From trains to flights: Charting umpiring reforms since the 90s

K. Hariharan, Suresh Shastri and Vinayak Kulkarni recall how it was for India’s first-class umpires back in the 1990s.

'After umpires retire, they’re thrown away,' says K Hariharan.   -  V. V. KRISHNAN

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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What happened to the bending position?

In the olden days, it wasn’t uncommon to see umpires at the bowlers’ end bend down just before each delivery was bowled. It has all but disappeared today.

Shastri says it offers an advantage for the umpires as it narrows their vision.

“In the olden days, the umpires would bend down for each delivery. Nowadays they stand upright. I started with the same position, I used to bend down. After seeing some people, [I changed my stance]. But if you bend down, there’s a very good advantage because your focus becomes narrow. The focus is much better. For every run-out chance at strikers’ end, umpires do bend down to make decisions, even at the bowlers’ end he does so. So why not for every delivery at bowlers’ end also, because the bowler also wants to take a wicket every ball for which one should have focus and concentration,” he says.

“I asked this question in one of our umpiring workshops with Simon Taufel. I asked him, when he started umpiring, he used to bend down but after some time, why he started standing [upright]. He said when his mentor or somebody saw him standing, he said ‘you look better’.

“If you see David Shepherd, even though was a bit bulky, he used to crouch a bit, Dickie Bird also used to crouch. Before that, everyone used to [do it]. Swaroop Kishan, our Indian umpire, even though he was fat, used to bend down a bit. I personally think it helps.”

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.   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES


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

“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.

‘Shouldn’t lose focus’

An umpire’s job demands attentiveness at all times. Suresh Shastri recalls an instance from one of the ODIs he officiated in to demonstrate the need to maintain one’s focus for every delivery.

It was the fifth ODI between India and Pakistan in Jaipur, on November 18, 2007. India was on 188 for 5 in the 36th over, replying to Pakistan’s 306 for 6.

“I gave Yuvraj Singh caught behind. Just before that delivery, [M. S.] Dhoni took two or three runs and injured his ankle, and I was at the bowlers’ end, and at that time, the physio of the Indian team, John Gloster, came on the field, and he gave some treatment for some time. I’ve never seen that kind of treatment for an ankle. He was limping like anything, and before long, he stood on his own and he was ready at the non-strikers’ end. And on the very next ball, [Umar] Gul bowled a short delivery, and Yuvi went for a pull or a hook, there was a sound, and appeal, and I gave him out caught behind.

“But that turned out to be a wrong decision. The ball just brushed his shoulder, but I gave him out only on the sound; he was batting at the Pavilion End, and the moment the ball passed him by and they appealed, he turned back and I thought that he was walking towards the pavilion. And he turned back. The moment I raised my finger, he was surprised. What I mean to say is if anything happens on the field, the umpire should not divert his mind from his job.”

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.

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