If, in 2019, a contest, like the one we saw between Royal Challengers Bangalore and Mumbai Indians, is headlined by a missed no-ball, then cricket has a problem.

The star cast had made it a blockbuster before a ball was bowled, and the standard of cricket saw the match live up to the hype. The most exciting batsman the format has ever seen up against the most prolific bowler in IPL history; all of India’s Grade A-listers having their moments; Hardik Pandya depositing one on the roof, Yuvraj Singh rolling back the years. Everything the IPL needed to show itself off.

The icing would have been the climax this game deserved: free hit, Lasith Malinga to AB de Villiers, five off one, four to tie.

It’s a dreadful shame, therefore, that all of that must be spoken of with an asterisk because S Ravi, an ICC elite panel umpire, made the simplest of mistakes at the worst possible time.

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The simplicity of that decision is such that even the laws of the game, as they stand, don’t believe it requires revisiting under the existing DRS protocol. It’s almost as if the lawmakers feel a no-ball or a wide call is so simple that umpires will almost always get it right, and even if they don’t, such an error is still acceptable, because in their mind, it isn’t as substantial to the outcome of a game as much as the loss of a wicket.

Malinga’s no-ball, and Ravi’s error of omission, should prompt a revisit of that notion. Such errors have become commonplace to such a degree that we forget at times how much they might matter. But they matter. Especially in this format, and more so since the advent of the free hit and its subsequent application to follow every no-ball.

There was an error in the penultimate over yesterday: umpire CK Nandan called one wide off Jasprit Bumrah, leaving Mumbai stunned. In the first innings, Kieron Pollard got one from Yuzvendra Chahal that deflected off his pads and into Parthiv Patel’s gloves on what should have been the last ball of the 16th over. S. Ravi incorrectly called that one wide, and the subsequent ‘extra’ ball cost Pollard his wicket.

In the 2018 season, Sunrisers Hyderabad fans may well remember a chest-high full toss by Shardul Thakur to Kane Williamson that umpire Vineet Kulkarni failed to spot in the 17th over of a tense chase against Chennai Super Kings in Hyderabad. Sunrisers would go on to lose by four runs.

The list can go on, and its true length remains unknown given how many foot no-balls are missed off non-wicket-taking deliveries by both the standing umpires as well as replay cameras. The impact is only amplified in a competition with stakes as high as the IPL. Imagine if Royal Challengers miss out on the play-offs this year by a point or two.

The time has come for cricket to acknowledge that there are more decisions that require the scrutiny of reviews than just those involving wickets.

The criticism of Ravi’s error included a tweet from Kevin Pietersen, a former RCB captain: ‘In the world of technology that we live in, a NO BALL like that should NOT happen! End Of Story!’

His point sounds simple enough: Use technology to remove the no-ball. But cricket’s decision-making protocol doesn’t allow for that as things stand. (And if it were to change, what might that look like? Would the third umpire be looking at every ball then to spot the no-ball, as Deep Dasgupta seems to suggest on ESPNcricinfo MatchDay?)

There remains no provision by which the third umpire can lead the decision-making process in cricket; he can get involved only once his on-field colleagues refer him a matter. Any alteration to that process would throw the existing DRS protocols into chaos. After all, the entire system for reviews is predicated on the on-field umpire’s decision.

Overturns occur only if there is clear and conclusive evidence that the man in the middle got it wrong, whether for player reviews or clean catches led by the on-field umpire’s soft signal.

So there is no way at the moment to rectify the error that showed up in a simple side-on replay – one that Ravi didn’t spot in real-time – and directly affected the outcome of the game.

By definition, this was a howler, the very thing that DRS was brought in to eradicate. But because it came in the form of a non-wicket-taking-delivery-front-foot-no-ball, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

The game must help itself here.

Dean Jones believes it’s time for another umpire on the ground to call no-balls. What if that extra umpire somehow misses a big no-ball call as well? More eyes on the field aren’t necessarily the solution, as UEFA’s attempt at Additional Assistant Referees have shown.

But perhaps it is from football that cricket can borrow a lesson that may well suit it.

The VAR (Video Assistant Referee) system may have had its own share of high-profile controversy in the short time that FIFA has employed it at the highest level, but the premise of that system is one that cricket could look to emulate: Keep the entire decision-making process in the hands of the officials.

Mumbai Indians celebrate a thrilling win BCCI

As things stand, cricket is still gambling on how, and how often, technology will come to its aid. Limiting the concept of reviews to only incidents involving wickets, and then the number of DRS reviews to one per side, opens the door for a greater number of human errors to affect the outcome of a contest.

Ian Chappell was one of the first in cricket to make this argument. And he stands by it till date. “DRS was brought in to rid the game of howlers, not to be used as a tactical tool. And the best way to ensure that was to have the umpires in sole charge of the system.” Much like VAR.

Now leaving it with the officials entirely may not always leave everyone satisfied. Croatia and Paris Saint-Germain have become the two most high-profile victims of controversially induced VAR penalties in the past 12 months.

But objective eyes would look at all those decisions, at best, as the fifty-fifty ones. Which any sport, ideally, should manage to live with.

And as Chappell adds, “If you keep the system solely with the officials, you’d expect only howlers to be overturned – the way DRS should work – and the fifty-fifty decisions wouldn’t attract any scrutiny.”

The nitty-gritty would have to be worked out if cricket must look at a VAR-style overhaul for itself. Keeping good time is already a challenge in every format, but where multiple checks for fielding efforts on the boundary and cosmetically injected time-outs have now become customary, a few extra seconds might be worth the investment if it means that a gripping contest, like the one from last night, would get the climax it deserves.



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