March 25, 2005

ICC should give thought to rolling substitution of umpires

By H Natarajan

Technological progress, on the one hand, has revolutionised cricket viewing on TV, but on the other hand the game has suffered because the high priests of the International Cricket Council (ICC) are romantically ensconced in a time warp pontificating that “it is important not to override the basic philosophy that cricket is a game and human umpires are part of that game.” The specious logic neither does the game and its players any favour. Nor it’s helping the cause of the umpires. If anything, human limitations and fallibilities are unfairly pitted against the omniscient and omnipresent powers of technology, debunking the ICC’s claim that it wants to “ensure that international umpires and referees perform at the highest standards possible.”

The ground umpire can seek the aid of technology to communicate with the third umpire. The third umpire, in turn, takes the assistance of technology (super slow-mo cameras and freeze shots) to determine the fairness of a boundary. Now why can’t the logic be extended to use same available technology in matters of greater importance?

Is this to say that the difference between three runs and four runs often more crucial than an erroneous decision in declaring a batsman out? A single bad decision against a key batsman can turn the course of a match - even a series. For a player battling to save his career, one poor decision may mean an unfortunate and unfair end to years of blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices. It may even mean snatching away his livelihood.

I feel the ICC is more culpable in the matter than the much-maligned umpires because of its inflexibility and insensitivity to address the root of the problem.

The ICC has a seven-step process management to review umpire performance. The key areas of assessment being “correct decisions, coping with pressure, player management, communication and application of regulations.”

The check systems look good in theory. But the efficacy in taking corrective measures, on the basis of the feedback evaluating the specified parameters, needs to be questioned.

Has Steve Bucknor ever come under the ICC performance management scanner? If not, the ICC check-systems are a sham. If he has, why not make it public? Why should there be one rule for players and another for the game’s administrators? If a bowler with a suspect action is called, subjected to trial by the media even before the commencement of his corrective process, why then the ICC does not make a suspect umpire’s rehab transparent? Why this duplicity?
I am neither pro-player nor anti-umpire; all I am saying is that there should be an equitable system of accountability and transparency. I will be the first to acknowledge that umpiring is a thankless job. Their good decisions rarely get applauded while poor decisions are lampooned. Their duties commence well before the start of a game and end well after. They have to be up on their feet and keep an unblinking watch on the happenings every ball, right through the day. Decibel levels inside sub-continent grounds make their jobs especially difficult when called upon to adjudicate wafer-thin nick and their hectic international schedule can test the fitness levels of even youngsters. But that cannot be reasons for allowing things to continue what’s happening. The stakes are high and injustice, even if it’s only a mistake, today could mean a batsman silently walking away into Sunset Boulevard.

Umpires surely need all help to make their life less stressed. Maybe, it’s time to think in terms of rolling substitutions whereby the three umpires takes turns every day to officiate as third umpire. That will minimise the stress levels, as no umpire has to do more than two sessions of ground duty a day. Maybe, it’s time to reduce the maximum permissible age of the umpire to stand in Tests and ODIs. International cricket umpiring looks like a pensioner’s paradise today. Infact, even Bucknor – who has officiated in World Cup football - began focusing on cricket umpiring in 1992 when FIFA reduced the upper-age limit to 45 from 50. And a game of football is relatively of a far shorter duration, even if it’s more energy sapping than cricket in that period.

Rolling substitutions apart, the ICC could experiment with giving every side – both batting and fielding - three opportunities in an innings to refer decisions to the third umpire. The only exception could be leg-before decisions. I have suggested three review appeals because the limited number will force players to exercise the option responsibly. The cap on the number of appeals also keeps a check on using the option to tactically waste time. If a side wins the appeal - or the batsman gets the benefit of doubt because of inconclusive evidence - it should continue to have the full three chances for reference to the third umpire. If such an option were in force at Kolkata, Sachin Tendulkar’s wings would not have been clipped in flight.

In these days of mobile communications, word gets around pretty fast even dubious decisions are blacked out on giant screens inside the ground to prevent ugly crowd reactions. Mercifully, Kolkata did not add chapter of spectator violence after Tendulkar got a poor decision.

India has been at the receiving end of Bucknor’s horrendous umpiring for quite some time now. And more than once, India has registered it displeasure to the ICC over Bucknor’s officiating and style of umpiring. Sourav Ganguly rated Bucknor’s performance “very poor” rating in the 2003-04 Sydney Test – the lowest of the four options a captain can rate in his post-match report. It’s not Bucknor’s decisions alone that are being questioned; it’s also a slew of incidents that has shown his conduct unbecoming of an umpire. He rudely finger-wagged Parthiv Patel on the ground for appealing and dismissively walked off when the Indian captain went up to him to enquire about the incident. He has subjected Tendulkar to some shocking decisions, including an lbw when the master batsman shouldered arms to a rising delivery from Jason Gillespie. The prejudice is unmistakable and the stink it has raised is dangerously toxic for the game.

Bucknor’s two-year contract ends in March 2006. In fact, he has set his eyes even further – the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean where he would love to officiate a fifth final. The ICC has waited long – Bucknor style. It’s time now for the apex body for cricket to signal him out.