The broadcasters had replayed the footage more than a dozen times and, still, nobody was sure. They had been down the usual routes, Hot Spot, Snicko, ask an expert, and were no further forward than the split second after the ball had left Mitchell Starc’s hand.
Yet behind closed doors in an airless room at the WACA, one individual was about to insist he was very certain indeed.
Aleem Dar is paid for decisions, and a decision cricket was going to get. He relayed his findings to umpire Marais Erasmus and, given no choice but to obey, up went the finger. Mark Stoneman was out. How, we didn’t know. Why, we couldn’t say.
England’s Mark Stoneman was controversially dismissed on day one of the third Test
Either Dar had an angle unavailable to any other observer at the WACA, or he guessed. And that was never the point of video replay. If we wanted guesses, we could have stayed with the guys in the middle.
Yet this is where we are with technology in sport these days and it is not going to get better from here. Video assistance was introduced to answer riddles and even on days when it cannot, we pretend it can.
At rugby, through a pile-up of 10 bodies, video spies a try. At cricket when the Hubble telescope could barely locate a nick, video detects the finest edge — and we are about to move technology into the most ferocious arena of all: football.
Stoneman went after Mitchell Starc’s fast ball, which kicked up and bounced harshly
We are about to let one man and his vlog loose on calls as wholly subjective as Ander Herrera’s penalty-area trip against Manchester City. This cannot end well.
For all the drama around harsh words uttered in the field, cricket is Toytown compared to the Badlands of football.
There is no equivalent in cricket of the chaos that erupted in the tunnel at Old Trafford on Sunday. The fight between Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad was 36 years ago now, and is still talked about, wide-eyed, even today.
Yet, at the height of the controversy around Stoneman’s dismissal, England captain Joe Root and coach Paul Collingwood appeared to be telling the batsman to stay on the field, and not cross the boundary ropes, just in case they could get the decision overturned.
Imagine that, in a football stadium, with its attendant passions and lunacies.
Imagine a system that is supposed to bring perfect clarity reduced to a series of hunches, as it was in the third Test, as it was in Adelaide when Moeen Ali was given out stumped.
In a sport too immature to cope with lively celebration, how will they handle that level of controversy? How might Jose Mourinho react the day the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) decides to officiate the Manchester derby on what amounts to his best guess.
Replays were shown after, but it wasn’t clear where Stoneman had been hit by the ball
Deep down, football knows it is not ready for the fall-out. This season’s FA Cup is supposed to be part of a VAR trial, with televised third-round ties at Premier League grounds using the technology — but then Liverpool versus Everton was switched to Friday night and it didn’t seem such a good idea.
Brighton versus Crystal Palace will get the VAR treatment instead, because the FA and Professional Game Match Officials considered the Merseyside derby too volatile to risk further carnage.
We want the truth but Merseyside, apparently, can’t handle the truth. Why? If the technology works, what are the FA scared of? Maybe an incident like the one at the WACA where a huge call was made even more controversial by the flawed circumstances of the judgment.
In other words, a guess. That is what Dar did, when he reached a very hurried decision on Stoneman gloving a catch to wicket-keeper Tim Paine.
Umpire Erasmus had initially shaken his head, perhaps because he thought Stoneman did not touch it, perhaps because the gloved hand under scrutiny had been taken off the bat before making faint contact with the ball.
Dar disagreed. And this is the crucial part. He may even have been right. Michael Vaughan was prepared to say that repeated slow-motion study supported Dar’s call. But he took 30 minutes to come to that conclusion, on social media.
Further replays showed that the ball had hit the glove of the England batsman from Starc’s ball
So Dar cannot have been conclusively right in the time allotted. If he was right, he was right by accident. And video technology is not supposed to be about accidental acts of accuracy. It is interesting that as other sports are embracing set-piece reviews as part of the spectacle, showing them on big screens, making them part of the entertainment, one has identified wider issues and decided to keep it in-house.
Golf will no longer accept armchair informants shopping players for rule infringements spotted on television coverage. They have accepted that some of the crimes phoned in were harmless, accidental transgressions for which the punishments were disproportionate.
The tiniest movement of a ball in the rough might not be detected in real time by the golfer, but could be picked up by a viewer with constant slow-mo replays. From there, the penalties could be immense — shot deductions, even disqualification if the wrong score had been recorded.
Now, at least one official, and more in major tournaments, will be assigned to study broadcast footage, identifying and resolving issues as they arise. They will then advise match referees, who will clear issues quickly. And all without being played out as part of the show.
This is how it should be. Video should be there for certainties, and travesties. For cheats or blatant errors such as the Swiss penalty that knocked Northern Ireland out of the World Cup. Finite calls, black-and-white matters of in or out are equally not an issue, such as goal-line technology in football, or disputed line calls in tennis. What has increasingly happened, though, is because video is viewed as a panacea solving all sporting injustices, those in charge of it feel duty-bound to offer solutions.
When did you last hear a VAR tell the match referee, ‘Mate, I haven’t a clue. Your guess is as good as mine.’
What do they fear? That they won’t get the next gig, if they admit the truth? That, a great many times, the video is as inconclusive as real-time sight? That you can’t see through 10 bodies to the bottom of a ruck, that Snicko was synced with the footage to match a version of what we think most likely happened, that Herrera’s tumble looks like a penalty from one angle and a dive from the other, and is wholly a matter of opinion?
Baseball uses video technology to decide the toughest base calls. Yet, most times, it is close to impossible to separate the runner from the tag and anyone who says they can should be working for NASA, not Major League Baseball.
