A study on bias in cricket is long overdue. The sport is data rich – names of bowlers, batsmen and umpires are readily available. Crunch all that data and it won't be hard to figure out if umpires are handing down tricky decisions based on race, religion and country.
International cricket today resembles a geopolitical battleground rather than a contest between willow and leather. The latest flashpoint was the high-octane 2011 World Cup game between India and England during which umpires Billy Bowden (New Zealand) and M. Erasmus (South Africa) and TV umpire R.J. Tucker (Australia) ruled an England player not out even after the electronic review system ruled in India's favour.
The controversy would have died out as the tournament progressed but then Dave Richardson, the stuffed suit at the ICC, reignited it by criticising Indian captain M.S. Dhoni for disputing that decision. Richardson, a servant of cricket's governing body, was clearly out of line here by blathering off against Dhoni, cricket's most valuable player.
The fact is that the fine print in the rule book is called into play only when Indian and Pakistani players are involved. In fact, players from the two countries are consistently handed out heavy fines or match suspensions or both while for similar offences, players from, say, Australia, England or South Africa get a mere warning or at worst a reprimand.
If you are not convinced there is bias in cricket, perhaps you should look at a study on bias in baseball by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas, Austin. Among sports, baseball comes closest to cricket in the manner of play, terminology and gear.
After analysing 2.1 million pitches in Major League Baseball from 2004 to 2006, the study says that the highest percentage of fair calls occur when both umpire and pitcher (bowler in cricket) are white, while the lowest percentage is when a white umpire is judging a black pitcher. The results showed that in about 1% of the pitches thrown, an umpire was more likely to rule in favour of the pitcher if both were of the same race or ethnicity.
What? A measly 1 per cent? Well, look at what the study says next: At first, this effect may seem trivial, affecting on average less than one pitch per game. The indirect effect--when players anticipate the effect of a biased umpire and strategically alter their behaviour--may, however, have an even larger impact on outcomes.
Two such situations in cricket can be recalled here. One was the 2008 Sydney game where Australia, knowing that umpires Mark Benson and Steve Bucknor were handing down a spate of poor decisions against Indian batsmen, went for the offensive after being in hopeless situations several times. India lost that match which it could have won.
Again, in a 1978-79 series in Pakistan, Indian legend Sunil Gavaskar observed Pakistani pace bowler Imran Khan consistently overstepping the crease. Gavaskar, who was at the non-striker's end, pointed it out to the umpires who ignored his protests, allowing Khan to bowl some unplayable no-balls that were not called. The series, which could have been a close one, became a one-sided contest which India lost 0-3.
Another study by economists Joe Price of Brigham Young University and Justin Wolfers of the University of Pennsylvania showed that during the 13 National Basketball Association seasons from 1991 through 2004, white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players.
Billly's controversial decision was in fact the second time he went after the Indians in that match. Earlier, he insisted that Zaheer Khan move a step closer to the batsman in order to comply with the fielding restrictions. Billy in fact pointed at a spot with his boot where Khan should stand.
Would he treat an Australian differently? Perhaps he would. This is what former Australian test batsman Matthew Hayden writes in his new book Standing My Ground:
"I used every resource I legally could to enhance my game, and umpires were part of that process. Sometimes they'd drop subtle lines that I considered important feedback. Bowden, in particular, was good this way. During the match, I'd say to him, What do you reckon? And he'd say, Looking real good, just stay patient. I'd sometimes ask, Is he swinging that much? And he'd say, Oh, it's just starting to reverse. Billy was brilliant that week.''
Aren't you supposed to be neutral, Billy?
The bias in cricket is not just white and black, of course. Bucknor, who is of African origin, had given unfair decisions against Indian players for well over two decades before he was kicked out in 2008. And strangely, Sri Lankan players, who have suffered extreme racism from the Australian Prime Minister down, have, after becoming match officials, penalised Indian players severely while letting off Australian, English and South African players with mere warnings. Ranjan Madugalle and Roshan Mahanama once fined an Indian bowler for over-zealous celebration.
So what's the way out? Despite India's aversion – in hindsight, justified – for the electronic review system, the way out is better technology and closer monitoring. Bias disappears under two conditions: one, when the game's attendance is high or two, if electronic review technology is used.
There's a reason for that. When you're going to be watched and have to pay more attention, you don't subconsciously favour people like yourself. "When discrimination has a price, you don't observe it as much," says Hamermesh.
To be sure, most umpires do not intend to be biased before a game. As the American researchers argue, bad decisions appear to be the result of implicit bias -- subtle mental associations that surface when people are forced to make snap judgments.
In the cricket world, with its considerable colonial baggage, that bias comes into play too often for comfort. Only fool proof technology can prevent needless controversy. For, clearly, there are a lot of fools out there.