3 months ago, we wrote why the ICC will soon be introducing a ‘fifth umpire’ to make up for the incompetence of the Third Umpire. We made the suggestion on a light-hearted note, but, in the wake of the happenings in the ongoing IND-ENG series, the ICC might have to unironically implement the same.
Of course, as it has turned out, the happenings in the first Test were too good to be true. And no, it is not a reference to England’s marathon effort to bat for 190 overs and pile on 578 runs. In the first Test in Chennai, with a combined experience of just 3 Tests under their belt, on-field umpires Nitin Menon and Anil Kumar Chaudhary put out a performance for the ages that made many debate if non-neutral umpires could continue being a thing even post COVID. Barring an incorrect caught-behind decision of Jos Buttler, the two rookie on-field umpires, in arduous conditions, were near-flawless. So good was their performance that it made an ardent fan dream. Dream that, for once, there could be an India series devoid of umpiring controversy - something that has been a rarity over the years.
Two Tests and a fortnight later, though, here we are. Not for the first time in the series, the word “Third Umpire” has trended on Twitter for all the wrong reasons, not for the first time in the series, a ridiculously dubious umpiring call has whet the appetite of conspiracy-theorists on social media to accuse officials of home bias and not for the first time in the series, England have been left to feel like they’ve been thoroughly robbed.
As was the case on the first day of the second Test in Chennai, Jack Leach, Ben Foakes and Rohit Sharma were the parties involved in the controversy late on Day 1. The only difference being, here, the man behind the television was Chettithody Shamshuddin.
The events that unfolded on the third ball of the 31st over on Day 1 in Ahmedabad were eerily similar to what happened a week ago in Chennai: After the wicket-keeper, Ben Foakes took the bails off in a flash immediately after the bowler Jack Leach beat the outside edge of the batsman, Rohit Sharma, the TV umpire, without bothering to check all the available angles, hastily made his decision. On both instances, the decision went against the away side, England, and on both instances, there were not many - not even those who supported India - who ran to the defence of the umpire.
While in Chennai, the England skipper Joe Root, at least for the Rohit stumping call, chose not to protest, in Ahmedabad, however, he lost his cool.
Zak Crawley, later in the day, explained why: "When we batted, Jack Leach had a similar sort of one [low catch, similar to the Stokes dismissal] where it didn't quite carry and it seemed like they looked at it from five or six different angles. When we were fielding it seemed like they looked at it from one angle. That's where the frustrations lie. I can't say whether they were out or not out, but I think the frustrations lie with not checking more thoroughly," Crawley said in the press conference.
And he only threw a tantrum because it was only 28 overs ago that the very same official had made another hasty, rushed decision that went against England. Shubman Gill edged one to Ben Stokes in the slip-cordon, and, despite the soft signal being out, the TV Umpire Shamshuddin overturned the call with a solitary long-shot replay, not bothering to request the director for alternate angles.
Now it has to be stated that despite the controversy, England were thoroughly outplayed by India on the first day. Joe Root’s men shot themselves in the foot with some suicidal batting and in all likelihood, they would still have been behind the eight-ball had the two aforementioned decisions gone in their favour. However, just because England were outplayed does not mean that they do not have the right to raise their voice against injustice. And what has unfolded across these past two Tests is simply unacceptable at the highest level and is making a mockery of a game that already has its fair share of troubles.
When Anil Kumar Chaudhary, the TV Umpire, in Chennai, orchestrated the most ludicrous two minutes in the history of the sport - the clownery that went on in the now-infamous Ajinkya Rahane DRS call - it was termed an honest mistake. And while the decision was borderline unacceptable, it did feel like a genuine moment of madness; one did feel bad for the umpire, for it looked like a one-off terrible call. The Rohit stumping that preceded it, though equally dodgy, was less-controversial, and the ‘50-50’ argument, to an extent, seemed fair.
