January 18, 2008

Now let’s spare a thought for the umpires, too

By H Natarajan

Technology has taken quantum leaps in cricket, but the mindset of the apex body for the game hasn’t kept progress. This disconnect has caused a fertile breeding ground for many of cricket’s increasing acrimony.

Without condoning inept umpiring, one must also be alive to the monumental odds stacked against modern umpires. If there was relatively less heartburn in the pre-television days and during the days when TV technology was still in its infancy, it was because it was just the umpire’s word against the players. The umpires did not come under the kind of scrutiny that they are subjected to now. Giant scoreboards around ground in the world precipitate matters for umpires. An umpire has to make micro-split decision with players tearing their lungs out in appeal. On the other hand pundits and public sit in the air-conditioned comfort of their respective abodes, viewing images beamed from multiple cameras, freeze shots, zoom shots, graphs of snick-o-meter etc etc etc and then pass judgment on the umpires. It’s clearly an unequal battle between man and technology.

One should also factor that besides vociferous appealing by the players, the umpires also have to deal with the high decibel levels of excited spectators – over a lakh in stadiums like the MCG and Eden Garden. If you think that’s easy, just recollect the times you asked a friend of family that you will call later because you cannot hear in the outdoor din of a public place. Where the ICC is guilty is in appointing umpires past their sell-by date because of weakening faculties. Nearing 62, Steve Bucknor is not what he was at, say, 55.

Let us not forget that at stake is the livelihood of the players. The passage to get to international level has come at price. They have given their blood, sweat and tears, sacrificing many things over the years to achieve their dream of playing for the country. It would be utterly cruel if this dream is crushed by momentary callousness or incompetence. Why can’t the rules be amended to suit the times? The need of the hour is to give a fixed quota per innings for teams to appeal against an umpiring decision. Because there is a known quota (say three per innings), players will be judicious in seeking the intervention of electronic aid. If the third umpire finds that the appeal is justified, the original decision should be overturned and the appeal should not be deducted from the designated number allotted to the team. If such a law was in place, much of the heat that was generated in the Sydney Test could well have been avoided.

Wasim Jaffer was dismissed in the Sydney Test off a Brett Lee no ball. Now imagine if the batsman was batting on 399 and he was declared out to a no ball! The batsman gets a fraction of a second when he faces bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee at their quickest. Now if a batsman were to get microseconds to make his judgment, spare a thought for the poor umpire: he has to look down to adjudicate on where the bowler’s foot lands AND THEN look up and decided on decisions like lbw and faint snicks! Why cannot an umpire be appointed exclusively for judging no balls? Tennis has chair umpires close to the net, but still there is someone to guide him on net cord decisions. We need not cling to some established convention if there are alternatives to minimize the error factor.

I have another problem with the ICC – one that dates back to several decades. Is the ruling body treating the umpires the way they should? In a bygone era, a Test match had a rest day. This rest was for the players, who in any case get copious stretches of rest when their side is batting. Even while fielding, those stationed at third man do not require the same alertness that players in the slip cordon have to exhibit. In sharp contrast, the duty of the umpires start well before the day’s play commences and ends well past the end of the game. There is absolutely no respite whatsoever. They got to possess unwavering concentration and excellent fitness to last the rigors of five successive days of a Test match.

Long before the advent of the third umpires, I was of the view that we need to have a third umpire who can be used in rotation – one of the ground umpires goes to take the third umpire’s place and the third umpire, in turn, takes the place in the middle. The umpire who officiated for the pre-lunch and post-lunch sessions, will act as the third umpire in the final session and the third umpire for the middle session should take up ground duty. This way there is semblance of rest for the overworked umpires.

It’s incredible that there are only ten umpires in the ICC Elite Panel. In effect, it means, if Australia is playing the West Indies, the choice to pick is restricted to just five as Australia have three umpires and West Indies two in the Elite Panel. Considering that often three Test series are under way at the same time, the resources are extremely meager – to put things mildly.

The ICC must address the cause than merely treat the disease. Unless there is greater representation in the Elite Panel of umpires, and unless umpires get the freedom by the ICC to seek greater assistance of technology, incidents like that at Sydney will keep rearing its ugly head.

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