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The Umpire Strikes Back

462915-review

The British August Bank Holiday weekend is nearly upon us and as many of us eye the weather forecasts anticipating a late summer sojourn to the beach or the park, F1 teams and drivers are returning from their own four weeks vacation ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix. As the second half of the season begins, we will see if anyone can chase down Sebastian Vettel to deny him a fourth World Championship in a row. England’s cricketers will also have enjoyed a week off savouring their Ashes series victory before the 5th Test Match begins at The Oval tomorrow. In any other series this final game might be dubbed something of a dead rubber after Australia succumbed in Durham and went three down with one to play. However, with another five-test series beginning in Australia in as few as 90 days, there are scores to settle and points to prove for members of both sides.

So other than the fact that many people will be tuning into their car radios whilst sat in stationary traffic to listen to these two sporting events over the next few hopefully sun-drenched days, what else connects them? Well, there’s plenty really, but as Arsene Wenger might say, “I want to talk about the refereeing”. In cricket they have umpires and in motor racing the stewards officiate, but in both cases the purpose of those in charge is to ensure the rules are respected and applied consistently. Questionable umpiring has been an unfortunate theme of this year’s Ashes series and has detracted from some closely contested cricket. In the same way, the harsh treatment by the stewards of Romain Grosjean at last month’s Hungarian Grand Prix may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some F1 followers.

To refresh your memories, Grosjean – who has taken plenty of flak recently for his Mario Kart-like approach to wheel-to-wheel racing – cleanly overtook Felipe Massa around the outside of the Hungaroring’s Turn 4 (a blind left-handed corner at the crest of a hill taken at 130 mph). The last few seasons have seen the introduction of a number of regulations designed to define what is and what isn’t acceptable with respect to overtaking. The simple rule which always existed was that a driver must respect the track limits i.e. keep at least part of the car inside the white lines that define the track. It used to be that there was a gravel trap, a barrier or even a lamppost at the edge of the track to make the drivers respect the track limits. In the interests of safety these are more and more frequently being replaced by tarmac run-off areas, affording drivers the opportunity to overtake whilst technically off the track. This creates the problem of drivers deliberately forcing an opponent off the track to avoid being overtaken so a regulation was written in decreeing that an opponent should always be given a car’s width of space. The problem comes when you try to send two cars through a 130 mph blind corner. Sometimes there’s only space for one car and it then becomes a matter of opinion as to who left whom space and who deliberately left the track. Fans and seasoned pros alike all agreed that Grosjean’s move was a thrilling example of exactly the type of thing we want to see every other Sunday. The stewards disagreed and found that the Frenchman was a couple of centimetres beyond the track limits during the manoeuvre. The subsequent penalty denied Grosjean the opportunity to challenge for a victory that was very much a possibility.

You could argue for and against the application of this penalty just as you could argue for and against many of the contentious umpiring decisions at the Trent Bridge and Lords Test Matches. In many cases it’s a matter of opinion. It’s interesting though to look at the two contrasting approaches the two sports have taken to improving their standards of officiating.

In the cricket, a lot of the controversy has surrounded the implementation of the Decision Review System – DRS for short. DRS was adopted in 2009 in an effort to increase the number of correct umpiring decisions. The standard of on-field umpiring had improved markedly over previous years with the advent of the International Cricket Council’s elite umpiring panel but with players’ careers potentially resting on the umpires’ decision making ability, it was felt more use could be made of the television replays and technology already being used by the broadcasters to enhance their coverage and inform their viewership. And so, in came DRS, granting teams the opportunity to refer any decision that they felt was erroneous to a jury of super-slow-motion replays, infrared thermal imaging cameras and military grade ballistic ball tracking software. Cricket’s approach to improve decision-making was to take away as much of the subjective as possible and use technology to deal with matters of fact.

In some ways this is in contrast to the approach taken by Formula 1’s governing body the FIA. The FIA’s solution to provide consistency was to bring along driver stewards to each race to give their objective opinion on contentious matters. Of course this comparison is not entirely fair; cricket umpires are trying to adjudge matters of fact, whereas motor racing stewards are often dealing with matters of opinion.

