My eight year-old grandson could have drawn a better line than the squiggly one we were presented with on television the other night – you know, the one which bent round Juan Mata’s kneecap to deny him a goal in the recent Manchester United v Huddersfield FA Cup match. The authorities responsible for the technology to rule the goal offside apologised for displaying the ‘wrong’ image, stressing that the decision made by the referee in a broom cupboard back in London was not influenced by the squiggly line; he had taken into account only the ‘right’ image, the one not drawn by a toddler. Of course not. Who could possibly have thought otherwise? It begs the question why on earth that toddler was let loose in the control room in the first place.
I find cock-ups intensely amusing. Everybody loves a prat fall; it’s ingrained in the British sense of humour. The common-or-garden foul-up, the technical glitch that causes havoc, never fails to bring a smile to my face. It is a little remembered fact that the Royal Fireworks on the River Thames in 1749, made famous by Handel’s music, was a disaster, full of pyrotechnic mishaps, including a stray rocket that set fire to a pavilion. It took 177 years to build the Tower of Pisa but only ten before it started to lean. The lookout on the Titanic mislaid the key to the locker that contained the binoculars. It was never a good idea to fill the passenger airship Hindenburg with hydrogen. Nor was it sensible for a Chinese cameraman to film Usain Bolt celebrating winning gold in the 200m Beijing Olympics perched precariously on a two-wheeled Segway, taking the sprinter out at the knees as he fell off. The rich tapestry of human discomfiture and all that.
Technology, and its increasing application in sport, was meant to simplify things, to remove human mistake, to ensure that the correct decision is made, to see that justice is done. I am not at all sure that it has turned out quite like that. On occasions, it has served only to complicate matters. Before I am dismissed as an old fogey resisting change, hear me out. There was a time when the rules of the game, so to speak, were simple: the referee was always right, even when he was wrong. It was accepted that the man in charge was human and if he made a mistake, which he was bound to do from time to time, well, tough. That was one of life’s lessons, to take the rough with the smooth. Not out! And that’s over. No foul! Play on. Offside, No 8! Are you arguing with me, son? Penalty, 10 yards further upfield. When I was playing for Hampshire in the disobedient 1970s, if you even gave an umpire an old-fashioned look as he raised his finger, you were invited into the umpires’ room at the close of play and given a dressing-down. It wasn’t perfect but everybody knew where he stood.
The genie’s out of the bottle now and it won’t go back in. That is not necessarily a bad thing. You can’t uninvent the internal combustion engine and bemoan the passing of the stagecoach. Besides, I guess it was rather uncomfortable travelling over rutted roads in a horse-drawn carriage; give me the Range Rover any time. If video technology provides the correct decision, then let’s embrace it. The howlers are removed from the game and that is what we all want, isn’t it? Yes, up to a point.
My reservations are two-fold. First, consider the spectator’s experience. Not the viewer’s, please note. The armchair critic knows exactly what is going on because it is explained, both verbally and visually, in exhaustive detail on his television screen. But the poor chap in the stands is often at a loss and finds himself staring up at the large screen for elucidation only to be encouraged to take out a mortgage with the match sponsor. I have been to Test matches, football games and rugby internationals and have been frustrated at the delay and the lack of information and explanation. The paying public deserve to be better informed. Speed up the process and improve the images with relevant comment – that would be my plea.
Secondly, I do not share the almost messianic devotion of the technophile to the total accuracy of all the gizmos. For line decisions - is it a boundary, did it go over the goal line, was that forehand in or out - I am perfectly comfortable with Hawkeye. I am all in favour of slo-mo evidence, Snicko, Hot Spot and all the rest of the knobs and whistles. Where I have a problem – and this is peculiar to cricket – is when technology makes a prediction of what will happen next. How many times when I was bowling did the ball beat the batsman all ends up and somehow, unbelievably, it missed the wicket? Truthfully, not very often but you take my point. If the ball had hit the batsman on the pad I would have sworn that it would knocked all three stumps out of the ground and that the umpire should go to Specsavers if he had the temerity not to give it out LBW. The fact is nobody can, with total accuracy, determine what will happen to a ball after it has hit the pad. Yet the TV images show with utter conviction the ball hitting the stumps and the bails jumping out of their grooves. Or missing. And is there anything more ridiculous than seeing the bails fly but the verdict flashing Not Out? Umpire’s call? But it always was. No, I would scrap the predictive element of reviewing a decision.
Lastly, in order to underline my credentials as a Luddite, I have to say I lament the dilution of the moment of triumph or disaster that is so much an integral part of the beautiful game as boffins pore over repeated images on a screen. Even the polite Juan Mata admitted to feeling a bit of a wally celebrating his goal - a piece of sublime skill, by the way - only to have it disallowed because he had bony knees.