Have we got technology wrong? I speak as one who has always believed that sport should use technology. Yet the events in the first Ashes Test between England and Australia have made me think that technology may be becoming a sporting monster. I am well aware that the use of technology in football bears no relation to cricket, given how different the two games are. But the question is how far do you allow technology to decide events on the field of play.
Indeed watching the events from the Test match made me feel that Michel Platini may have a point when he says that he is opposed to technology. And that he would never want football decisions to be reached with the help of machinery – to introduce technology in the world game would ultimately mean that decisions would be taken not by the man on the field but by a person watching the match on a screen in a room and pushing buttons.
I must confess I have always thought Platini, wonderful player that he was, always comes over as a nerd when it comes to technology. I was convinced of this just over a year ago when he had his traditional gathering of the media just as the draw for the Champions League and the Europa League was taking place in Monaco.
The discussion about technology that day in Monaco was over a very convivial breakfast and in the context of the decision by FIFA to have goal technology. Platini made no secret that he was not happy about the decision. Indeed he expressed unhappiness at the way Sepp Blatter, the FIFA President, had orchestrated the decision accusing him of not keeping his FIFA executive fully informed of this momentous development. This marked the moment when the divide between Platini and Blatter, which had been bubbling underneath the surface for some time, went public.
As Platini sees it he has never seen any need for goal line technology. He accepts that there have been problems and even some glaringly wrong decisions but these problems he is convinced can be solved by having more officials, not by using machines. We have seen the limitations of Platini’s solution where, despite the presence of more referees, some of them behind the goal line, the mistakes have kept coming.
But that morning Platini revealed why he was opposed to technology at any price. He talked of how once you introduce new technology you open the door to a world that you do not want to enter. Those were not the exact words he uttered but that was the thrust of his arguments. And this was conveyed when he described what might happen if technology takes over.
The picture he drew was let us assume football having started by accepting goal line technology goes much further. It now uses technology not just to decide whether a goal has been scored but whether the referee has taken the correct offside decisions. So on an ‘iffy’ offside, if the referee is not sure refers to the man watching on television.
But this is a match between Arsenal and Tottenham and the man pushing the button on the television replay for offside is a Tottenham fan and he cannot allow an Arsenal goal so he says it is offside. As Platini said this he laughed indicating he did not see such a situation coming about but he was using it to point out the perils of using technology. As the laughter subsided he emphasised, “you will never convince me on technology.'”
Now it can be said with reasonable certainty that Platini does not follow cricket or has ever heard of the Decision Review System (DRS). Yet the way the DRS has worked shows what can happen when you open the door of technology and relentlessly use it to make decisions.
To appreciate this we need to look back at when cricket became the first of nearly all ball games to use the camera in order to make sure the right decisions.
It came about soon after South Africa, having finally integrated its cricket and removed the racial barriers, was readmitted back into international cricket. After that decision was taken at Lord’s Ali Bacher, then head of South African cricket, was on his way back to his home in Johannesburg. As he waits to board the flight at Heathrow’s departure lounge he sees a cricket match on television. There is a run out incident. Bacher instinctively feels it is not out. But to his surprise television replays clearly show the batsman is run out. Bacher has himself suffered from bad umpiring run out decisions during his playing career and is struck by how television has demonstrated that the naked eye cannot be relied on for such decisions.
It was this that made him decide technology should be used. And so on his return to South Africa he asked television executives what could be done. They assured him the solution was simple. All that was necessary was for to have the necessary cameras and for an umpire if he had any doubts to refer to the television cameras.
South Africa was due to entertain India. It was going to be a historic tour, the first ever Indian tour of South Africa, more than a century after the start of international cricket. Before that white South Africa’s insistence that it would only play white nations, and even then white countries could only field all white teams, had made such contact impossible.
Bacher was the last captain of the all-white South African team allowed to play international cricket before the world finally decided to debar South Africa. During the years of exile he had himself made a long journey from whites only cricket to an international game. Now as the man running South Africa’s first truly nationwide cricket board he was keen to introduce new ideas. The Indians were happy to oblige and so cricket for the first time used technology, in the winter of 1992,and history was made. I can claim to be have there that day in Durban when Sachin Tendulkar was given run out after a brilliant pick up and throw from Jonty Rhodes with the help of a third umpire using television replays.
Technology had arrived and since then it has developed both in cricket and other games. But it is in the way it has developed in cricket that is significant. For in cricket the decision making has been taken away to some extent away from the umpire. This has come about with teams being allowed to make appeals against an umpire’s decision using DRS. I have always believed that such a system should be used not by players but by umpires. In other words if they have any doubts they should refer to their colleague watching the screen and ask him: Did I get it right?
Indeed this has been used in some cricket internationals and worked well. International umpires also see the virtues of this. But with players being allowed to use DRS cricket is now in danger of falling into just the problems Platini fears for football. The on field umpire’s role is being increasingly marginalised. That is bad.
This does not mean football must not have goal line technology. But the use of technology must be controlled and the official on the field of play must have ultimate sanction. In cricket technological advance has been driven by the men of television. Football must guard against that and administrators must be in control of the changes all the time.
Yes that will not eliminate mistakes. But then sport is about mistakes and it is the smallest of mistakes that make the eventual winners and losers. It cannot be avoided. Technology must aid the official on the field not make him superfluous.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. Now a freelance journalist his latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World has been published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99