Back in the 1940s and into the 50s, there was no evening league football from late Autumn to Spring; floodlighting only came in sometime in the 1950s. Previously the only outdoor sports you could watch on winter evenings were greyhound racing and speedway. No rugby ground in Britain had floodlights till well into the second half of the century. As for floodlights on Test cricket grounds, the idea was scarcely imaginable.
There are fewer draws in Test cricket now than there used to be in the days when more overs were bowled in a day’s play than now. This change is usually attributed to more aggressive batting, but there are other reasons which may be classed as improved technology. Floodlights on Test match grounds allow play to continue long after the game would previously have been stopped for bad light. Then improved covering and drainage means that pitches, and even much of the outfield, are better protected than used to be the case. There are fewer days now when umpires go out to inspect conditions after rain and return to the pavilion in brilliant sunshine shaking their heads and saying there will be another inspection of the wet outfield in an hour’s time.
The use of technology to help decision-making goes back a long way in some sports. In horse racing, a camera was first used to record a photo finish in a race in New Jersey in 1881. This was soon in general use, though the picture was often blurred and it wasn’t till the invention of the “strip camera” in the 1930s that the photographs were almost fully reliable.
Television has of course hugely changed our experience of watching sport, though TV technology took some time to affect decision-making. It was the use of immediately available action replays which provoked a demand for using TV evidence, especially when a slow-motion replay called a referee or umpire’s decision into question. There was a good deal of resistance to this, however, as in almost all sports the code of law declares that the referee or umpire is the sole judge of fact; his decision is therefore final and must not be questioned. Unfortunately, TV replays showed that such decisions were quite often wrong. Worse still, the incident in question might be repeatedly shown on the screen and the authority of the referee or umpire consequently challenged. This was all the more unfortunate when giant screens were installed in the stadium, and the crowd could see that the official had blundered. Even so, football, being a very conservative sport, resisted even the use of fairly simple “goal-line technology” and it is only in the last few years that the FA has reluctantly permitted the use of VAR which, among other things enables the referee to check if a player is offside. Many football fans still dislike VAR, believing (rightly) that it destroys the spontaneity of the game.
The use of technology generally makes for better, and therefore fairer, decisions. Nevertheless, there is a downside. Repeated recourse to a Television Match Official makes for frequent, sometimes long, breaks in the action. It is not unusual for professional rugby matches to last for almost two hours. Even allowing for a 15-minute half-time break, this means that play is interrupted for some twenty minutes over the course of a game. Players stand about while pictures of what has caused the interruption are shown and debated. This is not only tedious and tiresome; it has a wider consequence. The game doesn’t open up in the later stages as it used to. This is partly because the number of replacements permitted brings fresh legs onto the field. But it is also because frequent recourse to the TMO and the discussions this entails gives players periods of rest and recuperation, and opportunities to recharge batteries.
Much of the use of technology in sport is welcome and uncontroversial. In tennis, for instance, Hawkeye — the instant replay — merely establishes whether a ball was in and out. The picture is concerned with a matter of fact; there is no opinion or judgement called for from the umpire. In short, it’s an aid to the work of line judges.
This is only partly the case in cricket. The DRS — Decision Review System — comes into play only when either the batsman or the fielding captain calls for a review of the umpire’s decision. But this is not a simple right-or-wrong matter. The camera deals partly in fact: where did the ball pitch? Where — in the case of an lbw — did it strike the batsman? Did it touch the bat? These are all questions of fact that the TV replay and other refinements may fairly determine. But in the use of DRS to decide lbw, there is also a predictive element: technology is employed to decide what happened next, or, rather, what would have happened if the ball hadn’t struck the batsman’s pad. This is not — and perhaps can never be — always conclusive and this is recognised by what is known as an “umpire’s call”. If a ball is just nicking the stumps and whichever way the umpire has decided — out or not out — before his judgement was appealed, will stand. In one way this is satisfactory; it acknowledges the authority of the on-field umpire. In another, it may be irritating because it doesn’t settle disputes. But perhaps this is as it should be. In cricket, football and rugby there are, and will surely always be, uncertainties.
In general, the use of technology has made for better and fairer decisions. There is far less brutal foul play in rugby and football than there used to be, and less dangerous, if unmalicious, play too. No doubt there will be more developments, some more useful than others. Most will be welcomed, if sometimes grudgingly.
Ball-games can never be an exact science. Mistakes are part of them, even mistakes made by referees, umpires and officials in front of a TV. One question needs to be raised: How far, in a game of movement like rugby, should a TMO track back to point up some minor error like a forward pass several phases before a try seemed to have been scored?