Perfect storm throws up lessons for cricket

The Bangladesh mini-series had many shortcomings, but in one respect it was entirely satisfactory: the absence of the Decision Review System (DRS) allowed for the return of the natural rhythms of the game. Wickets were celebrated with immediacy and emotion; there were no pregnant pauses while captains, wicket-keepers and bowlers conferred over the possibility of an appeal, and batsmen lingered only momentarily before accepting the authority of those paid to make decisions.

The DRS was not missed at all. It is true that were no howlers to outrage those who would have a game free of human error. Alastair Cook got a couple of leg-before decisions that, though out at first glance, were probably a little too high, and one or two of the Bangladesh tailenders were on the receiving end of the kind of decisions that tailenders have moaned about for decades.

This interlude was a precious reminder of what cricket will lose if and when the ICC and host broadcasters come to an agreement over who should pay for the toys. Once they do, the interests of paying spectators will be ignored and spontaneity at the fall of a wicket will again be replaced by delay, dithering and debate as the players become decision-makers too.

Interestingly, in the same week that cricket found it could do without an increase in technology, baseball was having an internal debate of its own. And the argument raged over something that, for baseball fans, was a little more important than an erroneous leg-before decision against England’s vice-captain.

For those of us who watch sport, the flaws are often the most interesting aspect of performance and performers, but the search for perfection is at the heart of any professional sporting endeavour. It is usually unattainable. Occasionally, though, it is: snooker players can score a maximum 147 break, jockeys can do a Frankie Dettori and ride a card of winners, gymnasts used to be able to achieve the ‘perfect 10’ until the sport’s scoring system was overhauled in 2006.

In baseball, the ‘perfect game’ is awarded to a pitcher who throws 27 straight outs, sending his team to victory before any opposing player reaches base. Since 1880, this has happened only 20 times (three of them, interestingly, within the past 12 months, which suggests that baseball may be going in the opposite direction from cricket, where batsmen are dominating like never before). It should have happened again last week in a game between the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians.

Detroit’s Armando Galarraga was a hitherto journeyman pitcher enjoying a perfect night. He needed one more out to join the ranks of those who had pitched a perfect game – in 83 pitches, fewer than anyone else since 1908 – when he threw to Cleveland’s Jason Donald. As Donald sprinted to first base, it was clear that it was going to be tight, but that he was going to fail to make his ground – just.

Jim Joyce, the umpire at first base, was the only man in Comerica Park who thought otherwise. He called Donald home and, because replays are not a part of baseball, he denied Galarraga his place in history. No matter that Galarraga has been asked to donate his kit from that evening to the Hall of Fame. His name will not be added to the roster of perfect pitchers.

Many of the pundits thought it should be. Mitch Albom, of the Detroit Free Press, one of the most celebrated sports columnists in America, called on Bud Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, to overturn the call and to introduce technology to ensure that such an injustice does not happen again. There was a shared sense of outrage in Detroit.

But then something strange happened. Galarraga, whose reaction to the umpire’s decision had been admirably restrained and limited to a quizzical smile, refused to add to the opprobrium heaped on Joyce.

‘I would’ve been the first person in my face, but he never said a word to me,’ the grateful umpire said. In the immediate aftermath of the decision, Galarraga’s reaction was equally phlegmatic: his next pitch was perfect, too, so that, he quipped, he is now the only man to have thrown a 28-out perfect game.

Joyce handled the situation like a man. He apologised, first, and then admitted to his mistake. ‘I just cost that kid a perfect game,’ he said, ‘I thought he [Donald] beat the throw until I saw the replay.’

His error happened on the Wednesday, in the middle of a three-game series, and Joyce was given the option of missing the final game the day after his howler. He refused to hide, though. ‘I couldn’t have faced myself,’ he said. The day after one of the biggest blunders in baseball history, he made his way to first base again.

He was not sure what kind of reaction he would get from the crowd, though, and while there were boos, there was also a large measure of support. The men were brought together at the exchange of teams, where Joyce’s remorse and Galarraga’s maturity were again in evidence. The match passed off without incident; Joyce, according to observers, had a good game.

Selig has said that he will not overturn the decision and so Galarraga’s name will not take its place in the list of immortals. He will be remembered, though, as a man who, in a critical moment, recognised that there were more important things in life than statistics. Joyce will be remembered as an imperfect man on a perfect night, but one who handled his imperfections honestly and with courage.

And the lesson for cricket? This came, strangely, from Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, who praised his countryman Galarraga for his nobility of spirit. ‘The umpire was wrong,’ Chavez said. ‘But, well, the umpire is the umpire.’ The Times, 10 June 2010