From soft signals to bad light: Understanding cricket’s manual overrides
Are soft signals redundant? Should floodlights get more wiggle room for Tests to survive?
Propelled by the white-ball formats, cricket has moved into the fast lane. Test cricket is playing catch-up too with England trying their best to give it a makeover. But are the laws of the game not keeping up with the changing times? Two incidents during the third Test between Australia and South Africa prompt this question.
The first instance came during the opening day of the New Year’s Test in Sydney, when rain and bad light allowed just 47 overs of play in front of a 30,000-strong attendance. While nothing can be done about the rain, several former players bemoaned the lack of play even when floodlights were on. Allan Border said the rules around bad light were 'too soft'. Steve Waugh was harsher in his criticism. “Test cricket needs to realise there is a lot of competition out there and not using the lights when the players are off for bad light simply doesn’t add up,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Lots of unhappy spectators who can’t understand the rationale and reason for no play,” the post further added.
Australia opener Usman Khawaja, batting on 195, however, felt the stoppage was perfectly within the laws.
"It's always been the case with the red ball and I'm not sure if it's ever going to change," Khawaja told ABC on Thursday. "I understand it's frustrating, but this is Test cricket, it's been going on for 100 years and there's some traditions it's just too hard to change. You can't really change the red ball and its viewing. Back in the day, we got offered the light and we took it every single time, unless the game was on the line.
"So I do find it a bit bizarre when the old players come out and say we should be playing through the light, because I promise you, every time the batsman got offered the light, they went off. It is hard to see…and at some level, it becomes dangerous and we know cricket can be a very dangerous game at times so we need to be respectful of that."
While Khawaja was right in pointing out that batters walked when umpires used to offer light during Waugh’s times, now the decision rests solely with the umpires. At least that’s what ICC’s playing condition 2.7.1 states—that the umpires alone decide if it is "dangerous or unreasonable" for play to continue, but it shouldn't stop merely because the conditions are not ideal. To be fair, natural light at 4pm at Eden Gardens is not as luminous as that of Lord’s at the same time. As such, and with more powerful lights on offer these days, the umpires’ interpretation of what separates less-than-ideal from dangerous can vary from human to human. This is where the ICC perhaps needs to work more on the minimum advisable light without compromising the safety of the players.
The second problem however is not Test-specific: soft signals by umpires. And the latest controversy has prompted a full-fledged review of broadcast vision by Cricket Australia. South Africa’s Simon Harper was convinced he had safely cupped Marnus Labuschagne’s—batting on 70—edge at slip. The soft signal was out but TV umpire Richard Kettleborough ruled it hadn't gone in cleanly. To this, England Test captain Ben Stokes later called for the removal of the soft signal. In a tweet, Stokes wrote: "ICC should get rid of (sic) the soft signal and let the 3rd umpire who has all the technology to make the decision when the on field umpires send it upstairs, all the controversy is always around the soft signal given."
The soft signal doesn’t carry the same weight any longer.
"The ICC did tweak its third-umpire protocols in this area last year, where the soft signal in this particular case with a fair catch would carry less weight, only if the TV replays were inconclusive or poor, or non-existent," said former ICC umpire Simon Taufel on Channel Seven. "So Richard really had a tough job with that one, particularly because the camber of the ground slopes away. Obviously, Richard felt that the ball hit the ground before getting into the hands. It's a tough call… but I can understand why South Africa might feel a bit hard done by there."
Go back to the ICC's playing conditions for Test matches though, and it doesn’t mention that tweak. Clause 2.2.2 of Appendix D of the ICC’s World Test Championship playing conditions states: “If the third umpire advises that the replay evidence is inconclusive, the on-field decision communicated at the start of the consultation process shall stand.”
The benefit of doubt always goes to the batter. And while it’s beside the point trying to figure out how an onfield umpire judges a catch that several camera angles fail to decipher, it’s perhaps prudent to send the case as it is for a referral without adding a soft-signal rider. Virat Kohli had even suggested an “I don’t know” call for the umpire last year. But the question here though is, do you need the soft signal at all when there is technology that can prove or disprove a catch?