Yet they do it, because this is now what is expected. Dar called it because he feared confessing that, like the rest of us at the WACA, he really couldn’t be sure.
So he guessed, he backed his best hunch and got it right, or wrong. Just like the on-field umpire would have before technology solved everything. Kind of ironic, if you think about it.
Froome faces biggest battle and it’s uphill all the way
On stage 17 of this year’s Vuelta a Espana, Chris Froome struggled up the Alto de los Machucos, a mountain with a 25 per cent gradient in some places, losing 42 seconds to his closest challenger Vincenzo Nibali.
The following day, on stage 18, he was a changed man, making a magnificent late break on the road to Santo Toribio de Liebana, which extended his lead over Nibali to a minute and 37 seconds.
That was on September 7, the day Froome recorded a positive test for increased levels of salbutamol.
Team Sky will no doubt insist that this was in no way an attempt to cheat, as salbutamol through an inhaler has no performance-enhancing effects.
Yet, day to day, stage to stage, Froome’s performance greatly improved.
Indeed, his performance on September 7 is widely considered to be the game-changer in winning the Vuelta — the first time a rider has scooped that, and the Tour de France, in the same year since 1978. So scepticism is understandable, no matter Team Sky’s protests.
For whatever reason, Froome got better on the day he tested positive. If he thought he had an uphill climb then, it is nothing compared to the one he faces restoring his credibility now.
Team Sky cyclist Chris Froome is facing his biggest battle and this one is uphill all the way
One of the more bemusing details from the Old Trafford brawl is the role of the police in the tunnel. According to reports of the melee, police ‘looked on in disbelief’.
Er, they did what? Watched? So what are they there for, then? This was a mass fight, with punches thrown, objects aimed and injuries caused. It seems like exactly the sort of behaviour the police are there to prevent.
Why was it left for stewards to break up? If the police do not want to get involved, why are they in the tunnel? If all they want is autographs, get behind the barriers with the rest of the kids. If they just want to watch the match, buy a ticket.
Spare us the lesson in respect, Arsene…
Arsene Wenger has cited wrestling as holding the answers to football’s problems with respect. ‘In sumo, you never can tell which guy wins,’ said Wenger.
‘The winner doesn’t show any emotion out of respect for the loser. When you live in Japan, what comes through is the respect for people.’ Well, yes and no. There is a lot of politeness and bowing to superiors, but it is quite an insular society and visiting foreigners — not sensei (teachers) like Wenger, who are much admired — are not always welcomed.
Equally, one wonders why if Wenger was so affected he hasn’t lived more by sumo’s example because, when losing, far from appearing inscrutable, one can read his face a mile away. Old Vinegar Lips, as Sir Alex Ferguson used to call him.
Arsene Wenger has appeared far from inscrutable when on the end of a defeat in the past
History lesson for Blues fans
Chelsea supporters have long had to put up with being told they have no history, by rivals whose ignorance of it is damning.
For instance, Chelsea beat Liverpool to a European trophy by two seasons, winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1971.
Equally, considering the Premier League has been going a quarter of a century now, their early successes under Jose Mourinho might count as modern history, at least.
Yet it is not just visitors to Stamford Bridge who need greater appreciation of the past. Those Chelsea fans taunting Huddersfield Town fans with ‘champions of England, you’ll never sing that’ may need to consult the annals, too.
For the record, in the years when Huddersfield became the first English club to win the league three years in succession — 1923-24 to 1925-26 — Chelsea were relegated in 21st place and then failed to win promotion from Division Two, finishing fifth and third.
It took them until 2010 and the arrival of a Russian billionaire to overtake the number of titles won by Huddersfield.
Southampton thought they were too good for Claude Puel. A first major cup final in 14 years and an eighth-place finish was beneath them. They wanted sexier football, they wanted excitement. Well, now they’ve got it. After Puel’s Leicester inflicted a 4-1 home defeat this week, Southampton sit just four points off 19th place and three of their next four fixtures are Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United, all away. Maybe someone will tell Mauricio Pellegrino they would now settle for the odd dull draw.
Southampton wanted sexier football but Mauricio Pellegrino is struggling to provide that
England are now considering appointing a full-time manager to handle future cricket tours, disciplinary issues having overshadowed the 2017-18 Ashes.
Aside from current personal issues, Andrew Strauss, ECB director of cricket, has too many professional duties at home, while Phil Neale is employed as operations manager but deals mainly with the logistics of hotels and travel.
Trevor Bayliss, the coach, has been uncomfortable answering questions about drinking sessions and headbutts, and would rather focus on cricket. Yet why is a disciplinarian required at all, unless it is expected that players will misbehave? Surely it isn’t a full-time job clearing up after England’s cricketers on tour?
And if it is, isn’t that rather the problem?
Tour boozing did Finn no favours
Steven Finn says the current England team drink considerably less than the one that toured Australia in 2010-11.
‘There was a lot of alcohol on that tour,’ he recalled this week. ‘There was lots of going out — way, way more than happens under this regime.’
The underlying coda being, we drank, and we won. England defeated Australia 3-1 in that series.
Yet Finn did not play after Perth, when Australia tied the series 1-1. He was dropped for being too expensive. Some might argue that was the start of his problems, in and out of the England team, action failings, inconsistency.
The rules governing no balls were actually changed to take in Finn’s unfortunate habit of clipping the stumps with his trailing right knee. He was sent home from the last Ashes tour after one-day coach Ashley Giles said the technical issues made it impossible to select him.
Put it like this, there are better adverts for the hard-drinking tour lifestyle than Finn.
Maybe he needed a few more nights in.
Steven Finn says the current England team drink a lot less than the Ashes side of 2010-11