This should come as no surprise to anyone that has been following cricket: Kane Williamson is an expert batsman. Expertise is defined in the dictionary as “expert skill or knowledge in a particular field”. To paraphrase a friend, expertise is, “Given the correct information and sufficient time, the expert will always come to the right answer.”
If all the information about a particular delivery is provided to Williamson, he can precisely tell you what he can do with it. However, in an international contest when facing a top bowler, he only has a fraction of a second to collect the information about the delivery. He would edge some deliveries, play and miss a few, and be dismissed by some others, such as the delivery from Liam Plunkett he feathered behind in the final of the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
Towards the end of that final, an incident occurred that has garnered far too much attention - and grievance - from fans and media alike, about the decision taken by on-field umpires Kumar Dharmasena and Marais Erasmus, both two-time recipients of the “David Shepherd Trophy” for ICC Umpire of the Year, with the Sri Lankan awarded in 2012 and 2018, while the South African felicitated in 2016 and 2017.
Former ICC Umpire and current member of MCC Laws subcommittee, Simon Taufel, with the help of video evidence correctly identified the erroneous decision by the umpires to award six runs (instead of five) on the ricochet overthrow.
He was, however, sympathetic towards the umpires given the slew of determinations the elite panel twosome had to make before arriving at a decision. Taufel, himself winner of the umpire of the year award four times in a row, was indeed the best person to have evaluated the evidence and commented on the source of the error.
Of course, in an era of social media snap judgments and instant-outrage driving clicks to websites, the umpires, especially Dharmasena, were mercilessly criticized. Dharmasena, in a classic case of sliding doors, was made responsible for changing the course of the final by awarding one extra run and returning Ben Stokes to strike, even though it was just one delivery out of 600, and one run out the 482.
It’s a remarkable ability of the human mind to disregard 99.2 overs of cricket and hang the millstone around Dharmasena’s neck for that one delivery, even as Williamson and his team, most rightful to feel aggrieved, did not stoop to the level of blaming the umpires and provided the much-needed perspective of “so many other bits and pieces to that game that were so important.”
Like Williamson, umpire Dharmasena is an expert in his field. With ten years of international playing experience and a decade as an international umpire, eight of those in the Elite Panel, his expertise as an umpire is second to none. A week after the final, Dharmasena addressed the decision - how it was arrived at, the reason for not seeking video replay assistance, and admission of the error.
Dharmasena did not muddy the waters and instead was forthcoming on the details; it took clarity of thought, honesty and integrity - essentials in anyone’s nature but especially so in someone who’s an unbiased arbiter in international sport.
“I admit I was wrong,” said Dharmasena to Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), “I agree that there was a judgmental error when I see it on TV replays now. But we did not have the luxury of TV replays at the ground and I will never regret the decision I made.”
Unsurprisingly, even in the final over of a tight World Cup final, the expert was quite clear on the stipulations within the ICC Playing Conditions that allowed umpires to seek video replay assistance. Appendix D, Section 2 does not include a provision for on-field umpires to request the assistance of third umpire.
If one were to argue that it was the last over in a World Cup final, and therefore the umpires should have applied their “common sense” to call for review, they do not then understand how an umpire functions.
In an interview with this writer in 2012, Umpire Taufel described his approach to decision making as staring at a set of pads even if it was a batting maestro at the other end. “I have almost disassociated myself with the beauty of the game,” said Taufel, “all I see is a set of pads and watch the ball and where it pitched, where it is hitting and where it is going. I don’t really care who is bowling and I don’t really care who is batting, I just gotta make those very clinical judgments and not be too worried about who is involved.”
Umpires cannot willy-nilly apply the rules of cricket. The rules are exact, precise and self-consistent, and umpire’s job is to apply them dispassionately. If an umpire were to allow the occasion of the event to sway their judgment, it is not really a hop-skip-and-a-jump to then think that the player in front of them could influence their decision as well.
Thus, Dharmasena’s umpiring rectitude is to be applauded, as the ICC did but he was the target of a lot of derision. Every decision made by an umpire on every delivery is logged by the ICC, and the umpires are objectively evaluated on their performances.
In 2017, the then ICC Chief Executive David Richardson reported that ICC’s targets for correct decision-making stood at “94 percent rising to 98.5 percent after DRS.” Anyone that carries out their job of making quick decisions on plays that take fractions of a second, with all the associated scrutiny and spotlight, at 94% certainty, one would think will be celebrated and not derided.
With so many things on his plate - batsmen completing runs, ball being fielded, how the fielder handled the ball, the throw, the batsmen crossing, etc. - Dharmasena consulted with his partner (the conversation was heard by the other match officials) and made the best possible decision given the information he had, and was allowed to have by the rules.
He said he was “100% certain” of his decision when he made it. As it turned out, it was an error, but he has no reason to ‘feel’ any regret.
If the grievance machinery so wantonly desired a public self-flagellation, Dharmasena was not going to give them that. Their feelings are irrelevant, and he had done his job to the best of his abilities. This would be akin to asking Williamson to express regret over edging that delivery from Plunkett. Even the experts get it wrong sometimes. They are only human.