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Ashes preview: The spectre of technology haunts both sides at Durham
IN JUNE 2005, the build-up to England's One-Day International with Australia at Chester-le-Street was dominated by tales of ghosts and ghouls, with the visitors apparently running scared after hearing tales of haunting at Lumley Castle.
This time around, it is bats that are at the top of the agenda. Not flying ones as such, but rather wooden implements that flash through the air, but which have been mysteriously muffled in an attempt to make them undetectable. As was the case eight years ago, it is all good knockabout stuff.
Yet there is also a serious undertone to the allegations that were levelled at Kevin Pietersen yesterday, and it feeds into the wider debate about technology that has overshadowed so much of this thrilling Ashes series.
In a nutshell, Channel Nine in Australia have alleged that players on both sides have been wrapping silicon tape around the edge of their bat in an attempt to prevent the Hot Spot system detecting thin edges.
Hot Spot works by detecting friction whenever the ball hits a bat or pad, and in theory, reducing the friction via the use of tape would make it less likely for contact to show up if a borderline decision was reviewed.
Pietersen's dismissal in the second innings at Old Trafford, when the third umpire upheld the verdict of the on-field umpire to give the batsman out even though Hot Spot failed to show anything on the edge of the bat, was cited in Australia as a potentially suspect incident, something that clearly enraged England's talisman.
“If I nick it, I'll walk,” Pietersen tweeted. “To suggest I cheat by covering my bat with silicon infuriates me. Such horrible lies.”
Pietersen's fury is clearly shared by the rest of the England camp, who bridle at suggestions they have been attempting to fool the technology in ways that would be contrary to the spirit of the game, even if they were not explicitly against the rules.
“The accusation from my point of view is crazy,” said Graham Onions. “It just doesn't sound right, and I know it's not right. None of the England lads would use anything on their bats.
“Obviously people use tape to heal cracks or if they've got a favourite bat, to try to keep it as long as possible. But nothing that would potentially cover up any kind of nicks. The accusation is ridiculous really. Kevin's a very fair guy, and the accusations are wrong.”
In fairness, Australia's players have been saying exactly the same thing, and there is no suggestion that any of the tourists have raised concerns about cladding on the bat of Pietersen or any other England player.
“I've never seen silicon tape at all, and I'd not even heard of it before this time,” said all-rounder Steve Smith. “I don't even know what it looks like, and we have no suspicions about England. We've not even thought about it.”
Nevertheless, the narrative refuses to shift away from issues of technology, and for all that the International Cricket Council issued a statement last night effectively exonerating both sides of any blame, there is a danger that a system that was introduced in an attempt to improve clarity is actually having completely the opposite effect.
There are a number of facets to the Decision Review System (DRS), and while the Hawkeye technology that is used to adjudge on LBW decisions is widely regarded to have been a success, Hot Spot has been fraught with problems.
Too many nicks that have appeared reasonably obvious to the naked eye and ear have failed to produce a mark on the Hot Spot thermal imaging, creating a sense of doubt in a system that is supposed to remove any subjectivity and result in a purely objective decision.
There have been instances of human error among the third umpires who have delivered their judgements this series, but even former England captain Mike Atherton admitted yesterday he would have struggled to know what to do had he been presented with some of the evidence that has been laid in front of the indoor officials.
How on earth can that be a sustainable situation? For DRS to be worthwhile, it has to be an improvement on the pre-technology state, yet at the moment, it seems easier to trust first instincts and faint noises than Hot Spot.
As a result, it is surely time to shelve Hot Spot for the remainder of the series and simply allow Hawkeye reviews with regard to contentious LBW calls.
It might result in more wrong decisions if the on-field umpires have a particularly ineffective Test, but at least that would be the result of a series of bad calls rather than a muddled mixture of human uncertainty and technological confusion.
“I remember when (DRS) first came out, I was a big fan of leaving it to the umpire because they were there to make a decision whether they're right or wrong,” said Onions. “But with the technology that is available now, we have to use it as long it's going to improve the game and make the decisions right.
“As a whole, I think the decisions have been pretty good. I think I've played in two Test matches involving DRS, and I've never had a problem with it. If you think you've got someone out and it doesn't show, you've just got to move on.”
Increasingly this series, though, it has been impossible to be so sanguine. The technology has begun to overshadow the cricket, and that can never be a good thing.
Eight years on from Ghost-gate, let us hope the spectre of DRS does not return to haunt both sides at Chester-le-Street.
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