Simon Taufel on umpiring: We can't be perfect, we can be excellent

Former Australian umpire Taufel breaks down the concept of umpiring and remembers his mentor David Shepherd, who taught him to build relationships.

“It takes a lot of hard work to be able to get the right habits and routines to make a difference and get better,” says Simon Taufel, the respected umpire from Australia. He retired a few years ago.   -  V. V. Krishnan

 

Simon Taufel, who was a distinguished cricket umpire, was in India to promote his book Finding The Gaps. He found time to speak to Sportstar on the book and the challenges of umpiring in international cricket.

Why this book and what is its highlight?

We were at Cricket Australia about a year ago. We set up a business called Integrity Study Leadership because we saw a real gap in all sorts of areas — the corporate sector, sporting sector, mums and dads, captains of industries and match officiating — where really good leadership was being required. We thought of building a business around that. My mentor said that it was important that we put a lot of key messages down in writing in book form. A lot of people would then come along.

How do you retain your composure when you realise you have made an error of judgement?

It’s about bounceability. In this space, words are really cheap and simple. It takes a lot of hard work to be able to get the right habits and routines to make a difference and get better. It’s very simple to say, ‘focus on the next delivery and put it out of your mind.’ That’s a lot of warm theory, great theory. In practice it is very difficult. I have learnt the hard way, my worst and best game is on the TV. There are a number of facts to be made honestly. You really got to try to somehow work out of the way to connect with the person.

How can you work it out?

I was talking about a batsman being out of focus on the next ball, when he plays and misses. We make a mistake or something doesn’t go right, we got to focus on the next ball, it’s about really connecting with the moment. Keeping your mind and your thoughts where the body is. So there is some physical technique to do that, you can look at your hands, you can have a pre-delivery self talk trigger to get you in the moment that’s really important or you just do and don’t think. Don’t think about anything else. You got to be self- aware that when you are thinking about the past and the future, again you are not connecting in the moment. There is a lot of self-awareness, the routine about looking at the hands, breathing, relaxing, just thinking I need to be in the moment. They all sort of come together and it’s hard.

Taufel with his recently released book, Finding the Gaps, which aims to impart leadership lessons.   -  PTI

 

One challenge of umpiring which relates to real life?

Let me answer that question by posing a question. I am asked a lot about what advice I would give to help people, aspiring Test cricket umpires, a leader or somebody who wants to be successful and I come up with three things: Being yourself, it’s not an umpiring skill that’s authenticity and it’s being genuine and true to yourself, doing the things you want to do for the right reasons. So be yourself.

Number two is have some courage, consider your options, think about what are the likely outcomes for the decision you have to make in front of you, what are the pros and cons and have the courage to make a decision.

Number three is commitment. If you are going to do something, do whole-heartedly and be passionate about it. So choose something which you really love, so if you do that, you are likely to be good at it. I know those things are not going to do anything with umpiring per se, they are not umpiring skills. So, throughout a lot of my career and what I learnt from David Shepherd, a great man, mentor and a great colleague, was to be a good umpire you must be a good person, you really got to have those skills and attributes to be able to build relationships and get that respect and to make sure you are who you are.

What is your concept of mental strength?

The best one I described in the book is the ability to control your thoughts and emotions and don’t let them control you. As I said before, connect with that moment and realise that self-realisation is you are not where you are supposed to be mentally and make sure you are capable of coping with pressure. Pressure can create an environment of not caring what other people think and also at times not caring what you think because when you do overly care, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to do things, say things and be something, rather than just do what is in front of you which is umpire the ball to the best of your ability.

A good umpire... One who gives good decisions or one who gives the least (number of) bad decisions?

Well, mistakes are part of umpiring, they go with the territory. That is why I did the perfectionist chapter because when I was officiating, and this goes for all the young people, you feel like you are bullet-proof from a health perspective. But there is also a moment when you think you are not bullet-proof. The first time you experience this, you think, ‘where do I go to from here?’

When I started umpiring, I thought I would never make a mistake. I thought this is pretty easy, being under the umpiring force, I thought I have played for a few years and I know the laws, but I got some answers wrong in the laws exam, and you realise you are not bullet-proof. What I have learnt the hard way is that we can’t be perfect, but we can be excellent, which is why it’s a difficult concept.

Can you elaborate?

I believe umpires, including myself, are driven by fear. Fear of making a mistake! When we go out there and cross the white line, we say to ourselves, ‘hope we don’t make a mistake today. I hope he doesn’t bowl from my end, hope I don’t get an appeal first delivery.’ That fear drives you to work really hard and prepare strongly because you don’t want the bad thing to happen.

We need to flip that on the head, we need to think positively and we got to want that next decision to come to us. We got to think positively and this is the paradox — we all want feedback, but we don’t want the negative feedback. We want good things to happen and we know mistakes are part of umpiring and when that happens we think, ‘Oh, that’s a shame!’

It’s a long answer but it’s really important to explain the context and the reasons of why and how we do things, the acceptance that mistakes are part of umpiring because we need to manage expectations for ourselves and more particularly manage that for other people. We are going to make mistakes and the best in the world will make a fewer amount of mistakes.

“There are times when you just don’t get to hear or see what you want to see and you got to use your experience, judgement, gut feeling and instinct to be able to come up with the right decision,” is what Taufel learnt from his stint in the middle.   -  Getty Images

 

You have talked of being a good person. Does being a good person help you become a good professional or vice versa?

