Mumbai batter Sarfaraz Khan had just settled in when a close lbw appeal off Madhya Pradesh (MP) seamer Gaurav Yadav was turned down by the on-field umpires during the Ranji Trophy final. The MP camp clearly wasn’t happy with the decision, and the thousand-odd fans present at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, too, weren’t convinced.
But in the absence of a Decision Review System (DRS) in the country’s premier domestic tournament, nothing could be done about it. Disheartened, the bowlers got back to business, while Sarfaraz made the most of the reprieve to score a century.
On the third day of the semifinal between Bengal and MP, Bengal’s Mukesh Kumar angled a length ball into Yash Dubey, who was late on the flick and hit on the pads. It looked like the delivery was sliding down the leg, but umpire Vineet Kulkarni thought otherwise, allowing Mukesh to claim his 100th first-class wicket.
On the very next day, Bengal found itself on the opposite side of the fence. Sudip Gharami, the in-form batter, tried to reverse-sweep Saransh Jain, but was struck on the gloves. However, umpire Ravikant Reddy gave him out lbw. The Bengal team was shaken by the decision. It eventually cost the team the match and its hopes of playing a final were dashed.
“Having a DRS actually helps in such crucial matches,” Gharami told Sportstar .
“It’s quite natural that an umpire can make a mistake, but if you have a DRS, it allows a team to get a fair judgment and the howlers can be avoided. At that time, the team needed a big partnership, so when the decision went against us, we obviously were surprised. But there’s nothing much that we could do about it,” he pointed out.
‘Have to value experience’
Over the years, umpiring in domestic cricket has often come under the scanner. S. K. Bansal, one of the noted umpires of his time, believes it is important the Board consults the former umpires to improve the standards of umpiring.
“Over the last few years, a lot of senior and experienced umpires have retired. And at this point in time, it is important that we mentor the younger crop well, so the BCCI should look at roping in a few experienced umpires who can watch the domestic matches and observe things and then guide the current umpires accordingly,” Bansal said.
“You have to value experience, and if this can be practised, I am sure the current crop of umpires will benefit.”
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To put things in perspective, in 2002, the BCCI set the retirement age of umpires at 55. However, those who officiated in international assignments could continue up to 58. And many in the system feel that this was one of the reasons why India faced a shortage of quality umpires. After repeated requests from the umpires and the umpiring sub-committee, the BCCI decided to increase the age limit for match officials to 65 in its Annual General Meeting in December last year.
Having officiated in six Tests and 30 ODIs between 1990 and 2001, Bansal belongs to a generation when DRS was not in use.
“Umpiring is a challenging job where you have to rely on your judgment and stick to it with conviction. But now, everything is dominated by technology. DRS was initially introduced with the right intention, but now, it has done the umpires more harm than good. With players challenging every decision and technology ruling the roost, the on-field umpires often tend to self-doubt their decisions and that’s not a good sign,” Bansal said, adding that in domestic cricket, maintaining the balance between keeping faith in an umpire’s call and use of limited technology is the key.
“You have to have faith in your local umpires, educate them and back them so that they don’t struggle under pressure…”
To improve the standards at the domestic level, the BCCI’s umpiring sub-committee has taken quite a few steps - monitoring the trend, evaluating and regularly assessing the umpires. The three-member panel currently comprises Amiesh Saheba, Krishna Hariharan and Sudhir Asnani.
In the 2019-20 season, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the BCCI had experimented with a ‘limited DRS’ for the Ranji Trophy semifinals and final, which were televised. Not quite a foolproof measure - HawkEye and UltraEdge, key elements of the system in international cricket, were missing - the effort was still lauded by the State associations and the players because it eliminated the howlers to a certain extent. It did not cost the BCCI much as it relied on the television footage available during live telecast and those actually aided the umpires.
Saba Karim, who was the BCCI’s General Manager, Game Development, at the time, admits that the decision was taken for the betterment of domestic cricket.
While the exact figure may vary from time to time, the cost to use DRS in international cricket is somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000 (₹50 lakh to ₹75 lakh approx.) for a full set up. So, that’s one of the reasons why several cricket associations shy away from using a full-fledged DRS. But the people who follow Indian cricket closely don’t buy the idea that the BCCI cannot afford to implement DRS in domestic cricket. For arguably the richest cricket board in the world, money is certainly not a factor. It has more to do with logistics as the BCCI conducts more than 2,000 domestic games across age groups in a year.
“If you bring in DRS, you need to make sure that we use them uniformly across all domestic matches. Can we do that? I don’t think at this stage because that will entail a humongous cost,” Karim said.
While the Board plans to improve the standards of umpiring at the domestic level by providing more practical, up-to-date education to the umpires, the fact that Nitin Menon is the lone representative in the ICC elite panel speaks volumes. In the 11-member panel, three are from the U.K., while two are from Australia. “The umpiring style has changed. While it is important to back the umpires, it is also a must to get them accustomed to the technology and that can only start at the ground level,” a retired international umpire said, making it clear that a lot more needed to be done by the BCCI.
At a time when the the game is changing rapidly, shouldn’t the world’s richest cricket board wake up and smell the coffee?