionably late, just as the ball crashes into my pad – while the somewhat ostentatious rush to bring it into position can only confirm my ‘guilt’ in the umpire’s eyes…”

Playing a shit shot is not the same as playing no shot, as many batsmen missing googlies by several inches have been at pains to explain, yet the umpire is here reduced to judging intention. And while there’s no doubt whatsoever that Shafiul’s shot was incompetent, can we say, irrefutably, that he wasn’t trying to play a shot? Or, to frame it another way: at what point on a ball’s trajectory must a batsman be deemed to be attempting to play a shot: at release, upon arrival?

Reading the human brain for intent is the greyest of all grey areas, and while we’ll probably never do that “beyond all reasonable doubt”, there can be little doubt that when Dharmasena’s death-dealing finger went up, the Bangladeshis weren’t thinking, “Oh well, at least it’s a talking point…”

Scott Oliver tweets here

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