Sunday, March 6, 2011

It's a Goal - Maybe!

On a 22-acre estate near Winchester, there’s a research laboratory containing some of Britain’s most prodigious brains. It was set up in 1956, at the height of the Cold War, to invent new technology for the spooky world of electronic warfare.

Since then Roke Manor Research has been one of the world’s leading developers of communications devices for military and commercial use. They create systems that can track planes, missiles and people.

For all I know they may be responsible for some of the gadgets inside Gaddafi’s warplanes of popular destruction.
But Roke Manor’s technology is potentially much more valuable than that. It could have been used to decide whether Arsenal should have won Saturday’s football match against Sunderland.

In 2000 the head of our sports division summoned us to a demonstration of something truly amazing: the product of our company’s collaboration with one of Roke Manor’s boffins, Paul Hawkins, who has a PhD in artificial intelligence. He’d adapted his tracking and positioning technology to the more mundane world of cricket.

By placing ultra high speed cameras all around the ground, fed into a sophisticated computer system, Dr. Hawkins could show not just where a cricket ball was but, more significantly, where it would have been if it hadn’t hit a batsman’s leg. In other words, he’d built a machine that solved the great cricketing conundrum of “leg before wicket”.

Solely for my American wife’s benefit, I should explain that if a ball is thrown towards the little wooden sticks at the end and the man in the white coat says it would have hit them, except the batsman’s leg got in the way, then the batsman is out. I know there was no point in writing that last sentence: Jo’s eyes would have already glazed over at the word “cricket”. Now, if Dr. Hawkins had invented a machine that could track bargains in a handbag store, she’d have demanded one for Christmas.

That year we launched Hawk-Eye (named after Hawkins, I guess) and the world of sport has never looked back. At first, only viewers benefited. Our sports company Sunset + Vine won numerous deserved plaudits for its 2001 Ashes coverage, not least because Hawk-Eye let the TV audience see what the umpires couldn’t. It took another six years before the game’s governing body allowed the system to be used to challenge an umpire’s decision. By then it had also been adopted by the game of tennis, even at Wimbledon, where bad line calls have been a thing of the past since 2007.

That was also the year that Hawk-Eye was declared fit and ready for football. They rigged a system in the goalmouth at Reading’s training ground and tested whether or not the ball passed over the line, a job currently done by a man who rushes sideways like a breathless crab for 55 yards up and down the pitch. The poor chap is rarely level with the goal-line when the ball goes over, and usually players are obstructing his line of sight, so it’s not surprising he can get it wrong.

Twenty times more precise than a television action replay, Hawk-Eye worked every time in the Reading tests; its analysis could be conveyed to the referee’s earpiece in less than half a second, so the game didn’t have to be stopped. The Premier League loved it; so did Arsene Wenger; but FIFA’s myopic President Sepp Blatter said no. And, amazingly, he still does. If FIFA had allowed goalmouth trials of Hawk-Eye in 2008, by now it could have sorted out dubious offside decisions as well.

Which is probably lucky for Sunderland and frustrating for Arsenal, who may miss the chance of winning the Premier League as a result of a wrong offside decision in Saturday's goalless draw.

Mind you, if they’d used Hawk-Eye in the 1966 World Cup final, then Geoff Hurst’s second goal would have been disallowed and we might not have beaten Germany. So perhaps Blatter’s got a point, after all.

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