It does. The reason why I have gone to these lengths to pen a lot of these messages is you can’t be a good umpire (on) Saturday and Sunday without living a lot of these fundamentals (from) Monday to Friday. We are who we are 24×7 and these are transferable skills which are going to help you in every walk of life as a mother, father, brother, sister, student and a teacher. They are fundamentals moving towards sustainable success. You can’t just turn up to work (on) Monday morning and expect to be a good communicator. I learnt most of my communication skills at home. My kids test my patience and communication skills more than any cricketer will. I have got to walk the talk all the time and I test my eyesight, judgement and hearing skills wherever I go.

Someone asked me at the Institute of Cricket in Bengaluru, ‘what do you do to practise your vision skills and judgment skills?’ I said there are computer programmes that I used, but there is also walking down the street.

You stand on a street corner and watch a taxi go by and then you try to fix your eyes on the number plate as it’s going further away from you. That’s like watching a cricket ball being delivered at 120 or 140 km an hour and having to watch what it’s doing. There are things that you can do in everyday life that hone your skills. So when you get better and become a cricket umpire, you don’t have to think about good communication skills, managing conflict, preparations and all that sort of things that are natural because they are all part of you.

Was it tough umpiring in India... noisy crowds, ball turning?

Sure, but I have said to a lot of people that if you can umpire well in Sri Lanka, you can umpire anywhere in the world because there are a lot of on-field challenges. You have to be good with the swinging ball, with the ball bowled at pace, the ball that turns with variable bounce. You have to be good at heat, humidity, food, language and culture. So in umpiring there are also venues that you go to, they test maybe one set of skills.

When India goes to Australia they have to deal with more bouncy pitches and different types of environment. Vice versa when Australia comes to India, they are tested in more unique ways.

When I go to Sri Lanka to officiate, it’s like all of those variables coming together, that’s like the package of testing all those skills and attributes both on and off the field. That’s challenging.

There is a line in your book, “Do what you love, love what you do.” Is it your philosophy of life, personal and professional?

Yes it is. The second last and last chapters of my book are about particularly what I have come across in India. There are more over-educated Indians driving taxis than anywhere else in the world. It’s because people are choosing a path and a career or a job option that’s being mapped out by someone else or it’s because of what society tells them they must do.

I really connected well with this throughout my career, as while umpiring in international cricket you are away from home a very long time. Somewhere between six to seven months on an average. For the World Cup you are away for the best part of two months. There is lot of sacrifice involved and the price that you pay you have to be very comfortable with.

Remember, I talked about commitment so if you got to do that you got to commit to it. You got to take the pluses with the minuses and minuses with the pluses. You got to be comfortable that you are doing something that you really enjoy and you want to do because you are going to be tested in terms of time away from home, the sacrifices for the price you pay or what the other people sacrifice to help you to be successful. If you are not loving that, not doing it because you enjoy it and you are doing under sufferance then you are not going to give your best or become truly great at it.

Look at Roger Federer and his sustainability at the moment. He obviously has a tremendous passion and love for what he does. He is doing what he enjoys to do. Every person has to make that conscious choice to do what gives him/her pleasure as then it’s not work. It is about going the extra mile without even thinking about it.

Do you like being a judge all the time?

It’s about authenticity and being yourself. I had to realise it the hard way and I want to tell everyone about this. People are going to judge you anyway whether you like it or not because we are always being judged. Even from this interview you will walk away with an impression or judgement about me both professionally and personally. People are going to judge you and that’s going to happen. Number one as I said be yourself. Two, do the best you can do and three it’s uncontrollable. So I am going to focus on my game and do the best I can do and hopefully leave a positive impression on you.

If you can umpire in Sri Lanka you can officiate anywhere in the world, is what Taufel has discovered. The onfield challenges are so intense.   -  Getty Images

 

Can an umpire enjoy a batting show or a bowling spell?

Yes, but my style was different. There are some officials who appreciate the art and the craft in front of them, but for me the best way that I could get focused and give my best performance was to disengage or to try to desensitise myself from being caught up in who was batting or who was bowling, the state of the match or the scoreboard etc. For me, once I became emotionally involved in that way I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I wasn’t able to have a clean mind about where a ball pitched, where it hit and where it was going. It didn’t matter whether it was (Sachin) Tendulkar batting or (Brian) Lara, (Adam) Gilchrist or (Steve) Waugh. It didn’t matter whether it was (Glenn) McGrath or (Shane) Warne bowling. It was about making sure, I was looking at the set of pads and cricket ball and doing that.

Any decisions that haunt you?

Quite a few. One of the first ones where I couldn’t really get my head around was Daren Ganga wrong LBW to Glenn McGrath. Obviously, it looked good at that time and I was pretty happy with it. Then the replay comes on the screen in slow motion. You see the ball go bang off the bat and bang into his pad and the whole crowd erupts.

One of the great things for players is that Daren can go off the field, can throw his bat and could do what he wanted, yelling and screaming in the privacy of the change room. Me, I had to stand out there and couldn’t find a hole big enough to dive into. It’s one of the few decisions I have gone back to the video to slow down and deconstruct as to how I got it wrong.

I got a piece of advice from Mark Benson. He said if you can’t actually see the point of impact, then it’s highly likely that the ball has deviated in the last fraction of a second. That’s what happened. I didn’t see the point of impact. And there are times when you just don’t get to hear or see what you want to see and you got to use your experience, judgement, gut feeling and instinct to be able to come up with the right decision. So that’s one of the first decisions which haunt me.