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Column: MLB World Series tests cricket's Hot Spot

Source : AP
Last Updated: Fri, Oct 14, 2011 16:31 hrs

-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



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