However, the events that unfolded on the first day of the third Test suggest that there is a concerning pattern developing, wherein there is a rapid rise in third umpire incompetency. The two unacceptable decisions - at least in terms of the way the umpire came to his decision; if not the actual decision - on Wednesday took the tally of dubious umpiring gaffes to 4 in 5 completed days. And while the officials are lucky that those calls have not influenced the series in the way they could have, it is no excuse to continue erring.
On-field umpires are prone to make errors, sometimes even howlers, and that is understandable and acceptable. After all, they officiate real-time and they have a split second to assess, make their mind up and make the call. No human vision can match the accuracy of the technology and hence those who officiate real-time are bound to err, and this is excusable. However, it is truly appalling that, with supreme technology and slow-motion replays at their disposal, television umpires continue to make half baked decisions, let alone getting calls wrong.
One official getting a couple of decisions wrong owing to ‘having a bad day’ can yet be excused, but what we’ve seen through the course of these past two Tests is two separate umpires botching not once, not twice, but four times - with the kind of advancements the sport has seen, there should simply be no room for such incompetence.
The irony of it all is that it is not even the decisions that are infuriating - it is how they’ve been made that has made sane souls lose their minds. In each of the four aforementioned decisions, the Television Umpire in charge was in a hurry. Despite there being a ton of camera angles available, the third umpire, in three of those instances, refused to check alternate angles and made his mind up by having a fleeting glance at the first angle provided by the director. Even in the case of him ultimately making the right call - as was the case with the Stokes catch on Day 1 - the question needs to be raised: why the absolutely needless rush?
It is understandable that all calls cannot be gotten right, but the least third umpires can do is give themselves the best opportunity to come to the right decision. And unfortunately, in this series, that has not been the case.
And, ultimately, it is this rush that has elicited controversy, and continues to do so. There is every chance that both the contentious calls on Day 1 of the Ahmedabad Test might not have been talking points, or might not have been protested by England, had the third umpire, Shamshuddin, bided his time, went through all the available angles and made his decision afterwards, after weighing his options. However, the fact that he made both decisions in a jiffy with rash overconfidence not only opened room for controversy but also exposed a flaw in the system that needs to be addressed.
And this flaw is the startling lack of communication between the three parties - the players, the on-field umpire and the third umpire. Across both these past two Tests, the third umpire, despite the players raising displeasure over the decision, refused to re-evaluate and re-check his call, even though it was evident that he did not check all the angles available at his disposal. This needs to change.
For contentious or tight calls, at least, there needs to be better communication between the on-field umpire and the third umpire, and the on-field umpire should have the authority to ‘force’ the third-umpire into re-evaluating calls if need be. On top of that, the on-field umpire should also be required to communicate to the third-umpire what the players are ‘asking for’, in order to ensure that a repeat of a Rahane or Rohit situation does not occur again. The argument against this might be that more players might start ‘bullying’ officials, but, at the end of the day, giving more authority to the on-field official will also help keep the players in check.
That TV umpiring has stooped to worrying levels over the past few months cannot be denied. The IPL, itself, saw a host of controversial DRS and third-umpire related calls, while in the recently-concluded T20I series between Pakistan and South Africa, Hussain Talat was adjudged stumped despite having his foot clearly grounded - and yes, this despite the third umpire spending a good few minutes on the decision. The MCC, in their recently-concluded meeting, discussed a host of issues, perhaps it’s also time for them to see how standards of third umpiring can be improved.
The shame of it all is that, ultimately, yet again, a world-class, all-round performance from the Indian side has been overshadowed by needless controversy that totally could have been avoided, if for some competency. Axar, Ashwin and Rohit have all, for the second Test running, put up staggering individual performances, but once again the focus is not on them, and instead on something that should never have been a topic of discussion. You could argue that it sucks, but well, equally, so has the umpiring.
The least we can hope for now is for the TV umpires to get their act together for the remainder of the series, for, otherwise, we could be looking at a situation where this satire might just need to become reality.