To whom should we refer the Third Umpire?

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Indisputably, the third umpire (or TV Umpire) plays an essential role in modern-day cricket. The concept of an off-field umpire making line decisions  ̶  runouts and stumpings, debuted in the 1992/93 Test series when South Africa faced India. Sachin Tendulkar, who has many firsts involving his batting prowess, was incidentally, the first batsman to be given out (run-out) by the third umpire on 14 November 1992 in the first of those Tests.

The 2002 ICC Champions Trophy experimented with enhanced usage of technology to assist on-field umpires. It basically involved the on-field umpires consulting the third umpire, to determine where the ball pitched and the resultant height reached for lbw decisions, and to resolve disputes involving bat-pad catches. Two television replays were provided for the third umpire’s decision, to be conveyed to the middle within twenty seconds.

In the opening match, Pakistan’s Shoaib Malik was hit on the pads by Sri Lankan left-arm pacer Chaminda Vaas. Umpire Daryl Harper referred the decision to the third umpire Rudy Koertzen. He decided the ball, delivered over the wicket, was pitched in line with the stumps and ruled Malik out. Malik thus became the first batsman to be given out lbw by the third umpire. There was a raging debate at the time on the use of technology in umpires’ decision-making, and this method was discontinued after the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy.

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A more advanced Decision Review System (DRS) was tested in India’s 2008 three-Test series against Sri Lanka to review contentious decisions made by on-field umpires. Apart from Hawk-Eye, slow motion and ultra-motion replays were made available for the third umpire to evaluate lbws and to review edges. Notably, players themselves could opt for the reviews, challenging the on-field umpire’s calls. With three unsuccessful reviews, the team’s quota on referrals was exhausted. At the end of the series, India had one successful review out of 21 attempts, compared to Sri Lanka’s 11 out of 27.

Sri Lanka captain Lasith Malinga signals for a TV Umpire review during the third Twenty20 cricket match against New Zealand in 2019 (© AFP).

Then, a revamped system was officially introduced on 24 November 2009 for the first Test between New Zealand and Pakistan. However, India were reluctant to use this system due to their bitter maiden experience. Nevertheless, they subsequently relented, accepting the DRS 2016 onwards.

The first recorded instance of calling for video replays in decision-making was made by one of Sri Lanka’s best-known cricket writers, Mahinda Wijesinghe. Writing in the The Island newspaper on 11 October 1982, he suggested the use of walkie-talkies between on-field umpires and another official in the pavilion, with access to TV replays. That official was to be tasked with presenting evidence on line calls to on-field umpires to make the decision.

Mahinda Wijesinghe suggested “Umpiring by camera” in a letter published in The Island as far back on 11 October 1982 (© Sri Lanka Cricket At The High Table).

In explaining his novel idea, Wijesinghe had said, “Those days, there were huge TV screens on Australian grounds. Once, they showed that a batsman was out but not given run-out and he went on to score big. I thought it was ridiculous when the whole ground can see he’s out but was still batting.”

Some claim that this idea had already been mooted by others. That could well be true. But it was Wijesinghe’s technical paper that first came up for discussion in the appropriate forum, i.e., the ICC. To his credit, the then president of the Sri Lankan cricket board, Gamini Dissanayake, decided to have the paper presented to the ICC, despite objections from his board. Unfortunately, the proposal submitted to the ICC in 1983 by an ill-prepared board representative, was shot down due to its weak presentation. He could not convincingly answer the questions raised. The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack of 1984 records that “Sri Lanka presented a paper on the use of technology for umpires but it was not supported.”

The legendary cricket personality and a past president of the MCC Christopher Martin-Jenkins paid a glowing tribute to Sri Lanka as the pioneer of the concept of the third umpire. In his Daily Telegraph newspaper column on 19 May 1993, under the banner headline “Sri Lanka the Third Umpire Pioneers,” he wrote: 

 “The Test and County Cricket Board’s [TCCB – now England and Wales Cricket Board] idea for a walkie-talkie link with a third umpire was first suggested in a written paper to the International [Cricket] Conference (now Council) nine years ago. Credit for the basic concept of using video evidence to help the umpires in the middle with tricky run-out and stumping decisions, and its English variation – a radio link to convey decisions instead of a red and green light – has been claimed by South Africa and the TCCB but belongs instead, it transpires, to a Sri Lankan cricket journalist and administrator.

Mahinda Wijesinghe, the executive secretary of the Sri Lanka Cricket Foundation, wrote a memo to the Board of Control [for Cricket in Sri Lanka] in Jan 1983 entitled: ‘The use of video cameras in Test cricket.’”

The legendary Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ tribute to Mahinda Wijesinghe as the pioneer of the third umpire concept in his Daily Telegraph newspaper column on 19 May 1993 (© Sri Lanka Cricket At The High Table).

An accountant by profession, Mahinda Wijesinghe is a cricket innovator; having carved for himself a niche as a prolific literary contributor to the game as well.  Expressing his opinion in the prestigious Cricketer International in 1987, he was the first to point out that some wicket-keeping gauntlets contained the type of webbing that gave ‘keepers an unfair advantage. As a result, the law updated in 2003 specifies the acceptable size for webbing. In 1995, Wijesinghe made history again. He detected an arithmetical error in the 250-year-old Laws of Cricket. The laws had erred on the conversion from imperial to metric in the weight of a junior cricket ball. His persistence forced MCC to bring about a correction.

Meanwhile, another Sri Lankan, lawyer Senaka Weeraratne is battling for recognition as the author of the DRS, claiming that he came up with the idea in 1997. Reportedly, in a letter to The Australian on 25 March 1997, titled “Allow Appeals to the Third Umpire”, he highlighted the importance of allowing players to review decisions to minimise umpiring errors in the middle.

It must be said that allowing for “player referrals” was yet another development in the continuously evolving Third Umpire concept. Be that as it may, a Wikipedia post on “Third umpire” says, “The third umpire was conceptualised by former Sri Lankan domestic cricketer, and current cricket writer Mahinda Wijesinghe.”

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Considering the chronology of events contributing to all aspects of the game, the distant hills to the sea may echo that Mahinda Wijesinghe has endeavoured to…“fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run”… in favour of the game we cherish.

Ranjan Mellawa is the author of “Winds Behind The Willows – A Sri Lankan’s life in love with cricket”, and tweets @RMellawa