Umpires, Human Physiology and the UDRS

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Derrinalphil, from and friend of World Cricket Watch, examines the physics  behind umpiring and the impact of the UDRS on the modern game.

Today’s article is going to be a look at cricket umpiring and trying to apply some human physiology and some simple physics to the decisions that the Test umpires have to make. I shall use a decision from the second test where Cook was given out caught behind when in fact the ball had hit him on the shoulder. On a referral the decision was quite rightly reversed but I am going to mount a strong case that the umpire in question was doing the correct thing in giving Cook out in this case. There is a very good reason why, in some cases, umpires with technological back up, should give all batsmen out, completely reversing the old adage “when in doubt not out.”

Let’s start with some physiology. What actually happened when the umpire saw the ball strike Cook? How does the umpire see light from Cook and the ball? A bit of physics here but don’t worry I will keep it simple so even if you could not get into University here in Melbourne and had to go to Monash, ,or somewhere worse, it should make sense. If you went on to further education and did no physic,s you should be ashamed of yourself. I forget which great physicist said of education that there is physics and the rest is stamp collecting.

Light can be understood as consisting of a series of waves emitted from say Cook and the ball. These waves are called electromagnetic radiation. The different colours of light are really the same thing except they vary in their size or wave length. The red light from the ball does not have the same wave length as the white light from Cook’s white sleeve. The light from the ball and the sleeve will not arrive at the same time but this time difference is not detectable by human beings. This is the crux of the issue that I am about to raise.

The light hits the umpire’s eye and travels through the eye until it hits a series of detectors that respond to the light hitting them by releasing a chemical. Now there are different detectors that work in different ways but for my purpose today I do not want to get bogged down in details. They are not important to my argument. The released chemical oozes about until it hits an electric cable, called a nerve cell and causes a “short” to move along the cell wall or more correctly causes a wave of depolarization to travel. Oops I promised to keep it simple. These electric signals now travel into the brain. We have now changed light from the outside world into neurological pulses but the transformation has not happened instantaneously.

Now it gets interesting. The brain does an enormous amount of processing of the information that it receives from the eye and I have a very simple experiment for you to do which will illustrate what needs to happen. Get a video recorder; hopefully your phone has one. Stand up and jump up and down a few times. Now pick up the recorder, aim it at something and turn it on but jump up and down with it in your hands. Now play back what you have recorded. The vision from the h video recorder will be jumping around all over the place but your personal vision does not(assuming you have not decided to finish that bottle of vintage port that I recommend accompany listening to podcasts) Our vision is pretty cool. The brain does some really wonderful processing BUT the brain and the visual system does have some limits that will stop umpires ever being able to give certain cricket decisions.

The crucial point of the Cook decision is a concept of “visual summation” or in simple terms what is the smallest time period, between two events, that can we see two things occurring separately rather than them blurring together. Think about movie film that consists of still images that flash up on a screen so fast that we see a continuous motion rather than a series of still images. Eighteen frames per second is the slowest they can use or one frame every 0 .05 seconds which gives us a figure we can now apply to the Cook decision. Could the umpire realistically have given this decision?

Let’s assume the ball was going at ninety kls per hour and that Cook’s gloves were five centimeters from his shoulder. The ball is travelling at 25 meters per second and will travel the five centimeters in .002 seconds. This is 25 times quicker than it is possible for our physiology to detect. I hope you also now realize that there are enormous numbers of umpiring decisions that are also impossible for a human umpire to detect the salient information; a bump ball for example. Did he hit it in the air? It occurs so quickly it is not detectable. Having studied physiology at University(not at Monash, La Trobe or somewhere un-mentionable) I have been amused by fellow umpires claiming that they could be sure of certain decisions, when to be sure, means they are not a biological life form.

To go back to the Cook decision, there was no way that the umpire can detect what the ball hit. I have no truck with umpires who say that they can tell by the sound. This is simply conformation bias. The same argument applies to the detecting of sound but don’t bother to do the jumping up and down experiment. So when I am umpiring out in the best cricket association in the world, the Mercantile Cricket Association, I give nearly all inside edges and gloved hooks not out. Why then do I think the umpire made the right decision when he gave Cook out? With the referral system behind them the test umpires should give all of these “out”. The batsman will know if he has hit it or not. As long as the batting team have a referral in the bank, give them out and let the monitor sort it out. The batsman can call for a referral if he knows he did not hit it. I assume I am the first person to see this point. I have been warbling on about it for a few years now. Here is where the umpires have to be on the ball.

This brings up another important point. The ICC must not rush any decisions on the referral system. The present system has reduced the umpiring errors by two thirds and if the players can get a bit better at deciding what to refer, the system will be even better. Remember at this time the players get about one in five right bur I am sure this will improve as they become used to the system except for Australia’s Harris who refers everything. When the MCC ran cricket they would use the English county season as an experimental system. They had 16 counties and the two universities so they could introduce a rule and in 4 months have 200 first class games played with it. The counties would then be asked to give their opinions on the rule. A good example was when they decided to use the bowler’s front foot for the no ball law. The original trial made the bowler land his entire foot behind the front line. Since the umpire stands about four yards behind where the foot lands he could not see if the whole foot was behind the line. Everyone realized nearly immediately that you have to devise a Law that uses the bit of the foot that the umpire can see i.e. the heel.

I’ve sort of realized here that today I been talking about mistakes and errors and the whole tone of this article is a bit negative so I will leave with a thought. Nearly all cricket is played without umpires. The players do it themselves. Try playing a game of soccer without neutral umpires. Last about five minutes I reckon. It’s bloody marvelous that cricket is played the way it is. In the Merks the players are pleased to see us umps turn up. We are treated like royalty and are made to feel as we are a valued part of the association. Now I am going to leave you and go and affect my vision with a slurp or two of a vintage port.

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  1. Venkateswaran says

    Before putting the system in place,it is mandatory that the technology is updated by all the production teams that cover the matches.At present even the hawk eye is not perfect with a lot of broadcasters. There is no hot spot camera with all the broadcasters except Cahnnel 9 and Sky sports.How can there be an equal justice to all the teams.There must also be a review of the number of referals if fair justice is the main intention.Referals should not be a gamble of chances.

  2. Rob Murphy says

    You’re obviously correct that the UDRS has changed the dynamic of umpiring at Test level – it has also made the players more “honest” in that they know it is now far more unlikely that they can now get away with, say, not walking following an obvious edge that was missed by the umpire.

    Technology has also changed the way that umpiring takes place, and is perceived by the players, at the amateur level. I umpire in the Birmingham Premier League in the UK and a number of changes have taken place over recent years that are directly attributable to the technology used in Tests.

    Firstly, LBWs when the batsman is on the front foot are no longer deemed dodgy, especially when sweeping a spinner as Hawkeye has shown that on most occasions the ball is unlikely to go over the stumps – so if it looks out the umpire we can now give it without fear of being chased off the pitch by an irate batsman!

    Also, the heat is now taken out of close run out decisions because all I have to do is make the same signal as used in Tests to demonstrate to the fielders that it is too close to call by the human eye – 99% players then accept my decision without doing anything more than purse their lips and hold their head.

    Many umpires at the amateur level think that the UDRS is taking away the authority of the umpire; I disagree. I think the very fact that the best umpires in the world often need technology to get decisions right highlights how bloody difficult a job it is!

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