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August 5, 1998

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Seeing red!

Prem Panicker

The subject of umpiring errors cropped up, during a recent conversation with a fellow cricket fan.

I was heatedly condemning the latest piece of ineptitude/bias to catch my eye, when my friend upped and said, look, Prem, remember the number of errors in your match reports I, and others, have pointed out to you? You aren't infallible. Neither am I, or any other human on god's earth, so why the hell do you expect perfection from umpires alone?

Fair enough. I don't expect umpires, any less than you or me, to be perfect. But there is a major difference between a goof, say, in my post match analysis, and one out there in the middle, by an umpire, in the heat of play. And that is that my error cannot affect the outcome of a match, it cannot impact on an individual's career or that of a team, while an umpire's mistakes can - and often do - exactly that. Besides, my error can be corrected as soon as it is pointed out -- but I am yet to see a scoreboard reading, "Batsman X -- bowled Y 150 (*Note, he was actually out at 20, but umpire Z goofed*).

As to how much of a stake there is for today's cricketers in the outcome of each innings, each game, take one recent instance of many. Jonty Rhodes, never really rated a Test player, started the ongoing series of Tests against England with some outstanding displays with the bat. And on the strength of that, he has been bumped up by his cricket board, into the A Category of players - bringing with it not only added prestige, but considerably more money.

Now think of the effect two lousy decisions, while Jonty was batting in the low figures, could have had on his prospects, and the need for re-examining the fallibility of umpires should be apparent.

Two recent instances have thrown the issue into very sharp focus. The first was in the final of the Akai Singer Nidahas Trophy, when Sanath Jayasuriya 'ran out' Robin Singh without the ball in his hand, and the umpire in his haste gave the batsman out. As it happened, India went on to win the game, and with it the trophy - but the result could as easily have gone the other way.

In my match report at that time, I had suggested that sooner rather than later, human error of this kind - for want of a better name -- would impact drastically on some major game involving one of cricket's 'first world' nations (I am certainly not na´ve enough to imagine there is no apartheid in cricket), and would cause the heck of a dust.

And it happened, during the Trent Bridge Test between England and South Africa, when umpire Mervyn Kitchen had a stint at the office I suspect he will spend the rest of his natural life trying to forget.

Review the game, and you will see that at least three of Kitchen's glaring errors did in fact alter the result of the Test, swinging it drastically in favor of the home side.

The question is, given the increasing stakes, both individual and collective, attached to each cricket match these days, can we afford to continue this laissez faire policy towards umpiring ineptitude?

I was rather surprised when, in the aftermath of the Trent Bridge Test, retired umpire Harold 'Dickie' Bird and a few former Test players launched into extended debate on whether or not Michael Atherton should have walked, in the England second innings, when he gloved a ball from Donald into the gloves of keeper Mark Boucher and Kitchen turned down the resultant appeal.

I personally set more store on style than substance, on the means rather than the end, on how the game is played over what the result was. My outstanding memories are of a G R Vishwanath politely recalling a batsman when the umpire had given him out, or of a Courtney Walsh, at a crucial stage in a game, warning Abdul Qadir for backing up too far.

But beneath the romantic, there is in me enough of a pragmatist to recognize that in today's pressure cooker atmosphere, with enormous sums - not to mention prestige - hanging on each game, it is ridiculous to expect batsmen to emulate that glorious spirit of sporting good manners.

In short, they aren't going to walk, guys - not any more. And any debate on the 'should he or shouldn't he walk' lines is just so much wasted breath.

Nope, the real question that needs asking, now, is whether it is time for the third umpire - with the aid of the electronic eye - to play a greater role in deciding a batsman's tenure at the crease.

I think the answer is a loud, unqualified YES!

Frankly, I don't hold much stock in the kind of post match press conferences where the captain of a losing side, asked about umpiring errors and whether they could have impacted on the result, goes, "No, we lost because we lost, you get some good ones and some bad ones, you can't think of those..."

I mean, tell me the other one - the captain who comes up with that bit of piffle is the same captain who, off camera, will curse the umpire in question with alarming fluency, or even, on occasion, drive a stump through the umpires' dressing room! So let's discount the diplomatic public face and admit that yes, the players involved are affected, and badly at that, by incompetent umpiring.

Traditionalists tend to react with instant dismissal. 'What, you want to reduce the guys in the middle into glorified coat-hangers?' is the common reaction.

