Australia’s captain Steven Smith has called for an end to the practice of on-field umpires offering a “soft signal” to the third umpire on disputed catches, arguing that technology should be arbiter in such cases as the immediate reactions of players in the middle have often proven to be flawed.
Smith was given out caught behind at a critical juncture of the third ODI in Sydney on Sunday, edging low to Jos Buttler who immediately celebrated the catch. The on-field umpires Chris Gaffaney and Simon Fry then referred the catch to the TV umpire Kumar Dharmasena with the soft signal of “out”, and while replays shrouded the catch in far greater doubt, Dharmasena did not deem it to be enough to overrule the initial impression of his colleagues.
In assessing the process, Smith said he felt that the umpires’ signal was often dictated by the reactions – either celebratory or ambivalent – of players in the middle, and carried too much weight relative to the evidence provided by television cameras. He said he would prefer a system where the third umpire made a ruling based purely on the pictures in front of him.
“I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the ruling with the soft signal. That’s obviously the ruling at the moment and it’s hard to overturn anything,” Smith said. “We’ve seen a few this summer that have been pretty similar and if the fielder goes up and actually celebrates they usually get given out and if you’re a bit apprehensive of what’s happened they normally get given not out.
“It’s hard for them to overturn the decision. I’d actually like for the third umpire to have to make the decision whether it’s out or not. Just them having to do it, if that makes sense.”
The soft signal was introduced for disputed catches in part because it was felt that two dimensional camera images and foreshortening often added doubt to catches that all on the field had considered clean, meaning too many were ruled not out as a matter of course. Simon Taufel, the former ICC umpires training manager, has explained the reason for its existence by stating that umpires needed to retain the primary responsibility for decision-making.
“It’s part of the decision-making process,” he told the Times of India in 2016. “If the third umpire cannot find conclusive evidence to prove that the original on-field decision is incorrect, then it stands. On-field umpires are there to make decisions and answer appeals, not simply to send them upstairs to the third umpire to take the call.
“Decision making is an important skill and one that should be applied at the highest level of the game. So, the soft signal maintains the premise that the decision-making happens on field and not just left to technology to provide an outcome.”
Buttler, for his part, remained adamant he had caught the ball cleanly when queried about it afterwards. “I was pretty sure it was out,” he said. “I think any wicketkeeper would tell you, you know if you get your fingers underneath it. It always looks a bit either way on TV but for me it was out.”
Smith made it clear he was not questioning Buttler’s honesty: “He obviously thought it was out, he’s a pretty honest guy, so he thought it was out and it got given out so I had to walk off.”
Other questions had been raised about Smith via footage that showed him rubbing the side of his lips before shining the ball during England’s innings – the use of saliva is permitted under the game’s laws but lip balm is not. “It was all spit,” Smith said. “People said something about lip balm. If you look at my lips, they’re pretty dry, I certainly didn’t have any of that on. It’s just the way I get some spit into the side of my mouth and get some spit onto the ball. So there was nothing in it.”
As for Australia’s loss, surrendering the series to England in the minimum three matches, Smith said he needed to improve personally alongside a better collective effort from his men. “Five wins out of last 18 games and that’s just not good enough,” he said. “We’ve got to start finding ways to get over the line. Looking at this game I think the first 44 overs was really good and then Jos played particularly well at the end and Woakesy played well as well.
“But I don’t think we executed well. We probably just needed to bowl some good balls at the top of the stumps and try to get them swinging across the line; we bowled too full or too short and got hurt. We probably should have been chasing somewhere around 270 or 280 and then if we do that things might have been a lot different.
“I’ve got to play some better cricket. It was about me trying to control the middle with the spinners and keep getting off strike. Tonight I wasn’t good enough at that. I should have been up around a run a ball, it would have made things a bit easier at the back end. Not many balls were hitting the middle of my bat, which was disappointing. I don’t know what it is. Maybe I need to watch the ball a bit closer or something like that. It’s something to look at for Adelaide, hopefully I can do it a lot better and start helping this team win some games of cricket.”
Fined 40% of his match fee for being deemed two overs behind the required over rate and now facing a ban for a repeat offence over the next 12 months, Smith said that he and the bowlers needed to be more disciplined in the field – no fewer than 13 wides and a no-ball effectively granted England more than two extra overs.
“Yeah it’s not ideal, it’s two extra overs and 14 runs or thereabouts,” Smith said. “They’ve got to be a bit better with that as well. I think we were about 27 minutes over time as well so it’s going to cost me a bit, but I don’t mind that. It’s not ideal to have to bowl two extra overs and give away runs against a quality opposition.”