When home umpires were in vogue in Test cricket

An umpire, by description, is a neutral person, whether he is home-grown or a foreigner. No umpire takes sides. Mistakes happen. The idea is not to repeat those mistakes.

Frustrated over unjust umpiring, even the calm West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding is unable to control his anger as he kicks the stumps during the first Test match against New Zealand at Dunedin in 1980.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Home umpires for home Tests!

What a pleasant throwback to good old times when cricket was not a commercial monster. A Swaroop Kishen or a Judah Reuben, a V. K. Ramaswamy or Ram Babu Gupta, umpires of repute, would don their hats and white coats and officiate with pride, commanding respect from home and visiting players.

And then it changed. The word ‘umpire’ did not convey neutrality. “Why? An umpire, by description, is a neutral person. No umpire takes sides. Mistakes happen. The idea is not to repeat those mistakes,” insists S. K. Bansal, veteran umpire of six Tests. India won all of them. That had nothing to do with his performance on the field though.

Indian umpires were said to be biased in the opinion of visiting captains. But Michael Holding did not send the stump flying by kicking it in India. That happened in New Zealand. Colin Croft did not deliberately crash into the umpire in India. That again happened in New Zealand. Australian umpires were also said to be notorious. In West Indies umpires dreaded giving a local batsman out leg-before. In Pakistan they just did not.

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“It was fashionable to slam Indian umpires. We were as good as umpires from anywhere,” says Ramaswamy, known for his tough approach to the job. In the acrimonious India-Pakistan series in 1987, the Bangalore Test witnessed unprecedented incidents. Cheap sledging by the Pakistanis threatened to spiral into major incidents when Ramaswamy, unable to tolerate anymore, sought to meet the Board secretary during a drinks break. “Can’t continue like this,” he told the Board secretary, who conveyed his displeasure to the Pakistan camp. The errant fielder was then removed from slip and dismissed to deep cover when Ramaswamy told Pakistan skipper Imran Khan, “You’ll not get good decisions if you behave like this.” Had the code of conduct rule been in place strictly then, no less than five Pakistan players would have faced suspensions from the match.

Umpire S. K. Bansal keeps a watchful eye as Rajesh Chauhan bowls during the one-off cricket Test match between India and Zimbabwe in New Delhi in 1993. Bansal officiated in six Tests and India won all of them.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

“That match was horrible but in the end the visiting team acknowledged our umpiring. Let me tell you, today, the behaviour of some of the Pakistan players was beyond accepted norms. The Indians, who lost from a winning position, were exemplary in their behaviour. There never was needless pressure from the Indians. I and my colleagues knew that we had to perform well to be able to get the next posting,” Ramaswamy remembers.

“We have withstood tremendous pressure in home matches. The pressure to ensure we did not give wrong decisions. Strange it was. If a decision went against the foreign team it became deliberate. A decision against the home team would be termed a mistake. Honestly, we never faced any pressure from the home players. None approached me to seek favours just because I was a home umpire. They knew I was fair to both teams and that’s how I gained respect. Players can find out a good umpire from a bad one in due course of time. They never took any chance with me,” remembers Ramaswamy.

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The move to have four Indian umpires for home matches does not excite Ramaswamy. “It is nothing significant because it has been introduced due to the pandemic. Also, you would have to have home series for them to officiate. Of course, I am happy for them. They need to grab the chance.” For A. V. Jayaprakash, who officiated with distinction in 13 Tests, the move to have home umpires for Tests is good. “I think it is a golden opportunity for Indian umpires. I have always maintained the Indian umpires are better than the foreign ones. This is a God-sent chance and the home umpires will have to perform and prove to the world that they belong to this category.”

An incident from the 1982 India-England Test in Calcutta is a glorious tribute to the competence of Indian umpires. Only wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani claimed a catch as David Gower played a cut off Ravi Shastri. The bowler had not appealed and Kishen raised his finger. Some of Gower’s teammates in the dressing room thought he had been done in by the umpire. They were in for a surprise when Gower reportedly remarked he had got a faint edge. Only Kirmani, Gower and Kishen could pick the sound of the ‘nick’ and not even the bowler and close-in fielders.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

The Indian Premier League (IPL), feels Jayaprakash, has contributed in helping the Indians overcome their inhibitions. “Earlier, most of the home umpires would not communicate with the foreign umpires after the day’s play. It changed a lot with the IPL. The home umpires not only interact with the foreign umpires but the players and match referees too. I expect them to do well because they know the pitches and the conditions very well,” says Jayaprakash, who began his career with a fee of Rs. 5000 per Test. “All that fee would go in airfare,” he laughs.

A lot has changed from the time the Board gave preference to reports submitted by the visiting captain in appointing umpires for Tests. “It was not a good practice,” admits K. Hariharan, who made his debut at Lord’s when standing in the 2005 one-off Test between Bangladesh and England. “It’s a great opportunity for the Indian umpires. If not for Covid, I doubt if some of them would have had a chance to stand in a Test. If they prove their competence, there would be many more chances for them. I know if they make mistakes there will be a lot of noise by the visiting team. Whatever you may say, there is a difference between standing in a first-class match and a Test match.”

