Column: MLB World Series tests cricket’s Hot Spot

The short-sightedness of Indian cricket administrators could be

a bonus for fans of Major League Baseball.

Military grade thermal-imaging cameras that have improved the

television spectacle in cricket and helped on-field umpires cut out

some – but not all – mistakes will be tried at the World

Series.

The cameras spot the friction-heat generated when a ball hits a

bat or players’ protective padding and gloves. Little nicks or

glances that the naked eye may miss because the ball is traveling

so fast and the contact is so slight often show up nicely, as a

white mark, with the images generated by the Hot Spot system.

But Australian Warren Brennan, who supplies the cameras for

cricket, feels that the game’s power-brokers in India – which, with

its hundreds of millions of fans is increasingly the center and

future of cricket’s universe – don’t appreciate and thus don’t

deserve his technology. So Brennan withdrew his services for

India’s upcoming series of one-day games against England and is

instead shipping three of his cameras to the United States, for use

by broadcaster Fox Sports.

In the World Series, the cameras will be trained on the batter,

one on both sides to cover both left- and right-handers, with the

third at the front, Brennan says.

The images won’t be used to help officiate games, as they are in

cricket. But, if Fox likes them, they might be broadcast to

viewers, perhaps sometime into Game 1 or from Game 2, adding a

dimension to their understanding of the action. Until Brennan

actually gets to use the cameras in the World Series, he cannot be

sure what results he’ll get with baseball.

But, conceivably, Hot Spot could show just how sweetly a player

thumped a home run or may detect things umpires miss. That could

include, say, the faint touch of a ball on a batter’s wrist or

uniform – which, according to baseball’s rules, should send him to

first base.

”The proof’s always in the pudding with these type of things,”

Brennan said in a phone interview. ”We’ll just have to take it

there, you know, and try it during the games and see whether we get

a similar type of results as we get for cricket, and just go from

there.”

”A nice big home run off the middle of the bat might come up

fantastically well, and the Americans might think that’s better

than sliced bread. It’s all about their impression, really. It’s

not what I think might work and might not work.”

”The Americans do tend to look at things more from an

entertainment-type perspective of trying to build things up and

make things, you know, big and sort of interesting,” he added.

”The only reason that we can come over is because we’ve got

spare cameras that aren’t now going to India.”

Fox wants ”to look at bat-on-ball type contact and when the

ball hits the side of the bat … They’re the sort of clients that

we love to work for and, you know, that support us 100

percent.”

Unlike the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

It has blown hot and cold – well, mostly cold – about the use of

technology in umpiring. It agreed to use Hot Spot for its ill-fated

tour of England this summer, when the English whitewashed the test

series 4-0 to wrest away the Indians’ crown as the world’s No. 1

side.

Some disputed calls involving Hot Spot – ”We probably did miss

a couple, where the player did hit it and it didn’t show up on Hot

Spot,” Brennan said – in that series subsequently led to a U-turn

from the BCCI. In September, its president called Hot Spot

”insufficient” and said the BCCI no longer wants umpiring

technology, called the Decision Review System or DRS in cricket, at

least not in its present form.

Such is India’s clout that the sport’s global overseer, the

International Cricket Council, this week also took a step back,

saying DRS will no longer be mandatory and that cricket nations can

instead chose whether to use it when they play each other.

Originally, Brennan committed to send four of his cameras to

India for its five one-day games against England that start in

Hyderabad this Friday, but then changed his mind.

”We’ve never worked for people who are not supportive of what

we are doing,” he said. ”The Indian cricket board are the first

people I’ve ever come across that just take a different idea on

this.”

”Unless they’re going to support technology and the DRS

process, there’s no point in us going there. I mean we are on a

hiding to nothing if we go over there and they’re not going to be

supportive. We’ll just be a whipping board.”

”We’ve wasted a lot, a lot, of time in trying to cater for the

Indians. At the end of the day, I think that it’s probably not

about cricket and it’s probably not about technology, it’s probably

more about the Indians trying to flex their muscles,” he said.

”Almost all of the time I speak to the Indian cricket board, it’s

really all about power for them, and them owning the game, because

they believe they have a virtual birthright to control the game,

because they bring in such a high percentage of the revenue into

the sport.”

So India-England will be umpired by humans, alone. How quaint

and how absurd in light of Steve Jobs’ death. Of the many lessons

that Apple’s founder taught us, one was that technology’s march is

inexorable but that it enriches lives when used and presented well.

Sports administrators who pretend otherwise look like

dinosaurs.

As much as some of us enjoyed the theater of John McEnroe

blowing his top, tennis is now better to watch and fairer with

technology that sorts out disputed line calls. Unjustly awarded or

denied goals could be eradicated in football if FIFA would only

pull its finger out and install goal-monitoring technology. Video

replays for questionable tries and miked-up referees are good in

rugby.

It shouldn’t matter that Hot Spot and other umpiring aids aren’t

conclusive all of the time. They are conclusive some of the time

and that is an improvement over unaided umpires making glaring

mistakes. If aids are withheld from umpires, they and the game of

cricket just look stupid when mistakes are made that technology

could have spotted and avoided.

Hot Spot isn’t cheap. Brennan charges $6,000 per day for two

cameras, or $10,000 for 4 cameras. Still, what price fairness? One

frustrating thing about the ICC backpedalling on DRS is that it

acknowledged that it ”improves correct umpire decisions by around

five per cent and corrects any blatant errors.” In other words,

the ICC says technology helps but is not going to force people to

use it.

When the sun is low late in the day and heating things up, or

when images blur because the bat was swung fast, Hot Spot can

struggle to detect very slight glances of a ball, Brennan said.

But he has four new cameras in the pipeline with zoom lenses and

the latest generation of heat detectors and said he is hopeful that

”in the next six weeks, we’ll be ready to show people that the

system has improved.”

”We’ll probably get 90-plus percent (accuracy) most of the time

and, I think, you know, hopefully we get that a little bit

higher,” he said. ”I don’t think we’ll ever get near 100 percent,

because there are things that just sometimes just don’t fall in

your favor. But having said that, there are times, you know, when

we see stuff that you just can’t imagine that an umpire would ever,

ever be able to detect.”

Enjoy, baseball fans.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at twitter.com/johnleicester