With a well-set protocol, good remuneration for participants, a code of conduct and the availability of technology and resources, conducting a first-class cricket match in India today is a sophisticated affair.

Thanks to the improved financial health of the BCCI, a livelihood through umpiring isn’t unrewarding any more. “Now, [umpires get] ₹30,000 per day and if there are 2,000 matches in a season, you’re assured of 45-50 days of umpiring. So you can earn a decent sum to make a living out of it,” Vinayak Kulkarni, who stood as umpire in two One-Day Internationals, points out.

But how was life for a first-class umpire, the custodians of the game, in the 1980s and 1990s?

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It wasn’t long ago that first-class umpires were paid paltry sums of money for their services and had to make do with limited resources by which to educate themselves and improve their performances. The technology and training available were basic. Travel and accommodation had to be arranged by the umpires themselves, and in the absence of the internet, it meant standing in the queue in railway stations to book their tickets.

“[In the early 1990s,] the remuneration was just about ₹250 a day. They never used to arrange accommodation; they used to give us the train fare, only second class. Sometimes, only some [cricket] associations would call us a few days before the match and tell us, ‘You could stay in this particular hotel’,” K. Hariharan, the first-class and international umpire who stood in two Tests and 34 One-Day Internationals, says.

“After 2000, things started improving. Even for [us to start travelling regularly by flights], it took a lot of time,” he adds.

Suresh Shastri, who stood in two Tests, 19 ODIs and two T20Is, recalls, “There was no one to receive us; we would have to go on our own to the respective association’s office and tell them we [had arrived]. There was no money then, but whatever we were getting, we were very happy, honestly.”

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Desmond Haynes cannot believe what's happening at the other end during the Prudential World Cup final match between India and West Indies, at Lord's on June 25, 1983. Dickie Bird is the umpire on view.

 

And what were the resources for training? “There was no training when we were umpiring; every umpire was on his own. He had to make his arrangements to learn. He had to look for avenues to correct his mistakes. There was no umpiring academy and no umpiring classes were held. It was up to the umpires to develop their skills,” Hariharan says.

Hariharan points out that there is no training centre for umpires even today and the training isn’t adequate, but it seems the scenario has changed for the better. Not only is there initiative taken by the BCCI and State associations for umpires’ training, the internet offers plenty of resources for education, too. The BCCI has had umpire exchange programmes as well, with other cricket boards. Simon Taufel, the former Elite-panel umpire, was part of a yearly seminar for Indian umpires and he told  Sportstar  in an interview three years ago that the umpiring standards were high and rising every year.

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“The associations conduct lots of classes. Senior umpires have come out; people like me have written books. BCCI started its umpiring academy in Nagpur, in 2010. Now it is gone (it has been dormant for the last few years) but then we had residential facility there. There used to be training. We used to have courses for four or five days,” Kulkarni says.

The umpires’ academy in Nagpur was useful and should have continued its training programmes, feels Kulkarni, who has been actively involved in umpiring education since retiring. Currently working on a book on umpiring, Kulkarni has authored training modules for umpires and translated the ‘Laws of Cricket Code’ in Kannada, which is available at  www.lords.org .

“For the upcoming umpires, BCCI does conduct classes once in two years or three years, and then have examinations. But for the existing umpires, the seminar takes place (once in a year). When the academy was there, we had a course for the people who were found weak in certain areas. Supposing I was weak in lbw and caught behind, I was sent for specific training. If somebody was weak in no-ball, he was sent for specific training,” he says.

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‘Upward tick’

Players’ behaviour was better, too, as compared to the earlier era. Umpires are used to dealing with pressure, but it nevertheless made life easier.

“If you isolate, there’s not much improvement in certain things, but in general, there’s an improvement. There’s an upward curve. What I do on the field is seen by all. I cannot get away with things. But that is a double-edged sword, because nowadays new boys see that and would like to emulate that. There’s not a drastic change in behavioural pattern but there’s an upward tick,” Kulkarni observed.

He enlists a few possible reasons for it: “Technology, and even the players who come are more educated and better placed [than before]. Competition for places is also there.”

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Hariharan says: “Earlier, there was no match-referee system, and no code-of-conduct system. So naturally, any player behaving any which way could get away with it. But nowadays that is not the case. There’s a match referee in every game. There’s a code-of-conduct system in every game, but strict implementation of it is required to improve player behaviour.”

Yet, despite better remuneration, guidance and treatment, there is much that can be done to improve the situation for umpires. Kulkarni calls for a central contract system – it already exists for players - to assure umpires of income. “So many matches have been cancelled due to COVID-19; those umpires have been deprived of income,” he points out.

The whole system of umpiring assessment was flawed, feels Hariharan. Umpiring assessment, according to him, should be done solely by umpires and not match-referees. “It should be umpire assessment [and] not player assessment. And they should be assessed by expert umpires who are specialists in umpiring matters and not by players who have played cricket at first-class level,” he says.

The player-centric approach also means umpires do not have an array of post-retirement career options as prominent players do.

“After umpires retire, they’re thrown away. [Some of them] have also [umpired] for 25-30 years, they’ve also become experts,” Hariharan observes.

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To further improve umpiring standards, Shastri feels first-class umpires must be made to officiate in local matches. “Even if you’re an international umpire, they cannot stop you from umpiring domestic or club-level matches; even players from those teams and clubs expect top-class umpires to come. Whenever BCCI umpires get an opportunity, if they want to improve, they must do club matches or local matches, it’s very important,” he says.

Recently, Indian umpires got a taste of the Decision Review System in domestic cricket for the first time. ‘Partial’ DRS was experimented with in the Ranji Trophy semifinals and final. It had its critics, but the embrace of modernity was also perhaps suggestive of the overall good health of Indian cricket and those associated with it, including the men in the white coats.