February 14, 2008

Another wake-up call for ICC – this time from cricket’s top umpire

By H Natarajan

The beleaguered International Cricket Council (ICC) received a stunning blow on Monday with Simon Taufel, 37, indicating that he could bid adieu to Tests. Taufel is to the ICC Elite Panel of umpires what Sachin Tendulkar is to the cricketers – class apart.

Taufel has been named the “ICC Umpire of the Year” for four successive years since the inception of the awards in 2004. Not many would disagree with that rating of a man who has won the respect and trust from players all over the world. I dare say that if the rules permitted, the Indians would have had no problems in the Aussie officiating in his country’s Test matches against Anil Kumble’s side.
Three things were clear from Taufel’s statement on Monday – firstly, he was unsure of renewing his contract with the ICC that expires on March 31; secondly, he did not wish his family life to suffer and, thirdly, he was “looking for new opportunities”.

There seems to be a common thread running between the three points. What he said could well have meant that he did not wish to subject himself to the international grind because he has a more meaningful option – possibly in the form of the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) which not only offers him fatter pay package but also more quality time with his family.

There could be bigger seismic shifts in the days to come with the epicenter of the tremors being the IPL. A player or an umpire looks for two things: One, professional satisfaction and, second, financial security. Both aspects will be addressed by the IPL. With more family time coming in as the icing on the cake, it’s a dream situation to make the switch for many – especially those who have been in the circuit for long and/or those who are in the twilight zone.

The ICC, as repeatedly mentioned by this writer, has neither been proactive or it has kept pace with time. The growing disenchantment among both players and umpires is the result of ICC not addressing their concerns. There is, to cite an example, severe resources crunch in the Elite Panel and the crowded international cricketing schedule has done nothing to ease the problems.

Taufel is not the first umpire to put family before professional interests. Peter Willey spurned the opportunity to be part of the Elite Panel of umpires because he did not want to spend too much time away from home. The likes of Willey are aware that too much time away from family has come at a huge cost for many on the international circuit. Graham Gooch, Darren Gough, Graham Thorpe, Mark Butcher, Dominic Cork, Sanath Jayasuriya, Michael Slater….and many, many more have seen their marriages collapsing. And when one is constantly touring, there is very little chance for the couple to sit together and rework their relationship. And when one is at the risk at losing the very family one is toiling for, it’s understandable to put family before profession. In their bid to generate revenue, the administration has not addressed to the growing concerns of the players and umpires who are subjected to punishing schedule.

There is also the stress factor that has caused grief to a few players like England’s Marcus Trescothick – who withdrew from three tours in as many years – and, more recently paceman Shaun Tait, who walked away from cricket indefinitely, citing physical and emotional exhaustion. Tait’s decision was most shocking considering that he was named ICC’s “Emerging Player of the Year” just last year. No wonder Australian captain Ricky Ponting said that the news hit him “like a ton of bricks”. Tait has needed surgery to his shoulder, elbow and has battled with lower back and hamstring injuries. That’s considerable physical and emotional stress for a 24 year old.

New Zealand’s Lou Vincent is another stressed out cricketer. The Kiwi, who is on anti-depressant, had told New Zealand's Sunday Star Times: "I remember so many days that should have been great days, when I've gone home, slumped over a chair and thought, 'I just hate this and I hate myself.' I was completely beaten by it, I let it get to me and it just took over. Until you have been through it, you can't imagine how bad it is." Vincent doubts if he will return back to international cricket.

The ICC has got another wake-up call – this time from an umpire which the apex body believes is the best for four years on a trot. Taufel said - something that this columnist wrote a few weeks ago – that umpires had to make split-second decisions without getting any assistance from technologies like the snickometer. It’s an unfair contest between human failings against the near-perfection of technology.

A progressive person, Taufel has been vocal in asking ICC to empower umpires with technological assistance to minimize errors. Just last year, he expressed his anguish after giving Sachin Tendulkar lbw at Trent Bridge. "I always look at the big screen after giving a decision. And the minute I saw the replay of Sachin's dismissal, I knew I got it wrong," he had said. The Australian was not only honest in admitting his error in judgment but also sympathetic towards the paying public who had paid good money to see a master batsman in action.

The joy from the game is ebbing away for many involved with it. The alarm bells are ringing louder with every passing day. Sadly, the people who matter most have not heard it – or chosen not to hear it.

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