Every cricket series has a few umpiring decisions that spark-off debates. Some high-profile series like the last India tour of Australia and the current England tour of India over-emphasise the contention. The debate attracts more eyeballs asking for a relook at the rule-book. One such contentious issue has been the soft signal.
What is a soft signal?
In the laws of cricket formulated by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), there is no mention of the soft signal. But in ICC playing conditions, the soft signal is “the visual communication by the bowler’s end umpire to the third umpire of his/her initial on-field decision prior to initiating an Umpire Review”.
The soft signal comes into play when the bowler’s end on-field umpire signals to the third umpire to check the legitimacy of a catch after consulting with the square leg umpire. Along with the instruction to the third umpire, the on-field umpire also gives his decision whether according to him it was out or not out. The TV umpire’s job is to verify the decision with enough conclusive evidence from television footage to overturn the on-field umpire’s verdict. In the absence of conclusive evidence, the on-field umpire’s decision stays.
The recent event
In the fourth T20I between India and England, Suryakumar Yadav’s blitzkrieg came to an end on the second ball of the 13th over. After hitting Sam Curran for a six off his first delivery, Yadav, down on one knee, swept again. But this time he was caught by Dawid Malan at the deep square leg. The on-field umpire's soft signal was out. The television replay was inconclusive. But to the viewers, it looked that Malan’s palm had split in course of the catch and some part of the ball may have touched the turf. The TV umpire suggested that the evidence available is not conclusive enough to overturn the on-field umpire's decision. Yadav was given out.
The deception of Television replays
When the viewers watched the TV replay of Yadav’s dismissal, they were convinced that Malan had grassed the ball. When the TV umpire went with the on-field umpires’ decision (soft signal) of out, it incited a furore. Not just sports fans, but ex-players and TV pundits also displayed their dismay. VVS Laxman tweeted “How can this be out. When you are not sure whether the ball was taken cleanly after watching so many replays using top-class technology and still go by the soft signal given by the on-field umpire. I think this rule needs to be revisited and changed.”
Though Laxman had a reasonable case why an umpire who is standing so far off and unsure of the legitimacy of the catch should be trusted ahead of TV technology - he is not entirely right. In television, we see a three-dimensional event on the field of play in two dimensions. The picture we see on the TV lacks depth. What we see from one angle of the camera will look different from another angle.
The normal TV camera catches 25 frames per second. There is no standardised cricket broadcast. The high-end (super-slow-motion) cameras catch from 250-300 frames per second. The big-budget cricket productions use all high-end equipment which is not always available or affordable in all cricket broadcasts. Despite some broadcast having advanced equipment, the catch needs to be filmed by the cameraman from that high-end equipment with a reasonably tighter frame to evaluate the replay for an irrefutable decision.
The placements of the cameras do matter. Low diving catches such as Yadav’s dismissal will look different from a camera that is placed higher up at the stands compared to a camera placed at the ground level. In the science of image capture, it is called foreshortening.
In image formation and interpretation, foreshortening is a source of image distortion. Foreshortening is the visual effect or optical illusion that causes an object or distance to appear shorter than it is because it is angled toward the viewer. Foreshortening also occurs in two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional scenes. To give a layman’s example, when the moon is pictured over a mountain or a cityscape, it looks much closer to the foreground than it is. That is why during the edge-detection replay (Hawk-Eye Ultra Edge) the umpire and viewers are provided with a split screen where the position of the ball is shown from two angles.
The right use of technology
In the history of sports broadcast, technology has overwhelmingly aided the viewing experience than definitive decision makings. As technology advanced, broadcasters and boards have started using it for decision making. The real-time snicko, infrared imaging system, and ball tracking for Decision Review System (DRS) in cricket are a few examples. But the limitations of the technology and the margin of errors have not completely made the umpires redundant. That’s why there is an umpire's call in the DRS.
To explain how - what we see on TV is not the definitive depiction of the event, especially the low catches - Tony Greig, part of the channel nine broadcast in Australia, demonstrated how a low slip catch looked different from two different camera angles. Dermot Reeve demonstrated the same with Channel 4 in the UK.
Soft Signal is here to stay?
The debate on using technology in decision-making roars its head every now and then. Fans and Pundits' opinion oscillates from which dugout you are looking at the event. Why can't we have an 'I don't know' soft signal for the umpire? – said India captain Virat Kohli after the incident. Michael Atherton commentating on sky sports termed the on-field soft signal for outfield catches "nonsense". He suggested soft signal should be made valid only for the catches inside the 30-yard circle.
But it is equally important to understand till the time we don’t have three-dimensional broadcasting and instant replay system in place, probably the umpires who watch in three dimensions, are better placed to take the call. Hence, the soft signal will most probably remain unscathed for the time being.