From 1975 to 2019: How umpiring has evolved with World Cups

Cricket umpiring has seen an unbelievable transformation over the years with the officials feeling the pressure more in the big matches, especially World Cup games.

Published : Oct 01, 2023 14:47 IST - 7 MINS READ

Reliable mind: Kumar Dharmasena officiated at the 2019 World Cup final.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images

A commentator was once challenged to give his decision on air the moment an appeal was made by the fielding side. The player realised it was easy to be wise after the event. He was getting most decisions wrong. “Umpiring is not everyone’s cup of tea” — the great Swaroop Kishan Reu, the late Indian umpire who officiated during the 1970s and ’80s, would often tick off people who would question his rulings. Reu was an umpire who was friendly with the cricketers but at no point did he compromise his position. He would not stop from admonishing the players on the field. 

For retired English umpire Dickie Bird, who stood in three ICC World Cup finals, nothing could match the excitement of officiating in a Test match. Bird wrote in his autobiography — “I have always found it difficult to come back down to earth after a big game, particularly after the excitement and tension of a World Cup final.” To stand in a World Cup is indeed a matter of immense pride for every match official — umpire or match referee.

Cricket umpiring has seen an unbelievable transformation over the years with the officials feeling the pressure more in the big matches, especially World Cup games. But for Nitin Menon, who will be officiating in the 2023 edition, there is nothing like a big match. He told  Sportstar, “We do not think of matches as ‘big’ or ‘small’ as such. For us each game is important. But we do prepare differently for matches – to deal with different conditions, different teams. For example, our preparation for the sub-continent may be different. There would also be matches where we will keep the rivalry between teams in mind. The position of the tournament – knockout game or league game, etc. may also be at the back of our mind.”

To bring some consistency in the system, the cricket authorities introduced technological support to make umpiring as error free as possible by taking the help of the third umpire, a concept that made its debut in the 1992 series between India and host South Africa. Incidentally, the first victim of the third umpire was Sachin Tendulkar himself, run out and appealed for by Jonty Rhodes. The same year had seen the introduction of the Match Referee too, during India’s tour of Australia.

Fast forward to the 2010s, the 2011 World Cup saw the introduction of the Decision Review System (DRS) where a team could challenge the decision of the on field umpire. India had long opposed the DRS system and ironically it was this very use of technology that saved the home team the match against Pakistan in Mohali. Umpire Ian Gould ruled Sachin Tendulkar leg-before to Saeed Ajmal and a review showed the ball missing the leg stump. 

Ball tracking and Hot Spot have been innovations that have added to the pressure the umpires endure. Their decision being overruled can create self doubt in the minds of the umpires but then they are well prepared for such moments. Playing conditions are kept in mind when giving decisions like leg-before. “We do keep pitch conditions in mind, not only how much the ball is turning but also the bounce. Is it high bounce, low bounce or variable bounce? All these things matter, especially for lbw decisions,” asserts Menon, the youngest umpire in this tournament, at 39.

Nitin Menon (right) is the youngest umpire in the tournament at 39. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Menon will partner Kumar Dharmasena in the opening match of the 2023 World Cup between England and New Zealand. Incidentally, Dharmasena also officiated in the final between the same two teams at Lord’s four years ago. Paul Wilson (TV umpire), Sharfuddoula Ibne Shahid Saikat (fourth umpire) and Javagal Srinath (Match Referee) will be the other officials for the opening match.

The ICC follows an elaborate selection process that it runs with the help of Member Boards. The initial recommendations come from Member Boards and then they are assessed by the ICC. The Member Boards, on their own, are expected to help prepare quality umpires through a robust system that assesses performances in domestic cricket before candidates are upgraded to the next level.

There can be exceptions like Simon Taufel, who was a born umpire. His sense of judgment and reading of the playing conditions went a long way in helping him give consistent decisions. Taufel stood in his first Test when he was only 29 and came to be regarded as the best umpire on the circuit. Despite this, he couldn’t stand in a World Cup final until 2011, due to his home country’s relentless victory run in the 2003 and 2007 editions.

Apart from the Elite panel, there is also an International Panel in place, which steps in when required for events like the World Cup and also many other international matches. The process again is strict and the emphasis is on the consistency of giving good decisions. In fact, old timers maintain that a good umpire is one who gives the least number of bad decisions. 

There is a system in place for the development of the umpires. The umpires are groomed by the ICC’s Umpires’ Coaches over the years and they get feedback on everything — right from their decisions to how they controlled the games and their reactions. It is here that the officials learn to back each other because umpires are known to have great bonding on and off the field. Umpires and Match Referees discuss situations, decisions, teams and players. Having meals and travelling together is an integral part of their process of understanding each other.

The Match Referees are mostly famous players with deep knowledge of the game and its conduct. Each match official has his/her strong point — some excel with onfield decisions and some are better with onfield decisions, like TV umpires. The ICC has women umpires coming through too and it is confident their number will grow in the coming years. The ICC also runs workshops — previously used to be a set time of the year but now is generally before major events. It is understood that a workshop will be held before this World Cup because the subcontinent offers various challenges in terms of weather and pitches. 

Sean Easey, the ICC Senior Manager — Umpires and Referees, says, “The selection and appointment processes that we run in conjunction with Member Boards has helped us to identify highly skilled elite panels and a robust feeder system that includes international and development panels. The ICC Cricket Operations department has a system of assessing umpire performance that helps in their development, but what is also important is the teamwork and support they get from colleagues. They all back each other and share experiences. I am confident that we will have many good match officials coming through in the years ahead, including several females who have been consistently doing well.”

The biggest irritant for the umpires and Match Referees is the relentless scrutiny they are subjected to. How do they deal with it? “The best way to deal with scrutiny is to avoid social media and what the newspapers, experts or former players are saying. Whenever we get free time between games, we avoid talking about cricket. We read books, some play golf, some just hit the gym or go for a swim,” Menon concludes. 

For this tournament in India, the ICC has announced 20 officials — 16 umpires and four Match Referees. England enjoys the highest representation among the umpires with four, followed by Australia (3), NZ (2) and SA (2). Twelve of them come from the Emirates ICC Elite Panel, while there are six debutants — Sharfuddoula, Menon, Ahsan Raza, Adrian Holdstock, Alex Wharf and Chris Brown. Sharfuddoula, especially has additional reasons to be proud as he is the first ever umpire from Bangladesh to be selected in the WC panel.

2023 World Cup umpires & match referees
Chris Brown (New Zealand), Kumar Dharmasena (Sri Lanka), Marais Erasmus (South Africa), Christopher Gaffaney (New Zealand), Michael Gough (England), Adrian Holdstock (South Africa), Richard Illingworth (England), Richard Kettleborough (England), Nitin Menon (India), Ahsan Raza (Pakistan), Paul Reiffel (Australia), Sharfuddoula Ibne Shahid (Bangladesh), Rodney Tucker (Australia), Alex Wharf (England), Joel Wilson (West Indies) and Paul Wilson (Australia).
Match Referees
Jeff Crowe (New Zealand), Andy Pycroft (Zimbabwe), Richie Richardson (West Indies) and Javagal Srinath (India).

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