May 20, 2018
Europe

The answer to cricket’s no-ball problem will appear on your screen shortly

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We've had this conversation before.

Maybe not in this column, in this exact format. But plenty of experienced minds have gone over the subject, voiced their frustration, proffered solutions.

The answer to cricket's no-ball problem is staring us in the face. The people in charge know what it is. We know the rules and enforcement are hurting bowlers and umpires. And yet nothing has happened.

Sure, it was dramatic when David Warner was out for 99, then recalled on discovering Tom Curran had overstepped the bowling crease.

Curran was elated, then deflated. As the replay of his front foot appeared on the screen, the MCG crowd went up like they do in AFL season for a decisive goal.

It was great theatre. It was also great theatre when Diego Maradona punched a ball into the net during the 1986 World Cup, but you wouldn't say you want the rules to encourage a repeat.

Cricket authorities move with the ponderous speed of a whale shark. Agility of response is only a feature in its absence. The solution to this problem has been trialled, recommended, and still not instituted.

The problem has several parts. Bowlers have been overstepping since the front-foot rule was introduced in 1963. Umpires struggle to adjudicate the marginal errors on the field. For a long time, no-one noticed when they let these errors go.

Then video replays became a bigger part of the game, as cameras proliferated.

Technology breeds safety-first approach

A regular feature of early 2000s commentary was an announcement some minutes after a dismissal, regretting to inform you that the previous appeal should not have been upheld.

So in comes the third umpire with the ability to check for no-balls after a wicket has fallen.

This makes the field umpire even less likely to call the error, because if wrong, the call has materially affected the passage of play.

This was why Australian batsman Adam Voges wasn't out when he was clean bowled in a Test against New Zealand in 2016.

Umpires signal no-ball by yelling it out and extending one arm, so in theory this could happen in time to alter a batsman's shot.

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Voges said later he hadn't noticed any kind of signal until he started walking off the field. But even though replays showed the ball was legitimate, there was no way for the umpire to retract that mistake.

Far safer, then, for the umpire to say nothing and wait. If you missed a no-ball by a centimetre on a scoreless delivery, what harm in that?

Then a wicket falls, and replays show the overstep.

The unfairness for a bowler is that you can be overstepping marginally for an hour, a day, a series, and not have realised the error has crept in.

The run-up is feeling good, the ball coming out well, your previous wickets happened to fall on legitimate deliveries.

So when the batsman's error is drawn on a foot-fault delivery, suddenly you as the bowler have to shoulder the disappointment, the embarrassment, the feeling of letting your team down.

Eliminating no-balls is no easy task

Of course it's easy to say that no-one should bowl no-balls. That's the ideal. But even the most park-level player knows it doesn't come out of your hand right if you're looking at your foot.

Pakistan's Wahab Riaz (R) reacts after he bowled David Warner off a no-ball at the MCG in 2016.

"It's difficult for a bowler, because sometimes you can run in a bit harder, and sometimes you can push the line," explained England's attack leader Jimmy Anderson after play.

"It sounds simple. We try and practice in the nets, we have someone standing there as umpire more often than not.

"It's better to call no-balls. If you get caught then you're more likely to go back.

"With adrenaline, certainly with Tom wanting to impress in his first Test match, a little bit of extra effort can take you over."

A bowler wants the run-up process to be second nature, done without conscious thought. Which is why, if you're breaching the laws, it's in everyone's interest for the umpire to fill you in.

So why on earth haven't we hurried up with the obvious solution?

Third umpire watching live the obvious solution

It doesn't need replays every ball, or delays, or big-screen drama. Simply have the third umpire watch a live feed of the side-on camera every ball.

Most deliveries will be obviously fine or obviously not. For the close ones, it should be entirely possible to bag and tag a replay before a bowler gets back to their mark.

Australia's Steve Smith (R), watches England's Chris Woakes (L) bowl at MCG on December 26, 2017.

The third umpire lets the standing umpire know via the existing earpiece, and the extra run is signalled after the passage of play is complete and the ball is dead.

Square-on line calls were the first things in cricket to be solved with technology, because they were simplest. Run outs and stumpings could be decided with a camera down the length of the popping crease.

It's bizarre that we still don't use the same intervention for this other line decision.

It may increase the number of no-balls for a little while, but once bowlers start being pinged for every infringement, the problem would mostly disappear.

It takes the distraction away from the standing umpire, who gets to concentrate purely on the other end of the pitch, rather than having to look up from bowler's foot to bowler's target.

Better decisions will be made, fewer referrals needed, and the intervention will in the end save time overall. It unscrambles the omelette of the Voges situation, and discards the inconsistent idea that a batsman needs advance notice of no-balls.

There is already a penalty run, immunity, a replacement delivery, and a subsequent free hit in the game's shorter formats. That's punishment enough.

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In any case, no-one has time to adequately change their shot mid-delivery unless they're facing Scottish off-spinner Majid Haq.

The third umpire solution is staring us in the face. Cricket authorities know this. They ran a trial in a one-day series in 2016, and formal recommendations to adopt it followed this year. Still nothing has happened.

Granted, the true level of complication for any political process isn't visible from outside. But come on. Where there is a relatively simple solution to a single problem, can't we just make a few phone calls and sign it off?

Currently, the third umpire sits up in a box for most of the day with a couple of ICC security guys guarding the door, and not a whole lot to do inside.

He watches the odd replay, has the odd chat on the radio, and probably eats about 40 of those cardboard sandwiches that kick around catering areas out of pure boredom.

Give the poor sod something to do. Give the one in the middle a bit more time to think. And give the spectators the surety of knowing when out is out, and a ball is legitimate. We don't need any more interventions from the hand of God.

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