Importance of third umpire is growing


IT's summer, the sun streams in through my study window and somewhere beyond the duck pond a green woodpecker is tapping out its shopping list.

In other words it's time for the International Cricket Council to take their wake-up pills and start thinking once again.

Before they slip round the corner at Lord's to watch England beat up Sri Lanka - well, it is still only mid-way through spring, with juicy pitches and a bounce in the step of every English pace bowler as he exploits conditions which occur about once every snowfall in Serendipity Island - their big guns ought to have a five-day debate on the latest and most important subject under discussion.

What are we going to do with those increasingly important men known as third umpires?

Before you dream up your plans for retribution against one Eddie Nicholls for failing to spot the clean catch taken by Ajay Ratra to dismiss Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the second Test at Port of Spain let me ask another question.

If the men in the middle must all be neutral, paid such high wages that the idea of bribery and corruption is a distant nightmare and given so many creature comforts that their life is a form of heaven on earth, isn't it time that the third umpire joined the travelling circus too?

Even at the snail's pace that ICC have set, we are soon going to rely on these gentlemen with their television sets and their radio link to the middle for almost every decision except bowled and retired hurt.

At the moment they are forgotten, tucked away between the scorers' box and the match referee with a television set and a squeaky two-way radio. But their importance is growing by the day and it is time their status was raised to match their duties.

The old square - "I'd like my bill, please, waiter" - sign is already a favourite among the on-field umpires who used to give every decision with aplomb. In fact they boasted about their infallibility and referred you to paragraphs about the benefit of the doubt with such remarks as "actually, we don't have moments of doubt. We call it as we see it."

Hasn't the screen found them out? I'll say so. The once cocky umpires have a new cry from the heart. "We're only human, you know. We sometimes get it wrong. Oh, yes, we make mistakes, but not as many as those players. They should watch their own errors before they go round calling us names. And as for you reporters, you make plenty of mistakes. Only human just like the rest of us."

So they admit they need help. But do they need it from a man in a pavilion who comes from the home country and may, in some circumstances, fear retribution if he gives out the local star, either one from his career-saving century, or 100 from the 30th Test hundred of his career.

I would not blame Eddie Nicholls if, in the middle of the tenth replay - it seemed like 200 and gave me plenty of time to get a sore throat by screaming "Just give him out!" - he wondered how it might be seen in the Caribbean if he achieved infamy as the first third umpire to give the decision that decided a Test.

It would have made him as popular from Sabina Park to Georgetown as he is at the moment between Mumbai and Chennai.

So, if we are to use more technology - both inevitable and desirable - we must recruit a new bunch to join the travelling umpires and peripatetic match referees. It is only logical to have independent, neutral third umpires or one day we will have such trouble that cricket will be ruined.

All we want is justice. Who cares if it takes a few replays to find the right result or if that means paying for more officials, more hotel rooms and more flights on jet planes. ICC are rich. Let them spend some of their cash.

If cricket is to earn trillions of rupees a year and send out its images to millions of homes every day, it must not allow itself to be ridiculed as it was on that final day at Port of Spain; even though natural justice prevailed and India won.

We cannot rely on a kindly glance from the sporting gods to allow us to bring the right result. ICC must get its act together.

If they want a suggestion and are a bit timid - what ICC timid? - how about this as a first step. Why don't they change over to decisions on a consultancy basis.

You can imagine the conversation.

"Hello, Rudi, it's Billy out in the middle here. You all right, old man? Nice up there is it with your cool drinks, your fridge and your comfy chair? Yes, thanks; pretty good out here too, if you forget the heat, the flies and the noise from these lads who keep appealing every time they don't no-ball.

"Seriously, though, here's a question for you. I don't know if you noticed but this No.11 has just been hit on the pads, back against his stumps by a full toss, a couple of minutes late with his stroke, if you know what I mean. Could you have a glance at your TV and see if there is any flaw in my argument which says he is out and we can all go home.

"And, by the way, listen to what those lads in the TV box next door are saying. Just in case we missed something. Can't be too careful. But hurry. I've got a taxi waiting with the meter running."

There is a long theatrical pause.

"Oh, out, is he? You sure? I'm going to put my finger up in a minute and I don't want cartoons of me and a white walking stick in every paper tomorrow morning. Good! That's out batsman. Or at least the third umpire says so."

Just a nice, quiet debate instead of the nonsense about two replays and the third umpire being forbidden to decide if the ball hit the edge.

We need some action. As Jimmy Adams, a fluent talker for all his apparently nervous disposition when he led West Indies, said on Sky TV: "Stop mousing around and get on with it." I love that image cricket being ruled by a handful of scampering mice.

The poet Robert Burns put it so well you don't need to have a perfect understand of his old Scots to sense he was forecasting ICC's attitude 200 years in advance.

"Wee sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie; O what a panic in thy breastie!"

Does that describe our law-makers, or what? Even their new attack on bad language comes 35 years after the Australians invented the word sledging - from "you are as subtle as a sledgehammer" - to describe verbal abuse.

The tortured subject of umpires apart there are reasons to be cheerful as cricket breaks out in England again.

Alec Stewart, fresh from his winter break, is gobbling up catches and runs. Alex Tudor, inspired by a simple truth from Rod Marsh at the Academy in Adelaide, has gone three weeks without missing a game through injury and he's bowling straight and quick and not actually needing help from umpires to get his decisions.

Tudor is still only 24 and fast bowling comes so easily to him that it would be a pity if he went through a career without playing 50 Tests for England and being remembered only for that bizarre undefeated 99 which won the first Test against the New Zealanders in 1999.

Perhaps by the time he next plays in a Test, the paymasters at the England and Wales Cricket Board will have reconciled which of the contracted players should have the biggest cut from their empty purse.

He probably won't recognise Test cricket when he returns. No swearing, umpires getting the decisions right, payment by results rather than an annual wage.

In those circumstances it is possible to see England winning back the Ashes or India lifting the World Cup. After all, if ICC can grow from a tiny organisation whose ability lay in organising delaying tactics, working parties and ad hoc committees into the dynamic outfit of the 21st century, anything is possible.