Before the advent of Hotspot and Snicko, we had to make do with only grainy slow-motion replays to decide whether a batsman had got a slight feather on the ball. If it was not clear-cut, we were happy to give him the benefit of the doubt and move on. Now with the microscope of DRS we demand a definitive answer and while the technology allows us to get more decisions correct there is still going to be the odd one where we just don’t know for sure. It’s the same in motor racing; it used to be that the fairness of an overtake was judged on whether each driver still had four wheels attached to his car following the move. If the answer was yes then it was probably fair game. If not, it was probably Eddie Irvine’s fault. These days we go through the video replays to try to show definitively who’s to blame and again it’s not always possible.

What’s clear in both cricket and F1 is that the more you scrutinise the rules and the decision-making process the more contentious issues you will create. The traditionally sedate game of cricket has taken the hi-tech approach to decision-making and Formula 1 has attempted to use good old-fashioned common sense. In both cases the end result has been to create more grey areas. Let’s just hope the grey areas stay away this Bank Holiday Weekend.

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Wonder crowned! Nole downed, beaten in three. The rumble of Wimbledon, “Come on Andy!”

6-4 7-5 6-4. The scoreboard suggests a simple straight sets victory for Andy Murray as he defeated World Number 1 Novak Djokovic to earn a second major tournament title. However, beating the Serb and putting a 77 year-old story to bed was anything but, as Murray became the first British player to lift the Wimbledon trophy since 1936. For some, the annual obsession over this statistic must have become tedious to the point of irritation, not least for Murray and his predecessor at the top of the British rankings, Tim Henman. Tedious perhaps, but by no means an irrelevance. The expectation of Britain’s sports fans and attention from its media are not trivial to deal with and over the last few years you got the feeling that Murray has been desperate to deliver the title, not just to get the monkey off his back, but to bring genuine elation to the millions of fans that turn up or tune in to cheer him on. As part of Team GB, Murray made a contribution to the general feel good factor of last year’s successful Olympic Games by winning gold in the men’s singles tennis, but yesterday was his moment and his moment alone. As he stepped out on to the balcony of the All England Tennis Club to parade the winner’s trophy to the jubilant throng gathered beneath, his expression flickered briefly to one of modest disbelief at just how much this one victory meant to a nation.

Djokovic was classy as ever in defeat and praised Murray’s game, but undoubtedly he was not at his best in the match. There were fleeting moments of his brilliant best interspersed with some moments where you wondered whether this truly was the world’s best tennis player at the opposite end of the court to Murray with Novak frequently finding the net and sending his ground strokes long over the baseline. These things are all relative though and beating the six-time grand slam winner was never going to be an easy task for Murray. He was made to work hard for each break of serve and was frequently put under pressure in his own service games, coming from behind to take both the second and third sets. Murray’s resilience when facing these crucial moments was awe-inspiring. To win the second set from 1-4 down by reeling off five games in a row was impressive enough but the final set was the biggest testament to the belief he now has in himself. Murray broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the third set and opened up a 2-0 lead. When the Serb responded with two service breaks of his own, it looked as if the match was headed for a fourth set. Murray though was always creating chances on Djokovic’s serve and took enough of them to find himself at 5-4 and serving for the championship. The Centre Court crowd willed Murray towards the title and all of a sudden he had three championship points. Perhaps like Gerard Butler, who was watching courtside, Murray couldn’t quite believe the position he was in because, for the only time in the match, his nerve faltered and the three chances went begging. The lapse was momentary though as Murray demonstrated his now supreme temperament in fending off two break points before finally sealing the deal on his fourth championship point as Djokovic sent a final backhand into the net. It took all of Murray’s guts to clinch this roller coaster of a final game and take the deserved glory.

Some may condemn the overall quality of this year’s tournament. Early exits for Federer and Nadal and some other high seeds including Tsonga, Wawrinka and Čillić left the field depleted of the top talent. This is a fair enough point and both finalists were probably only really tested once each on the way to the last round; Djokovic overcame Juan Martin del Potro in a gruelling five set semi-final and Fernando Verdasco asked some serious questions of Murray in Wednesday’s quarter-finals before the Scot eventually prospered. Nevertheless, the top two players faced off in the final and winning 7 best-of-five-set matches in the space of 13 days should never be considered anything less than a major achievement. As for the future, amidst all the celebration surrounding Murray’s Wimbledon victory, it’s important not to forget that this is his second major title after his watershed moment at Flushing Meadows last year and so the Brit now currently holds two of the four major titles. At 26 he’s at the peak of his physical condition and if he continues to play with the belief that has characterised the last 12 months of his career, he will unquestionably have opportunities to add more major titles to this tally.

