Dilemma, fair play and human error

I believe that there were two events during the 4th cricket test between South Africa and England that had a significant bearing on the final result (which South Africa won by an innings and 74 runs).

The first event occurred before the match actually started. It was wrapped up in a spin of a coin. Winning the toss was going to confront the ‘lucky’ captain with a major dilemma. By winning the toss the England captain was put in the situation of having to deal with the dilemma of having to make a decision. The dilemma was intensified by the fact that England were 1-0 up in the series. And further, the ‘uncontrollables’ such as the weather conditions and the state of the pitch added to the complexity of the dilemma that he was encountering.

The nature of a dilemma is to create uncertainty, insecurity and doubt. On a sporting level, a dilemma fragments an athlete’s energy. It works against the certainty and resolve that an athlete needs to be effective in the ‘harsh‘ environment of competitive sport.

The England captain  had to make a decision, that firstly he totally believed in and was committed to, but more importantly that his team was totally aligned to. Was he going to bat or bowl? He decided to bat in very difficult conditions that totally favoured the bowlers. Many locals who know the Johannesburg cricket wicket, felt it was actually the ‘correct’ decision, but it was clear that none of the English batsmen believed this.

Before the actual battle between bat and ball started, every English player in the dressing (including the captain) must have been confronted with one question in their minds – did we make the correct decision? Looking at the batting performance, this question was probably heightened with the fall of each wicket. The English batting performance in the 1st innings reflected insecurity, uncertainty, doubt, and there was little or no resolve and commitment to the process of scoring runs. This highlighted the power of how an unresolved mental dilemma in sport may drastically affect performance.

The second event was one ball that was bowled to the South African captain during the 1st innings as South Africa started their batting process. The score was 30 odd for no wicket, and the SA opening batsmen were managing to survive (sometimes with the help of good fortune) on a wicket that had not changed in character. The ball was still seaming and bouncing, making it difficult to bat on.

And then a ball was bowled to Graeme Smith, who played a shot away from his body. There was a distinct noise as the bat flashed past the ball – a noise that all cricketers know that signifies that the ball has touched the bat. Those who have played cricket also say that the batsman will always ‘feel‘ a slight vibration in hands that hold the bat, as the ball slightly brushes the bat. There was a spontaneous appeal from all of the England players – they had eventually made a break through! But the batsman stood his ground, shaking his head. The umpire was now confronted with a dilemma as he watched the batsman’s body language and heard the appeal from the fielders – did the batsman touch the ball or not? Some batsmen believe in ‘fair play’ and do not create such dilemmas for umpires. If they know they touched the ball, they ‘walk’. There is another school of thought in cricket, that one leaves all the decisions up to the umpire (which opens up the possibility of times when one may be lucky to be given ‘not out’ when in fact one is ‘out’).

Back to the one ball – the umpire gave the batsman ‘not out’ and the England captain asked for the decision to be referred.

A referral system for umpiring decisions was introduced into the test series in order to reduce the ‘mistakes’ that umpires may make when making a decision. In other words, to help reduce ‘human error’. The referral system utilises all of the available television technologies to reduce the possibility of ‘human error’. On a fundamental level, the referral system attempts to uphold fair play so that players do not feel aggrieved by an incorrect umpiring decision.

But the referral system is not a technological system, it is also a human system that is prone to ‘human error’. One of the technologies that is used to make a decision is the audio system that picks up all of the noises that occur between bat and ball. In making to his decision, the referral umpire had ‘forgotten’ to turn up the audio microphone and thus did not hear any sound as the ball passed the bat.

The referring umpire supported the ‘on-the-field’ umpire and Smith was given ‘not out’ to eventually go on to score a century. After the day’s play the English management lodged a formal protest against the review (referral) system.

A dilemma plays itself out in strange ways in reality. The decision that went against England in that early part of the SA innings was very significant and was in sharp contrast to how easily the wickets had fallen when they had batted the day before. That fundamental question of ‘did we make the correct decision to bat first‘ must have flooded back into consciousness as South Africa took command of the test match from that moment onwards.

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