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The Disputed Kohli Catch - Why the “Soft Signal” is Essential

Hemant Buch |Cricketnext | Updated: December 17, 2018, 3:53 PM IST
The Disputed Kohli Catch - Why the “Soft Signal” is Essential

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Australia and India are in a dogfight for ascendancy at Perth. Virat Kohli is playing a knock only he seems to be capable of these days, single-handedly dragging his team into a position of strength. Cummins pitches one up and the India skipper can’t help himself. He goes for a drive and almost unbelievable – because he seems to be in complete control – edges the ball. Peter Handscomb dives forward at slip to grab what looks like a brilliant catch.

But is it?

Handscomb claims it. Kohli waits, of course. He’s not going to make it easier for the umpires. The umpires get together. A brief chat ensues before Kumar Dharmasena turns around and draws a box in the air and then points his right index finger skywards. The soft signal. Out. Over to Nigel Llong to dig out any evidence that conclusively disproves what the on-field umpires believe.

A lot rests on this moment. The direction of the match. The series even, perhaps. It is, after all, the wicket of India’s captain, the man considered the best batsman on the planet currently. India are still 75 runs behind Australia. And all that India have left in the shed are four batsmen that are equal claimants to be number 11.

Llong goes through the process. He asks the television director to first show him the bowler’s front-foot to check the no-ball. All clear. Next, the best possible angles to show the catch. This is a high-budget series, as we say in the business, and all the tools are on offer. There are several super-slo cameras, topping out at 300 frames per second at the game (the usual being 25 frames per second) so the replays that come up are all in extreme slow-motion.

The best angles to judge a low catch are with a ground-level camera. That should show up conclusively whether the fingers are under the ball. In theory. In practice, it isn’t so easy. Cricket grounds are built like inverted saucers, usually for better drainage. The square is usually slightly raised and when the ball goes to slip, at times the place where fingers or ball meet the ground aren’t visible to camera shooting the action front on.

( Fox Cricket/Twitter) (Fox Cricket/Twitter)

From behind, the fielders, leg, boot, hand, body generally obscure the view. In this case though, there was none of that. The catch was clearly visible from the reverse-slip camera. But shooting a three-dimensional action with a two-dimensional camera creates an insurmountable problem. There is no depth in the picture, so front on, there is no perspective. Exactly why, to judge a nick, the umpires ask for the snickometer that comes up along with a split screen to match the nick with point the ball passes the bat. Just the front on angle does not tell you whether the ball has brushed bat or pad or glove.

Luckily, here, there was another super-slo camera at mid-wicket that gives the umpire a different angle to judge the catch. But this camera isn’t at ground level. It is elevated, again creating foreshortening, and doubt. At this point, the fan usually sees what he wants to see. If Indian, he is looking for anything he feels will let Kohli stay on. The Australian fan on the other hand sees things very differently.

Somebody like Llong, an experienced television umpire knows all of this and he also has experience of what things look like on the field, in three-dimensional vision. He uses the evidence and judgement to come up with the decision that there is nothing there to disprove the on-field umpires’ view. This, as a television man, would appear to be fairest decision to me. But until we get coverage in 3D, we will always have these debates.

Questions have been raised about the need for a soft signal. There is no uniformity in the television specifications of cricket coverage. The more the money put into the broadcast, the more the tools available. In basic international coverage, there are two super slow motion cameras whose frame rates vary between 150 and 300 frames per second. The rest are normal motion.

(Fox Sports) (Fox Sports)

If the broadcast Hawkeye system is used, there are an additional six fixed super slow-motion cameras available. In top-end coverage, such as Sky in the UK, or Fox in Australia or India cricket, there are at least six manned super slow-motion cameras plus six more from Hawkeye, apart from two ultra-motion cameras that can hit 1000 frames per second. There is an obvious difference in quality of pictures provided between the various specifications.

The number of cameras too can vary between 18 and anything up to 45. The more the cameras, the more the angles available to the third umpire. Several times, a catch goes too quickly for cameramen to capture or where the camera is too wide. If there are a huge number of cameras available, chances are greater that one of them manages to catch the action. But here too, if the cameras run at 25 frames per second, we have missing frames, where there is a larger gap between the visible frames.

Here, there is a huge chance of missing the ‘money shot’ to a skipped frame. Zooming up the shot past a point comes with its own incumbent problems – the picture pixelates every time it is blown up, as it does with your own photos from a still camera or a mobile phone, and the further you zoom in, the blurrier the picture.

In such a situation, there needs to be a decision to fall back upon. Hence, the thought is that the standing umpires say “We feel this is out, but why don’t you have a look on TV and see if you find any reason for us to change our decision.” It is the umpires’ judgement, based on what they saw with three-dimensional vision on field and on their experience of judging what they see.

It may not satisfy everybody, and there will be debates – on Twitter, on Facebook, across the table…everywhere. But debate is part of sport. One might even say that matches are remembered as much for great knocks and great bowling spells as for the controversy they generate. They might even be good for sport. Of course, that’s debatable too!

(Hemant Buch is a media professional with nearly 25 years of experience in sports broadcasting. He currently travels the world, directing and producing cricket. While not sitting in front of a bank of monitors, he’s indulging in his other passion – photography. He tweets @hemantbuch)
First Published: December 16, 2018, 3:13 PM IST
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