Finally, this year’s Championships once again showcased how well the BBC does sports coverage. This is one of the last top-class sporting events the BBC has coverage rights for, with the rights to so many other events having been sold off to the highest bidder. Hopefully, the Beeb have no intention of relinquishing this particular jewel in the crown. The tournament would lose something of its tradition were the matches to be shown on Eurosport or Sky. Only the football World Cup finals come close to matching Wimbledon as a unifying spectator sport. People gather round workplace TV sets to watch and the tennis courts at local parks fill up. Sport inspires people and there were no more inspiring moments than the events of Sunday afternoon. For so long the BBC coverage has been defined by the prospects of a British champion and it’s the human element as much as the sporting spectacle that keeps viewers tuning in. Now that we have a true champion, let’s hope that people continue to tune in to watch and be inspired by a winner.

Team mates, tyres and torque maps

If you’re even a casual follower of the globetrotting circus that is Formula 1 these days, then you will no doubt be aware of the ongoing debate surrounding team orders. There’s usually plenty to talk about in the build up to an F1 race but the subject of intra-team battles is a favourite among the ever-expanding troupe of pit lane pundits. Whenever and wherever the F1 road show rolls into town the media hawkers are much more comfortable drumming up interest by talking about pyrotechnics going off between stable mates than they are trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with the complexities of tyre compounds or the latest political manoeuvrings in the paddock. Whilst the engineering feats asked of some of the world’s leading brains and the Game of Thrones like struggle for ultimate control of the sport are both part of the intrigue for some, for the TV companies trying to win ratings, the chance to dig out the archive footage of Williams pair Mansell and Piquet going toe-to-toe at Brands Hatch and actually talk about on track action must provide welcome relief.

The most recent incarnation of this age-old discussion has risen from the smouldering aftermath of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Here, the opposing arguments for and against the use of team orders were neatly distilled for us in two separate sets of circumstances that arose during the race. On one hand we had Ross Brawn’s authoritatively delivered decree that Nico Rosberg hold station behind his team mate Lewis Hamilton and the pair bring home their Mercedes Silver Arrows line astern. On the other, we witnessed some feisty racing between the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel with the latter emerging victorious, before later finding out that Vettel had disobeyed similar orders from his team and had seemingly mugged Webber for the race victory.

Never mind for the moment whether the concept of team orders is right or wrong;  team orders have always existed and will always exist. We only need choose whether we want the FIA sanctioned antics exemplified by Ferrari in Austria 2002, where the Scuderia unashamedly ordered Rubens Barrichello to hand the win to team leader Michael Schumacher, or the more clandestine version (necessitated by the FIA’s banning of team orders) best exemplified by Ferrari at Hockenheim in 2010, where the team covertly (but equally unashamedly) asked Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso through to take the chequered flag.

This time round the post race analysis has centred not on the issuing of driver instructions in the first place, but whether or not the driver in question chooses to obey them or not. Essentially there are two schools of thought on this. The first concludes that race drivers are ruthless beasts and those who have been most successful in the past have often displayed an uncompromising attitude to ethical treatment of their competitors. The oft-quoted sound byte of Ayrton Senna (arguably the sport’s greatest champion) is offered in support of this paradigm: “…if you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer racing”. The more principled school of thought is that racing is nothing without honour and there is no merit in beating someone whose hands are tied behind their back in the way that we were led to believe Mark Webber’s were.

Shades of grey exist between the two extremes and even Vettel himself had not quite worked out whether to be remorseful, as he was immediately after the race in Malaysia in offering his apologies to his team, or bullish, as he was in the build up to the following race weekend in China,  proclaiming that he was racing, saw an opportunity and took it. At the more philosophical end of the spectrum we had Lewis Hamilton feeling uncomfortable that his team denied the quicker driver the higher finishing position, vocalising his desires to always be allowed to race and for the best man to win. For the time being we must accept this as genuine contrition though you must question whether Hamilton will maintain this stance if he ever has a team mate quick enough to consistently beat him.

