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Technology plays a straight bat in moral minefield

T he ball whistled past the bat, the wicket-keeper caught it and the Australian players celebrated.

The umpire duly raised his finger: Ian Bell was out. He had edged the ball. But the England batsman stood his ground. He refused to walk. He demanded, as he was entitled to, a television review. And once again technology took centre stage.

The debate continues, louder than ever, about its role in sport, but in Sydney last Wednesday it acquired another dimension: technology and morality -- discuss.

Cricket has traditionally demanded high standards of sportsmanship and in the good old days Bell would have walked once the umpire told him to go. But now he had a possible route of escape.

Replay after replay, from several angles and in super-slow-motion, showed the moment when the ball floated past the inside edge of Bell's bat. They froze the image at the exact meeting point. If ball and bat didn't connect, there was only a hair's breadth between them; if they did, the contact was so fine that the ball's flight path did not seem to deviate at all. The replays could not prove or disprove contact.

The third umpire, up in the review room, also had another tool at his disposal -- an infrared imaging system called Hot Spot, which works apparently on a heat-seeking principle. The Hot Spot images, also replayed incessantly, showed no telltale white mark on the bat as the ball passed.

"There's no mark there," said Ian Botham in the commentary box. "There's no mark whatsoever." But his colleague Michael Atherton, the former England captain, had deep misgivings. Hot Spot had failed to pick up faint edges in the past; the on-field umpire, Aleem Dar of Pakistan, is considered the best in the world. "Can you say that technology has shown irrefutably that he's made an error? My instinct is that Aleem Dar made a good decision but the technology has not helped matters."

After a long delay the third umpire informed Dar that no edge could be seen; Dar overruled his own decision. Bell, on 67, added another 48 runs before finally losing his wicket. But, only a few minutes after play resumed, Sky Sports showed another replay of the incident, this time with the sound amplified. A clicking sound could be heard as ball passed bat. "Definite sound," said Atherton, "big sound. I think Ian Bell's got away with one there."

And shortly after that, yet another piece of technology appeared to confirm contact. The Snickometer is not used by the third umpire because the time delay is too great. Not unlike a hospital monitor linked to a patient, it shows a flat line as the ball travels through space; if the ball connects with anything, the line jags vertically. The line jagged as the ball passed Bell's bat. "And there we go," said a displeased Atherton, "Snicko shows an edge."

He was too diplomatic to question the batsman's role in this incident: did he feel an edge? And if so, why didn't he walk of his own accord?

Bell has to be taken at his word. But, reported Mike Selvey in The Guardian, "here the moral maze becomes unfathomable. If Bell was genuinely uncertain, which he might have been, then the International Cricket Council, rightly or otherwise, has given the batsman the means to challenge the umpire and there can be no quibble. If on the other hand he felt a touch and was merely using the system to get off the hook (and in the process making a terrific official carry the rap for actually getting it right) then he has to live with himself."

It was the third day of the fifth Ashes Test and England were on their way to a crushing victory in the match and the series. Their man of the series was Alastair Cook, who broke several records as he compiled a monumental number of runs.

The Ian Bell incident notwithstanding, technology will clarify many more situations than it complicates. And earlier that same day, Cook was spared what would have been a nasty injustice.

Standing on 99 runs, he flicked a ball which popped into the hands of Philip Hughes. Again the Australians celebrated, converging on Hughes to congratulate him. Cook was the man above all others they wanted rid of. But

Cook stood his ground too and again the on-field umpires referred it to review. This time the images were conclusive: the very first replay showed that the ball had bounced just short of Hughes's fingertips.

With every replay, Botham became increasingly irate. "Well, that's pretty ordinary in my book." "Terrible. No other word for it." But he did find another word for it. "Cheating. How much do you want it to bounce into your hands? And he knows. He knows he hasn't caught it."

The replays also showed that Hughes's immediate facial expression was one of agonised disappointment. But as his team-mates celebrated, it changed to jubilation. The herd mentality took over; Hughes succumbed to peer pressure and group-think. Cook was vindicated by the replays, Hughes and his colleagues exposed.

"Technology and cameras," sighed Botham, "you gotta be in cuckooland if you think you can get away with something like that."

Veteran cricket fans and players might also have added that, before the age of technology and cameras, you wouldn't have tried to get away with it in the first place.


Sunday Indo Sport