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Umpiring Blindspot – Why Ben Stokes was rightly aggrieved

There was much furore around the dismissal of Ben Stokes in the 2nd ODI of the post-Ashes bilateral series between England and Australia, where he was given out obstructing the field, a decision which proved to be pivotal in the game as England were never able to recover from that point.

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The 3rd umpire Wilson probably judged the decision using Law 37, which states that a batsman is out obstructing the field if he willfully strikes the ball with his hand, unless it is to avoid injury. The key part of the law if a decision is to be made in favour of field obstruction is that the contact with a throw must be deliberate and the ball must be judged as heading towards the stumps. I of course, feel that Ben Stokes was not out.

There’s a worrying absence of street-smart thinking in the umpiring world these days. The whole affair occurred at very high speed, from the delivery to the straight drive to the throw to the sway out of line by the batsman. Everything that happened after the shot was essentially about instinct and reflex action. I can’t imagine the umpire not being swayed into the decision by the slow motion replays.

Using evidence from the slow motion action replays to assess the batsman’s intention (which is only indicative evidence anyways) is fundamentally flawed, considering Stokes had to evade the throw within a fraction of a second. In that fraction of a second, he used his hand to save himself. If you have a look at the replays in the video above, the ball was hurled at Stokes’ right shoulder. Hence he first moves his hands towards the ball to block it from hitting the shoulder, and instinctively also moves his shoulder out of the way by turning his body sideways. Starc’s throw was such that the ball swung from its initial line hence Stokes’ outstretched hands instinctively followed it. Stokes was already moving his head backwards when the ball hit the gloves. He was not in direct sight of the throw which to me is the most convincing evidence that Stokes’ reaction was evasion and self-protection and not obstructing the field.

I am guessing here that ultimately it was the still shot at the point of contact of the ball with hand that swayed the umpire’s decision towards giving it out. However, I believe still shots are never the solution for these cases. Viewed in isolation, it doesn’t show that the ball was hurled at the body initially and that the natural swing of the throw and movement of Stokes’ right shoulder made it look as if the ball was actually very far from Stokes’ body. As a reaction triggered by your stimulus, you generally follow the ball when you’re faced with a split second decision. It’s similar to when you are playing a ball that swings out late; you don’t deliberately follow the ball, the hand adjustment is pure instinct. Hence not out for me. The way I see it, there’s no deliberate attempt from Stokes to obstruct the throw. As a fellow cricket enthusiast put it, it is absurd to think he could obstruct a ball thrown at such pace and from that distance, with the objective to save his wicket in that split second. Adding on to his comments, there seems to be a serious mistrust of cricketers.

I think the umpire was too quick to reach a decision. If we only have to look at replays in black and white, for example where the ball is at point of contact, why do we even need an ICC umpire for this job? Surely in this case, the real umpiring skill should be to assess the body and ball movements that transpired before the contact to judge Stokes’ deliberation? In accounting principles, we are repeatedly reminded to use substance over form in making decisions related to the standards governing financial reporting. Surely the umpires who are highly trained should be exercising their judgement on the substance of such incidents? Surely they have a bigger responsibility than interpreting standards in black and white, especially when judging deliberate intent?

Remember this?

Remember this?

In my opinion, this decision has simply added to the increasing number of woeful decisions made by the 3rd umpires in recent times. The recent run out dismissal of James Anderson in the 2015 World Cup comes to mind. And who can forget that legendary 2005 run out decision given after Inzamam had involuntarily stepped out of the crease while taking evasive action against Harmison’s throw?

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