Was Steve Smith deemed not out incorrectly in contentious third-umpire decision?

In a dramatic turn of events during the tight Test match between Australia and England, Steve Smith found himself at the centre of a contentious third-umpire decision that has sparked debates and discussions across the cricketing world.

The incident, which took place during the Ashes series, involved substitute fielder George Ealham's attempt to run out the Australian batsman, Smith, and has left many questioning the correctness of the final verdict.

During the match, as Ealham executed a pinpoint throw to wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow, a series of split-second actions unfolded, leading to a lengthy deliberation by third-umpire Nitin Menon. The crucial aspect of the decision was whether the bails were entirely dislodged before Steve Smith had made his ground.

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Initially, Menon ruled in Australia's favour, stating that Bairstow had knocked off one bail with his arm before catching the ball, and that Smith had managed to regain his crease by the time the other bail was dislodged. This decision was based on the available angles of the replays at that moment.

Law 29.1 states: “The wicket is broken when at least one bail is completely removed from the top of the stumps, or one or more stumps is removed from the ground.”

However, extensive analysis conducted by the host broadcaster, Sky Cricket, brought forth alternative angles that were not seen by Menon during his deliberation.

These angles seemed to suggest that one of the bails had not completely left its groove on the off-stump, meaning the wicket should have been considered ‘put down.' According to the Laws of Cricket, a bail must be entirely separated from the stumps for a dismissal to occur.

“Well, the crowd is not happy,” former England batter Mark Butcher said on Sky Sports commentary.

“Smith had walked halfway back to the dressing room, but it was a really, really tough decision. Really tough, because Jonny Bairstow had made contact with the stumps prior to getting the ball in his hands.”

Nasser Hussain said it was “a nightmare for the third umpire” but felt that he got it right. 

“He had to see if both grooves were out, he had to see what Bairstow had done.

“I think he got it right, but it was a nightmare.” But Ian Ward maintained that Smith was out and extensive analysis and replays from the host broadcaster that Menon had not seen seemed to confirm the same.

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Following Sky's analysis, questions were raised about the use of Zing bails, which are known to light up the moment they are dislodged. These bails have been praised for assisting officials in close run-out or stumping decisions, but they are not used in day Tests in England or Australia.

MCC clarifies stance on Steve Smith run-out controversy

The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), responsible for overseeing the Laws of Cricket, issued a statement clarifying the conditions for a dismissal involving the bails. According to the MCC, a bail is considered removed when both ends have left their grooves.

“For the purposes of dismissal – a bail has been removed at the moment that both ends of it leave their grooves.”

This contentious decision holds immense significance in the context of the Ashes series, as Smith, on 43 at the time, went on to score an additional 28 runs after the reprieve. In a match where every run is crucial, those 28 runs could prove vital as Australia managed to secure a slender 12-run first-innings lead.

Players and experts have shared diverse opinions on the matter. England's Stuart Broad acknowledged the presence of a grey area in the decision and suggested that the benefit of the doubt may have leaned towards the batsman. 

Steve Smith
Photo by Icon Sport

“I think there was enough grey area to give it not out. It looked like benefit of the doubt stuff,” Broad said of it.

“The first angle I saw looked out and then with the side angle, it looked like the bail was dislodged (by Bairstow).

“Kumar said to me that if it was the Zing bail, it would have been given out. I don't really understand the reasoning why.”

Steve Smith himself initially believed he was out and started walking off the ground before reviewing the replays on the big screen.

“I saw the initial replay and I saw the bail come up and then when I looked at it the second time it looked like Jonny might have knocked the bail off before the ball had come (into his gloves),” Smith told reporters.

“Then the ball came and he took the stumps. It looked pretty close at that stage.

“If the ball had hit (the stumps) at the initial stage where the bail came up, I think I was well out of my ground. On the next angle it looked pretty close.”

The third-umpire decision that deemed Steve Smith not out in the contentious run-out incident has sparked heated debates and raised questions about the use of technology, the interpretation of the Laws of Cricket, and the potential impact of such decisions on the outcome of a closely contested Test match.

In this case, the law is perhaps not outright clear about what happens when the bail is touched before the ball is in hand, but is dislodged entirely while it is in the hands of the fielder. Arguably, Menon made the right call, but it is one up for debate still. 


Rohit is an experienced cricket writer based in India