First up, that was the identical reaction we got when the third umpire was first introduced. Now, no one blinks an eye when the guy in the middle asks for help from the video replay-umpire on close run out calls. Similarly, each time the power of the third umpire is increased, we will get instant condemnation - and subsequent acceptance.

All of which thus leads me into my argument, that it is perhaps time the third umpire was allowed to adjudicate not just on run outs and on the fairness of catches claimed, but in any case of doubt felt by the umpires in the middle.

I am not saying that the umpire officiating should call for the third umpire each time the fielders go up in appeal - merely suggesting that the officials on the field should be given the option of calling in their unseen colleague in the event they cannot, or will not, make a decision involving any kind of dismissal.

The argument I hear voiced at this juncture is that such referrals make the umpires in the middle look incompetent, unsure of themselves. Sorry, but I disagree - does a Venkatraghavan, say, look incompetent when he calls in a third umpire to adjudicate a run out that, a few short years before, was being decided by the man in the middle?

Or again, when does a Mervyn Kitchen (I don't mean to harp on friend Kitchen, but he is the latest and most immediate example available) look incompetent - when he asks the third umpire for help, or when he gives a batsman out caught behind when there was enough gap between bat and ball for a third umpire to stroll through?

In any event, the primary goal of cricket officialdom should be to provide the fairest, most even playing conditions possible to the two teams - and not to worry about the possible loss of face to umpires. To quote W G Grace out of context, the spectators come to see the players play, not to watch the umpires umpire!

So yes, what I am advocating is that the umpire on the field should be given the option to refer any decision at all to the third umpire, if and when he feels the need.

Today, you see some umpires call on the third umpire every time there is a run out decision awaiting adjudication. Others - like Venkat, David Shepherd, and Steve Bucknor to name three highly competent ones - rule quickly and firmly on their own, calling for help only when they absolutely need to.

That is how it is going to be, even if the powers of the third umpire are extended - the competent ones will give their own rulings anyway, most of the time. The less than competent ones, however, will have a safety net - and that, any way you look at it, can only be for the good of the game.

I would, though, give the third umpire one added right - and that is to over-rule a decision made by the man in the middle.

Did I hear someone say, 'No way, imagine what such an overturn of a verdict can mean to the confidence of the man in the middle!'

To which my answer would be, what matters more, ensuring - as far as possible - correct decisions, or concentrating exclusively on the feelings of umpires? Besides, when are we going to start worrying about the confidence of a batsman struggling to find his touch and, just as he starts middling the ball again, finds the umpire pointing an unfair finger?

There are a couple of tangential points that need to be made, here.

One arises out of a conversation I had with Harsha Bhogle on this subject, yesterday. He was telling me (he has, in fact, expanded on the point in one of the three archival pieces we are running along with this article) how, to ensure that the third umpire gets enough data to base his decisions on, you would need fixed cameras at strategic spots, over and above the ones used by the television team.

Fine, if that is what it takes, then why not? Is it impossible to determine the amount of fixed cameras that are required, and install them permanently at international venues? The UCBSA already, on its own initiative, installed four fixed cameras in place at its main venues, to provide inputs for run out decisions. Why would it be beyond the bounds of the possible, for the ICC to mandate such arrangements, refined even further to cover the various additional angles required, at all international venues?

Hey, cricket boards make good money these days, staging Tests and ODIs, so why this sense of shock, why this 'how dare you, sir?', when someone suggests that they plow back a bit of those revenues into further improving the conduct of the game?

The second point is this: Even assuming that the granting of further powers to the third umpire - with his ally the electronic eye - will take some more time, and necessitate an experimential stage before introduction at the highest level, is it not time the umpires in the middle were brought under the match referee's purview?

I mean, I find the present situation absolutely ridiculous. No player can say a word (heck, he can't even make a gesture) that can be remotely be said to be disagreement, protest, at an umpire's ruling. If he does so, officialdom jumps on him like a ton of bricks.

But umpires can get away with bloody murder?

Where is the fairness in that?

Why should the match referee be required to look into every single thing relating to the game - conduct of players, quality of pitch and ground, facilities at the venue, every single thing, except the conduct, and competence, of the umpires?

Why is the performance of officiating umpires not part of a match referee's report? When we have a situation where a player's behavior in one game is written up in the relevant match report, and referred to in case of future misbehavior, why then isn't an umpire's performance similarly recorded? Why is an umpire with a record of consistent incompetence not punished by being demoted from the international panel?

Why does the ICC appear to have this vested interest in shielding incompetence?

Prem Panicker

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