The India-Sri Lanka series has just ended, and apart from the cricket proper, a major source of interest was the trial of the TV referral system. So what's the verdict at the end of the series? Is it good, bad, or ugly? A few thoughts and observations...
First of all, the most common criticism of the referrals have been that they take too much time. And they do, but I think this criticism is misplaced. Time wasn't a major factor in this Test series at all -- none of the Tests went into the fifth day. And that's probably true of most Tests these days. So I'd wager that in most cases, referrals won't result in a draw for lack of time to complete four innings.
Are referrals boring? Certainly not for TV audiences, who get to watch the slo-mo replays and Hawkeyes and snickometers and guess which way the TV umpire will go. And since most grounds these days have giant TV screens, the spectators in the stadium won't mind those couple of minutes of tension either.
Are referrals useful overall? Ah, now that's a tough one. Tony Greig, doing the commentary on TV, harped on the point that the right decision was being made in the end. Going by the letter of the Laws of Cricket, that's probably true. Assuming that the technology is reasonably accurate, the TV umpire should be able to make the right decision - which incidentally includes applying the benefit of the doubt, if any, in favour of the batsman. Even the letter of the Law requires that. But is that really happening overall?
Now both sides have an "equal opportunity" to challenge an umpire's decision. But notice the pattern of the successful reviews - almost all of them have overturned an umpire's "not out" decision, thus favouring the fielding side overall. There were very few cases of a batsman being wrongly given out, successfully challenging the decision. Most of the batsman-initiated challenges failed to change the decision, even in the case of LBWs. That in itself tells us something - that umpires tend to get the "outs" correct most of the time!
So what the reviews are achieving is to reverse the umpire's "not outs", most of which were LBW decisions. Those were "not outs" in the first place because the umpire gave the benefit of doubt to the batsman, as he should. It's particularly tricky for LBWs, because the Law is pretty complex. The umpire has to be convinced that the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps, hasn't pitched even marginally outside leg, etc. And if the impact was outside the off stump line, the umpire has to judge the batsman's intent - whether he meant to play a shot or not. Given this Law, and the history of its application over the decades, we have come to expect relatively few LBW appeals to be successful. And that's partly because of the nature of the game-play itself. After all, the batsman has to stand somewhere, and can't be expected to keep the ball off his legs every time. The Law probably came into being to stop any blatant attempts to guard the stumps using the pads rather than the bat. It shouldn't be used as an excuse to get a wicket, just because the ball happens to hit the batsman's pad. Some of the LBWs given after review in this series were so marginal (e.g. pad-bat in that sequence, or height-wise just clipping the bail) that it's hard to claim that the right decision was made in the end.
Some would argue that it's about time the bowlers got some help against the meatier bats, the bouncer restrictions, etc. But by practically eliminating the benefit of doubt using technology, the referral system is altering the game at a fundamental level. In the traditional game, if a batsman is wrongly given out, that's it, his innings is over, no second chance. If the batsman is wrongly given not-out, tough luck for the fielding side, but they have plenty of second chances. If the referral system is adopted, this fundamental nature of the game changes (a little, at least). It will have an impact on batting techniques in the years to come. And in the process, it's not solving a real problem. Did we have an outcry among the bowlers because their appeals were being wrongly turned down? Not that I know of. Did we have an outcry among batsmen because they were being wrongly given out. Yes, for time immemorial. Even if you consider the latter a problem, the TV referrals aren't needed to solve that. Just having TV replays provides enough evidence that the batsmen have no cause for complaint.
Referrals also have an insidious side effect - loss of respect for the authority of the umpire. It's essentially giving the player the right to challenge the umpire's decision, and that can't be good for the larger game. Outside of international cricket, there will be no TV coverage and no referrals. But the kids learn from what they see on TV, and make no mistake, they will learn that it's okay to challenge the umpire.
The use of a TV umpire in itself is okay for line decisions, bump balls and the like - but the decision whether to call upon the third umpire should rest with the on-field umpires. TV referrals have been tried and junked in other sports like American football. I'd suggest doing the same in cricket.