A costly lesson

The supreme irony is that Darrell Hair has been given the push from his umpiring job because he was too good a technocrat. He has been sent out to pasture and is required to undergo a six-month rehabilitation course in what seems to be man management, writes Frank Tyson.

The Australian Test umpire Darrell Hair will long remember standing in England’s Third Test against Pakistan at the Oval in 2006. It looks as if it is going to be a costly experience for him. Now it seems unlikely that he will ever finish his contract with the International Cricket Council — at least not with the blessings of the eastern bloc of Test teams!

By the consensus of his colleagues there is no doubt that the portly umpire from central New South Wales stands proud in the front rank of international umpires. His competence is unquestioned and he is well acquainted with the Laws of Cricket from Lord Cowdrey’s Preamble to the last full stop of Law 42. Hair can probably quote you chapter and verse from every regulation — forwards, backwards, sideways and upside down; every full-stop, comma, colon, semi-colon and each and every punctuation mark. But irrespective of his knowledge about the interpretation of cricket’s regulations, Hair may yet find himself handed the cold mitt, unless his translation of the game’s rules is not diluted by humility and a little give and take on his part.

The supreme irony is that Hair has been given the push from his umpiring job because he was too good a technocrat. He has been sent out to pasture and is required to undergo a six-month rehabilitation course in what seems to be man management. The facts of the case were that he merely applied the laws of the game — correctly as it turned out — to his suspicion that someone in the Pakistani side had tampered with the condition of the ball in England’s second innings.

It was not a capital charge, demanding the ultimate punishment. But Inzamam-ul-Haq escalated the accusation to the highest level when he declared his team had lost face and honour by the incident, before leading it off at the tea interval. The tourists remained in the dressing room for 25 minutes — enough time under Law 21 to require umpires Hair and his fellow-arbiter, the West Indian Billy Doctrove, to enquire as to whether Inzamam and his team refused to play and, if so, for what reason? Not receiving a satisfactory answer Hair and Doctrove awarded the game — quite legally — to England.

It was all quite clinical, albeit lacking in the altruistic sentiments expressed in “Kipper” Cowdrey’s “Spirit of Cricket”. With a little goodwill on the umpires’ part the chaos and bickering which ensued could have been avoided. But Hair was perfectly within his remit, and was visibly supported by Doctrove.

On the admission of his own supporters, Hair was not the most popular of international umpires and many players found him abrupt in his manners. But umpiring, like captaincy, is not a popularity contest. Hair himself confessed that he was not “Mr. Popularity” on the cricket field and did not go out of his way to be absolutely friendly and talk a lot because he thought that this would make him “lose his focus.”

The 64000-dollar question is whether it is preferable to leave the destiny of a Test or a rubber in the hands of a “nice guy umpire” like Dickie Bird or in the fingers of one who is an immaculate interpreter of the game such as Hair. The duties of the latter could be, and has been, provided electronically by a “Hawk Eye” sort of contraption — but not without eliminating the human element in umpiring. And if one submits to the “personality umpires” line of thought, who is going to judge the permissible levels of character allowed to the umpires? And how many errors are such “umpiroids” given?

The “character” element was always one of the attractions of umpires such as the former Leicestershire fast bowler, Alec Skelding. Alec was an avid punter and in his youthful days served as a “bookies runner” for a gang on the racecourses of England. A law unto himself, Alec always concluded the day’s play by pocketing the bails, turning to the players with the exclamation: “And that gentlemen concludes the entertainment for today!”

Alec’s eyesight was not very good and he always wore glasses with thick ‘bottle-top’ lenses, giving him the appearance of a myopic schoolboy. In one of the touring Australia’s 1948 games it is said that he twice gave the feisty Aussie opening batsman, Sid Barnes, out leg before wicket.

When Bradman’s bowling side took to the field, Barnes took up his usual position on the boundary at deep third-man where he was continuously pestered by a stray dog which had wandered on to the playing area. Barnes collared the mutt and at the end of the first over, picked it up and ostentatiously presented it to a protesting Skelding. “What shall I do with this?” spluttered the umpire. Barnes replied, “I thought that if I could find a white walking stick you would be completely kitted out!”

The England fast bowler, Freddie Trueman told me in the last months of his life of his first encounter as a young man with Skelding. An hour before close of play, Yorkshire’s opponents were six wickets down when “F.S.” was brought back into the attack to apply the ‘coup de grace.’ Handing his sweater to Alec, Fred prepared to measure out his run-up. “Ah,” said Alec mysteriously, “the express train hour!” Then, addressing F.S. he added, “Bowl a short one on middle and leg; bring another man into the leg-trap.”

Mechanically, Fred obeyed, and was immediately rewarded with a leg-side catch. The next man appeared at the wicket. Once more Alec spoke: “This fella’s got a high backlift. Give him a yorker.” Thoughtlessly, F.S. obeyed and was rewarded with the sight of a cart wheeling middle stump. Four times in three overs and 20 minutes, the fast bowler bowled according to Skelding’s instructions and the opposition were all “back in the hutch.”

As the Yorkshire side trooped back into the pavilion with victory theirs, Fred, curious, asked Alec about “the express train hour” expression. “Ah,” said Alec, “on that wicket, the batsman could easily have blocked for half an hour, then delayed matters by taking the extra half hour. By bowling them out, we get an extra hour, and I can catch the express to London. Otherwise I would have to take the Milk Train and get in to Euston three hours later!”