Umpiring: Technology versus instinct

The cricket umpire plays a key role in lending an element of drama that is rarely found in most of the other sports. By opting for faceless technology, the administrators of the game are depriving spectators of the joy of suspense — bordering on the Hitchcockian — waiting for the umpire’s response to an appeal.

Australia's Peter Siddle celebrates with team-mates after dismissing West Indies' captain Jason Holder leg before in the first Test match in Hobart. Commentator Shane Warne felt that the batsman should have reviewed the decision.   -  AP

Recently, I was watching the West Indian batsmen battling it out against Australia in the Hobart Test match. Facing a mammoth total of 583, and after losing five wickets for less than 100, the Caribbeans could not have been in a worse plight. Suddenly, a sharp rising ball from Peter Siddle surprised WI skipper Jason Holder, hitting him on his front foot, and umpire Erasmus had no hesitation in declaring him out LBW. Seeing the replay however, commentator Shane Warne was quick to exclaim why the batsman did not ask for a review, because the point of impact of the ball seemed too high for a decision against him. Warne’s suggestion appeared odd, considering the fact that Holder himself walked back to the pavilion promptly without any sign of remonstrance or dissent.

This, in my view, sums up the modern Test scene, with the most seasoned of cricketers, like Warne, demonstrating no trust in the ability of the umpires to call correctly. This was not an integrity issue, but basically an utter lack of faith in the efficiency of the human eye!

It is a matter for lament that, in recent years, an all-pervasive technology has robbed cricket of some of its immense charm. I belong to a generation for whom the game was a romance with many shades of unpredictability and uncertainty, which ensured that a spectator didn’t take his eyes off from the middle even for a second. And when an appeal shot off from the fielding side, just the few seconds before which the man in white coat responded, seemed an eternity. There were two possibilities in such a situation: a death sentence or a reprieve. There cannot be a more tantalising moment in any sport, which has managed to catch the imagination of multitudes.

The cricket umpire plays a key role in lending an element of drama that is rarely found in most of the other sports. By opting for faceless technology, the administrators of the game are depriving spectators of the joy of suspense — bordering on the Hitchcockian — waiting for the umpire’s response to an appeal. It’s a pity the umpire has now abjectly surrendered most of his authority to a character in the pavilion, who acts as the Supreme Court and gives his verdict on the basis of what he himself sees only on a TV screen. The umpire has therefore become a mere robot, devoid of emotions. In my times he was a human being dictated by reflexes and spontaneous emotions, and was unaided by any external agent or device. He possibly made more mistakes than now.

Nevertheless, overall, the players and the average spectator were forgiving of these, and except for very few occasions, looked upon them as an aberration rather than dishonest rulings. We now have neutral umpires who have brought in even greater credibility to decisions. The process of selection has also become less subjective. Getting into the ICC’s Elite Panel is a near impossible task, even for the best of umpires. After getting in, survival for a decently long spell in the panel is still more difficult. This is why my plea is for less of technology, and a greater faith in the human being out in the middle, who dispenses justice and not dispensing with it.

I am slightly subjective in my partiality for the cricket umpire. I passed the examination conducted by the State cricket association way back in 1971, a few years after my club cricket days were over. That success I thought was a great triumph, and I honestly believed, more honours were in the pipeline. My attempt to qualify for the Ranji Trophy Panel was thwarted by a cruel rule that kept out candidates like me who had crossed the age of 40. I was overaged by a few months, and my entreaties to the late Shri. Sriraman, the doyen of cricket then, were of no avail. He was polite, but firm in telling me that no exception could be made.

To this day, my only regret in life was that I could not enter the Ranji panel, and later the Test arena donning a white coat and a Panama hat, the hallmarks of an umpire. I might sound juvenile, but the truth is, I feel this was a disappointment I would carry to my grave.

Cricket umpiring is a stern and exacting task. In recent times physical risks on the field have surfaced. Last year there was a report of an Israeli umpire being fatally injured after he was struck in the neck from the ricochet of a ball from the stumps at his end. In another incident recently an Australian umpire, John Ward, officiating in a Ranji Trophy match in Dindigul (Tamil Nadu) was hurt on his skull from a batsman’s drive from the opposite end. Fortunately he survived. Ludicrous as it may seem, a few days ago we had the spectacle of an umpire wearing a helmet as a measure of protection against a speeding ball! He cannot be faulted. I am happy that umpires these days are better compensated and are treated on a par with players in respect of travel entitlement and hotel accommodation. This is how it should be.

Finally, umpires and humour are not apart. These men come in all sizes and shapes. Many portly gentlemen — like David Sheppard, Erasmus and our own Swaroop Kishen — have strutted the scene, and these have provided enormous entertainment to the spectators during dull phases of the game. The New Zealand umpire Billy Bowden is a delight to the spectators with his unique signalling style, characterised by what has come to be known as the “crooked finger of doom” to declare a batsman out. An illustrious umpire of the past, Dickie Bird of England, was another character who was a source of entertainment to many. His autobiography is replete with anecdotes laced with humorous accounts of his interactions in the field. No surprise it sold a million copies. I know of only one Indian umpire — Madhav Gothoskar — who has put down his memoirs. This is disappointing. I am hoping that at least a gifted man like Venkat would take note of this lacuna in Indian cricket literature. With his phenomenal record, both as a player and an umpire, he should be a treasure house of information.

One can go on and on writing about so many aspects of umpiring, both serious and light-hearted. The point is umpires should be taken much more seriously than now. They are all live human beings who can contribute to the further growth of professionalism in cricket administration. Unfortunately, they are fighting, what seems to me, a losing battle against the spreading tentacles of technology.

This is sad, and must somehow be halted. It is for umpires the world over now to get together and give a united call to impress on cricket administrators that they can do their job as efficiently as a machine does. For this to happen, they should display a sense of pride in their job imbued with personal integrity. As the famous Australian umpire Simon Taufel once said: “… be a good umpire, you have to be a good person.” There cannot be a truer statement about the game.

(R. K. Raghavan is a freelance writer with a passion for all forms of cricket.)