Whichever viewpoint you subscribe to, the debate has provided no shortage of publicity for the pinnacle of motor racing and reminded us that it’s not all about tyres and torque maps. For now though, the bandwagon has moved on to Barcelona and the talking can stop and the racing resume.

Chris Gayle’s 175 not out: Memorable or Mickey Mouse?

Millions of cricket fans would this week have marvelled at the brutal, unrelenting force that is Chris Gayle in full flow. Batting for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in their Indian Premier League T20 clash versus Pune Warriors, Gayle treated the thousands of adulating fans in attendance at the Chinnaswamy Stadium and millions more watching on TV to 175 unbeaten runs from just 66 balls, bringing up his century off just 30 balls. Nearly 90% of Gayle’s runs came in boundary sized chunks of four or six but did, mercifully, contain 18 balls where no run was scored, showing even in T20 cricket the virtue of getting one’s eye in.

Among the more reserved connoisseurs of the game, however, acclaim for Gayle’s record smashing efforts may have been slightly less rapturous. T20 cricket, and especially the advertising laden product that is the IPL, is seen by some as Mickey Mouse cricket. As such, accomplishments in this format of the game and to an extent its 50 over cousin are all but forgotten by the time the teams cross the boundary rope to contest the next fixture. This is inevitable with the shorter forms of the game where there is scarcely enough time to cram in the obligatory advertising breaks and sponsor presentations let alone develop the ebb-and-flow narrative that contextualises the great individual and team performances of test cricket. The quality of the bowling attack treated so disdainfully by Gayle must rightly be questioned. Aside from the emerging talent of Bhuvneshwar Kumar who conceded a relatively paltry 23 runs from his four over allotment, the Pune Warriors attack contains little else in terms of international experience or class. Nevertheless, Gayle’s innings far surpasses anything that has gone before in the format and leads to the question of how this effort compares to the defining innings of the game of cricket as a whole.

Test cricket boasts many such defining performances with the bat, not least of which was Brian Lara’s 375 made against England in 1994. There are 25 other instances of triple centuries dotted throughout the history of test cricket including two from Gayle himself, but the hallmark of Lara’s effort at the Antigua Recreation ground was the level of batting mastery displayed whereby Lara’s dismissal never looked likely and his dominance of the English bowlers was such that breaking Sir Garfield Sobers’ record of 365 was inevitable once the milestone was in sight. By way of reinforcing the genius of Lara, this same inevitability was also apparent nearly 10 years later when he scored 400 against the same opposition at the same ground.

If Lara’s innings epitomised the combination of god given talent and hunger for runs, then Mike Atherton’s match saving innings of 185 not out in Johannesburg did the same for utter bloody mindedness and grim determination. Superficially, this was a far less entertaining innings, but not only defined Atherton’s career and tenure as England captain, but also defined an era of English cricket where victories were scarce and such performances were to be cherished, especially by habitually suffering English supporters.

Ian Botham’s antics in 1981 are well documented enough that you don’t have to be a fan of cricket to remember them. His performances that summer were remarkable enough taken in isolation, but given the context of all that had gone on before and with the Ashes at stake (context enough for any English or Australian fan), to almost single-handedly take on an opposition, perhaps most notably at the Headingley Test where Botham seemingly scored all of the runs and took all of the wickets (with not inconsiderable assistance from Bob Willis), has allowed “Botham’s Ashes” to go down as the stuff of legend. Likewise, VVS Laxman’s 281runs and match winning partnership with Rahul Dravid will be remembered for toppling the dominant force of Steve Waugh’s Australians from an almost unassailable position.

Each of these performances was played out against the back drop of test cricket’s rich history as well as the preceding events in each individual match. They were the defining contributions in each game and shaped their outcomes but equally these contributions were themselves defined and shaped by what went before. This is the beauty of test match cricket.

In T20 cricket there is no place for reminiscence and scant time for a thread of narrative to evolve; it’s all about the here and now. Its allure is not in its history but in its ability to deliver instant gratification. In the context of instant gratification Gayle’s innings is likely to remain as the defining innings of the format for some time and, for this reason, deserves to be alongside those of Lara, VVS, Botham and Atherton in terms of having a memorable impact, if not in terms of outright quality.