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Explaining his point, Hariharan insists, “In Tests you have to cope with close-in catches and also leg-before decisions because you are under constant scrutiny. You have to work hard in these areas because of the noise from the stands. I admit there used to be tremendous pressure and it would all boil down to how you handled the appeals. You have to be experienced and mentally very strong when you stand in a Test match and here the pressure would be added because one of the teams would be from home. Mistakes will happen but you have to come back strongly.”

“It was fashionable to slam Indian umpires. We were as good as umpires from anywhere,” says V. K. Ramaswamy, known for his tough approach to the job.   -  H. Satish

 

How did he handle the pressure in first-class matches, say a Tamil Nadu-Karnataka or a Delhi-Bombay contest.

“Any match I would make it clear not to try intimidating tactics with me. I would tell them to concentrate on their job and let me do mine. Let us not interfere with each other’s job. Black sheep will be there but then umpires are basically professional. Why would they spoil their careers by taking sides. No one does.”

On the quality of umpiring in India, a much-debatable issue, Hariharan says, “Umpires learn and judge from making mistakes. There has never been a perfect umpire. The one who makes the least number of mistakes is the best umpire. In countries like England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand they have a good system of evaluating the umpires. Not in India, unfortunately. I have always said that umpires should be evaluated by expert umpires and not match referees. Even the best players are not able to evaluate umpires because some of the best players don’t understand the laws of the game. The current rating system in India says that almost all umpires have gained 96 per cent marks. How can that be because the captains still complain that umpiring quality in India is not good. We have to change the system to evaluate.”

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In contemporary times, umpires in India have come to be influenced by players and match referees. As a Board official pointed out, “strong teams tend to gain from the umpiring decisions when playing against weaker teams. Is that fair?”

“Umpires learn and judge from making mistakes. There has never been a perfect umpire. The one who makes the least number of mistakes is the best umpire,” says K. Hariharan.   -  Rajeev Bhatt

 

I remember asking Swaroop Kishen on how he dealt with pressure from the foreign teams, say negating a vociferous appeal from an aggressive bowler like Malcolm Marshall. “His eyes would become red when he was angry. I was never intimidated but I could not have stopped him from appealing. I would firmly say not out and then look the other way. He did his job by appealing. I did mine by saying no if I was not convinced. Why encourage a confrontation?”

An incident from the 1982 India-England Test in Calcutta is a glorious tribute to the competence of Indian umpires. Only wicketkeeper Syed Kirmani claimed a catch as David Gower played a cut off Ravi Shastri. The bowler had not appealed and Kishen raised his finger. Some of Gower’s team-mates in the dressing room thought he had been done in by the umpire. They were in for a surprise when Gower reportedly remarked he had got a faint edge. Only Kirmani, Gower and Kishen could pick the sound of the nick and not even the bowler and close in fielders.

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It was a big change from another episode from the same series when an umpire from the South Zone was objected to and the BCCI acceded to the visiting team’s demand. The said umpire had failed to pick a leg bye because he was trying out his new bi-focal spectacles. The visiting team was quick to find flaws and the umpire was not considered for any Test in the series. In fact, he never stood in a Test thereafter.

The opportunity created by the COVID situation allows Anil Chaudhary, Virender Sharma and C. Shamshuddin to entertain dreams of a Test debut with Nitin Menon having stood in two. “Where there are no Elite Panel match officials in the country, the best local International Panel match officials will be appointed,” the International Cricket Council said in a statement. India has no representation in the Elite Panel and their chance could come when England tours India in January next year.

“I think it is a golden opportunity for Indian umpires. I have always maintained the Indian umpires are better than the foreign ones. This is a God-sent chance and the home umpires will have to perform and prove to the world that they belong to this category,” says A. V. Jayaprakash.   -  K. Bhagya Prakash

 

Not that all home umpires would give flawless performances. A few were subjected to humiliation on the field at the end of the match for some decisions which the visiting captain would have deemed “horrendous." There was this classic case of the English players pushing a Pakistani umpire into a swimming pool for his poor decisions in a Test.

One incident that stands out in a home Test happened at the Feroze Shah Kotla in 1983 involving Viv Richards. The West Indian great talks of having received a warning that he was a “marked” man. He did not believe it. The next day he was given out leg before. It was a bad decision, no doubt. Richards returned to the dressing and smashed the crockery laid on the table. His teammates fled the dressing room and the incident showed the home umpires in poor light.

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It is now back to a stage where the home umpires can make the most of the opportunity. “It would go a long way in confirming the fact that Indian umpires are competent. I expect good performances from the four-member panel we have,” notes Ramaswamy. To help the inexperienced umpires, the ICC has added an extra DRS decision.

“It should help a lot,” says Jayaprakash, who was one of the earliest player-turned umpire in India.