How India learnt to stop worrying and (sort of) love the DRS
So the Rajkot Test, the Indian team's first, wary embrace of regular DRS has passed without what the police refer to as "untoward incidents". Cheteshwar Pujara will offer us his thoughts about DRS at a later date, no doubt - about his very smart referral in the first innings, which got him past a dream home Test century.
We must realise that Rajkot, of course, has not quite marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship: the DRS is on trial all through the series against England. We can only hope that by the time it is done, this prickly relationship will be free of the old hang-ups, and that the Indian team will join the rest of the cricket world in using the DRS as standard practice.
Virat Kohli's men belong to a generation younger to that of the DRS-scarred class of 2008. To be fair, even that lot would probably have given the DRS a shot outside of ICC events at some point had the system not found itself trapped in front with an identity crisis: What am I? What have I become? A broadcaster's add-on? A regulatory requirement? A political tool for the powerful in a sulk?
In 2016, things are clearer. The DRS is a regulatory requirement that is a few steps closer to being under the ICC's full control. The eventual intention is for it to be consistently applied in the international game. For the first time, Zimbabwe too used a version of the DRS in a home Test versus Sri Lanka last week. It was DRS lite - with ball-tracking, sans stump mic - but no one was complaining.
India's reservations over the DRS have been quelled for the moment due to several factors. Like improvements in the quality of the replay footage used by the Hawk-Eye tool - from 75 frames per second in 2011, we now have 340, which provides more data to predict the path of the ball.
Also, there has been the addition of Ultra Edge technology, which was introduced at the start of the year in the South Africa v England series. This combined sound-based edge detection with simultaneous camera frames to help pick up finer edges, added a new component to the information available to the umpires. Taken together, these made for a sustained push for the argument in favour of the DRS.
What added an extra layer of persuasion was the decision to take the DRS out of the cricket broadcasting environment and into a neutral laboratory. Anil Kumble, the head of the ICC's cricket committee, and Geoff Allardice, the ICC's general manager, leaned on science to ask questions of the technology tools at hand and to set up new parameters for DRS technologies of the future.
Kumble, captain of India in that 2008 DRS-disaster series, tackled the project not as a cricketer who had a bone to pick with technology. It was studied as a mechanical-engineering problem that required a mechanical-engineering approach as a solution. Good thing Kumble, currently the India coach, has a degree in the subject.
The exercise began in September 2014 with a set of meetings between Kumble, Allardice and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers in Boston. Sanjay Sarma, MIT professor of Mechanical Engineering says, "Accuracy is a key question that any engineering task asks about measurement technologies. How precise is it? How repeatable is it? Has this been characterised? Anil Kumble and Geoff Allardice came to us with these questions."
A cricket fan, Sarma had his own "mixed feelings" about the DRS. "On the one hand, I do believe in reviews, in technology, and in the visual benefits of DRS. On the other hand, I didn't know if and how DRS was being calibrated."
The DRS had more than an identity crisis; rather, it came with a built-in structural flaw. Given that analogies about parachutes and safety equipment have been used in the context of the DRS in the past, here is another. Let's compare it to a house constructed without a blueprint and assembled on the go with a variety of materials added on randomly. Going to MIT and getting DRS technologies tested independently was like asking an architect to check if the doors in a house already built would always shut correctly and that the roof wouldn't possibly collapse. What MIT did was invent the equipment that would answer those questions and also give the ICC clear technology parameters for the use of DRS in future.
The September 2014 meetings marked the beginnings of a year-long project, which involved Sarma, Dr Jaco Pretorius of South Africa, and Stephen Ho, an American research scientist at MIT. While Sarma and Pretorius were from cricket-playing nations, Ho, like the students involved as consultants in the research, had no knowledge of the sport. Sarma says, "They all found the sport quaint, but over time have started playing 'gully cricket' in our lab retreats and in the hall at MIT."
Two US engineering firms, Mide and Bell-Everman, constructed the equipment, the Swinging Arm that tests the Real Time Snicko/Ultra Edge, and the Frame, which studies the ball-tracker. Two sets of tests were conducted using these tools, the first in a closed environment, like at Loughborough University last year and the other in a real match environment. Ultra Edge for example was tested behind the scenes with no public notice during the September 2015 England v Australia ODI at Lord's.
RTS and HotSpot, which are owned by BBG Sports, one of two cricket technology providers along with Hawk Eye, went through their offline testing at a suburban ground in Melbourne in April 2016. This was two months after being observed at work during the New Zealand v Australia Test in Christchurch. HawkEye was put to the offline MIT-ICC tests in April 2016 in Winchester, UK and then observed a month later during the England v Sri Lanka Test in Durham. The only other ball tracking technology available to cricket, Virtual Eye of New Zealand will be tested in February 2017 towards the end of the southern-hemisphere season.
The equipment used to test the DRS now sits locked up in crates that are in the ICC's possession in Dubai. The MIT team, Sarma says, has recommended that the tools used in the DRS are "characterised/ qualified" periodically, i.e. tested to check if the parameters arrived at earlier still hold true. During the course of the project, the impact of physical conditions on the DRS tools, like wind on the speed of sound, for example, was also studied but found to be "small in relative terms", or easily tackled.
The ICC now owns a proper blueprint with which to build and add to their DRS house. The chief executives' meetings in February will possibly involve discussion about what could be the next series of issues to be tackled on the way to a consistently applied DRS, with mandatory tools like the ball tracker and sound-based edge-detection systems. Cost would definitely be one: a five-year-old estimate says a basic DRS system costs US$5000 per day; that figure would be higher today, with far more sophisticated technologies involved. Apart from the monies, the fact that the DRS package will be owned and controlled by the ICC raises even more questions.
If the ICC does take full control of the DRS from broadcasters, it has to decide in which matches the system is to be used. All formats? All formats across men's and women's cricket? How can the logistics involved be brought in sync with the current cricket calendar? Given that in every match that features the DRS, the ICC appoints its own DRS-trained third umpire along with the two on-field umpires, how many more ICC-approved third umpires would need to be DRS-trained and sent out to work matches? That is in the future and outside the ambit of the system's most reluctant followers.
For the Indian team, though, there is one element of the DRS that will prove challenging, but which cannot be fixed by machines or scientific tests. It is to do with how the technology is used by the players in the middle, and here the Indians will have to catch up quick.
In Rajkot, Pujara experienced all sides. After his inspired first-innings referral, in the second he walked off glumly, leg-before to one from Adil Rashid that pitched outside leg. At the other end, M Vijay had respectfully turned his back to the departure, without alerting his partner to the possibility of a review. It was, no doubt, an instinctive response, born of a DRS-free Test match habit. It led Sachin Tendulkar to say that the third umpire needs to intervene in such instances. Let's not get into that now or we will be here for another eight years.
Yes, the umpire's decision must be respected, but in the Indian Test team's new world, sometimes, the old rules don't apply.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo