Give the umpires absolute control

Published : May 15, 2004 00:00 IST

Steve Bucknor with Darrell Hair. Pic. TOM SHAW-
Steve Bucknor with Darrell Hair. Pic. TOM SHAW-

Steve Bucknor with Darrell Hair. Pic. TOM SHAW-

Cricket has no finer breed than the gang of umpires. Now ICC should give them control once more as the simplest, most effective way of solving cricket's problems on the field. Especially if the umpires knew that they had their full support or, better still, their enthusiastic encouragement, writes TED CORBETT.

WHEN video replays were first used extensively about 10 years ago there was a widespread protest. It was, I'm sure you remember, going to mark the end of the world as we know it.

It was suggested that their deployment would reduce the role of the umpire to the man who counted from one to six each over, held the bowler's sweater, called on the drinks trolley every hour or so and told the players when they could go for lunch or tea.

Some pundits thought the umpire's days were numbered and that before long a small microchip in the middle stump might serve in their place.

In truth, the last few years have shown that the opposite has happened. The replay has indicated how often umpires get their decisions right and the men at the top — David Shepherd, Steve Bucknor, Darrell Hair, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and the new adjudicator Aleem Dar of Pakistan who has gained wide respect in a short time — have never been held in such high esteem.

The travelling Test umpire, well paid, handsomely treated and offered all the perks that go with any jet-setting job, has never had more respect. In the last few years he has gone from the unnoticed, uncared-for, also-ran, to a man with a prestigious job properly rewarded. His status has never been higher.

The new regard in which he is held may also have something to do with the outcry that followed the revelations about bribery and corruption. Test captains were among the accused, famous players' names were bandied about every day and whole teams were cited.

Not a single umpire came under the spotlight during the game's most intense witch-hunt and that tells you a lot about their integrity.

So, if these men are so straight, so good at making instant decisions — decisions the rest of us come to agree with after half a dozen replays — and so respected, isn't it time ICC gave control of every aspect of the game on field back to them?

It is not just their right to scream "No Ball!" from square leg whenever they see a bent arm — which in the present plague of chuckers might cause them to be sponsored by a medical organisation specialising in throat lozenges — but the right to further aid from the replay cameras and, most important of all, the full backing of their employers whenever there is a dispute.

The present laws, rules and regulations on the bent elbow are a disgrace.

There are a dozen or so international bowlers of all paces and several different nationalities who are under suspicion.

Ask any Test cricketer and he will name those whose delivery action causes him to say instinctively that they throw.

Yet you could be excused for thinking that ICC do not know there is a problem; unless you admire their method of investigation that puts the suspect bowler into limbo for a period, offers him advice and coaching and then, almost automatically, declares him fit to return to the bowling crease.

It would all be solved if the umpires, who at present operate with their lips sealed, were allowed to call the offender and once they had decided he was a habitual thrower order him out of the attack. Knowing that ICC would back them all the way.

I am a harsh critic and a reactionary on the subject of chuckers. Richie Benaud told me once that when Ian Meckiff was accused of throwing he was summoned to meet the New South Wales selectors. "We propose to choose Meckiff for the next match," they told him.

"You can pick him," replied Benaud, their comparatively young captain. "But I won't bowl him."

That is my stance, too. There is no place in the beautiful game for men with bent elbows any more than there was a place for those with the intention to fix matches.

If there is a bowler who cannot propel the ball down the pitch in the traditional way he should be drummed out of cricket no matter what the consequences. Just as the fixers were forced out. They leave as big a stain on the game and they will be no loss.

If decisive action were taken, it might also persuade the authorities to ask questions about the cause of throwing. Then they could take their own course of remedial action by telling the coaches that they would be held responsible the next time one of their pupils tried to gain an advantage by throwing.

At every point ICC seem to want to water down the consequences of throwing. The suggestion now is that it is fine for a bowler to have a slightly bent arm, although the experts do not seem to be able to agree what percentage of bend is acceptable. To my conservative mind, straight is straight; nothing less should be permissible.

Restoring power to the umpires would be a wonderful first step towards removing this blight from the game and the sooner that is done the better.

I recognise that there are political reasons why this step might bring problems. No country wants to have its prime bowler publicly humiliated and no doubt many of them will bring forward arguments to continue the present system which ensures that the sins of the bowler are not just swept under the carpet but effectively buried.

The length of the process now in place ensures the public has forgotten that a bowler has been reported for throwing by the time he is either quietly removed from the game or told that remedial action has worked.

If instant justice could be handed down by the umpires it might persuade selectors not to choose men with dubious actions and coaches to be more careful in weeding out those likely to offend. That day cannot come soon enough.

Cricket is hardly blighted by bad behaviour and there is a match referee on hand to deal with that problem when it arises. They are experts in the quiet word in the ear which has been controlling players for decades and they must not have that power curtailed. Their contribution to team discipline is even more important now; especially in England where the senior professional, the team disciplinarian in the old days, has disappeared.

On the other hand, the umpires would be helped by an extended use of the video replay method.

Recently I watched a West Indies v England match on television when Gareth Batty, the England offspinner appealed for lbw against Brian Lara. My own instinct was that it was out; umpire Eddie Nicholls gave it not out. All the replays — available to me and all the other television watchers — suggested it was out.

Nicholls had made a mistake; and why not. He is a good umpire but like all the rest of us he sometimes has a bad moment at the office.

If he had had the chance to confirm that decision — currently with the third umpire but one day I suspect on a tiny screen in his sunglasses or his wrist watch — he may well have changed his mind.

The television commentators said, in their usual patronising way, that it was "very close" a euphemism for "plumb out" if I am any judge. I bet Nicholls went to bed with a headache that night after watching the TV highlights.

I will also bet that he would rather get it right — the decision may have changed the result of the game by the way — than make an instinctive judgement that was wrong.

That is one of the best characteristics of the good umpire. I know many of them and they are a fine bunch of men who stay in the game after their playing careers are finished because they love the atmosphere, the lifestyle and the camaraderie.

From the volunteer who stands in village matches, to the county umpire who drives round England as economically as he can, staying in boarding houses that have been the temporary homes for umpires down all the years, to the five star, pampered and wealthy eight who stand in every Test and one-day international, they are motivated as much by the wish to serve as the need to earn a living.

Cricket has no finer breed than the gang of umpires; utterly reliable, usually self-effacing and only occasionally inclined to demand centre stage. Their iconic figure is still Dickie Bird, a talented eccentric with a supreme knack of getting his decisions right.

It was Bird who laid down the path the international umpires now tread and it was his charisma that forced their wages up and their status higher.

Now ICC should give them control once more as the simplest, most effective way of solving cricket's problems on the field. Especially if the umpires knew that they had their full support or, better still, their enthusiastic encouragement.

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