Easily one of the maddest – and hence, most brilliant – aspects of cricket is also one that’s so ingrained in the fabric of the sport that it’s almost always overlooked just how nonsensical it is.
For the benefit of those of you who have skillfully clicked through to this piece and somehow read this far without seeing the headline at the top, I will now reveal that I’m not talking here about ‘commentators speculating about an upcoming declaration’ or ‘Pakistan always doing the exact opposite of what everybody expects them to do even when their tendency to behave this way is taken into consideration’. Instead I’m referring to the far pithier concept of ‘appeals’.
The appeal is such a fundamental part of cricket that it’s difficult to envision the sport without it. And yet, even the bare minimum of thought reveals that it’s also a completely unnecessary flourish to the game.
Perhaps there are other sports where the umpire has to be specifically asked to make a decision that can fundamentally alter the outcome of the match. But surely the vast majority do not.
If Lionel Messi beats a handful of defenders with dribbling wizardry before chipping the keeper to put the ball in the back of the net, he isn’t then immediately required to turn to the referee to ask for the goal to be validated.
Similarly, if LeBron James drives into the key and flies through the air, past several dimwitted opposition players, to dunk another basket, his teammates don’t all leap in unison, demanding that the referees award their side two points.
And if some other sportsperson I can’t be bothered to google performs an athletic feat in a sport with which I’m only passingly familiar, in such a way that the scoreboard requires altering, then the match officials of that sport would almost always apply the necessary score adjustment without any further hectoring.
But if Stuart Broad comes around the wicket and thuds the ball into David Warner’s stubbornly immobile pads, then it is required by the Laws of the Game that Broad (or his teammates) appeal. If he doesn’t – and, granted, that’s virtually impossible to imagine – then the umpire would not be able to give Warner out, no matter how much he deserved to go.
I find that mind-boggling. At least, I do whenever I think about it, which, granted, is rarely. More often I simply unthinkingly accept the appeal as a necessary step in the taking of a wicket, the ‘Mother, May I?’ stage of a dismissal. But it’s not necessary. Not at all. There is a version of cricket in the multiverse in which when an umpire thinks a player is out, they just give them out, without the requirement for anybody to ask them to do so.
One can only assume the arcane ritual of the appeal arose from an earlier, more casual and umpireless era of the sport. With no neutral arbiter of dismissals – particularly leg before wicket – it was presumably considered good form to politely ask the batsman if he might agree that, under the circumstances, his right to remain at the crease might be placed under serious scrutiny indeed. And then, one imagines, the batsman would ponder the situation carefully before giving himself the benefit of the doubt and allowing himself to bat on.
Or perhaps the notion of appealing for a wicket arose because players discovered that umpires would tend to lose focus over several hours of standing in the middle of a paddock in the summer sun. Maybe it was necessary to specifically harry the officials about the prospect of a wicket falling in order to jolt them out of the otherwise vacuous gesturing for boundaries, leg byes, short runs and concussion substitute testing into which they’d mindlessly drifted as sunstroke overtook them.
But regardless of where the concept of appealing for a wicket originated, it’s surely now a completely unnecessary remnant of a bygone era. Like an ‘at this stage’ comparison in a one day international or the batting of MS Dhoni.
And yet despite this vestigial status, there’s also no denying that cricket is better for bowlers being forced to ask umpires to make a decision before that decision is actually made. Leaving aside the blindingly obvious wordplay observation that cricket would literally be a less appealing sport without them, the merits of the appeal have only grown over recent years.
The reason, as always, comes back to DRS. Some day I’ll dedicate an entire fifteen part series for this column to how DRS makes cricket the greatest sport. But for now let’s just focus on how DRS makes appeals sillier and, hence, better.
Before DRS, appeals were little more than bowlers shouting at umpires. This was well before the previously mentioned Broad had invented (or at least popularised) the ‘celebrappeal’, in which the bowler at no point acknowledges the umpire, instead implicitly appealing via the medium of celebrating the ostensibly self-evident wicket.
Broad’s celebrappeal was on point in ‘09 pic.twitter.com/3ciGESt1jh
— Freddie Barber (@freddiebarber) September 17, 2019
Instead of celebrappeals, then, the pre-DRS era appeal consisted mostly of moustachioed Australians who were incapable of fastening all the buttons on their shirts sweatily whirling to face the umpire and demanding that the wicket be given. (Other nations’ bowlers would use similar techniques with varying degrees of shirtlessness and facial hair, but the general gist was always the same.) Umpires would then acknowledge the deranged pleading, then give the batsman out, or not, and that would, for the most part, be the end of it.
In the post-DRS era, we have essentially the same thing but we also have the addition of one particular subcase that provides an important opportunity for everybody involved to expose themselves as being worthy of ridicule.
A raucous appeal that’s given? No news there. Same old, same old. A raucous appeal that’s not given, but which is reviewed? Regardless of which way the Hawkeye crumbles, that’s nothing to get too excited about either.
But a raucous appeal that’s not given and which the team then decides not to review, despite just a moment earlier exhibiting such a degree of noisy adamance that surely only a clinically insane person would believe that the batsman wasn’t out? That’s pure pretence-puncturing perfection.
This kind of magical self-enforced admission that a fielding side’s excitable claims were, in fact, a contrived nonsense, could have never occurred prior to DRS. But it would also have never occurred without the lingering concept of the appeal. To uncover such beauty only through the combination of modern technology and one of the oldest, and otherwise seemingly pointless, traditions of the game? That’s yet another reason why cricket is the greatest sport of them all.
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