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September 18, 1998


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A matter of money...

Harsha Bhogle

In the aftermath of the umpiring carnage in the English summer, and the heartless nakedness with which it was exposed on television, the former captain of England, Ted Dexter, wrote in a newspaper column that it was no longer possible for an umpire to retain honour and dignity.

Those are strong words, and they led to an immediate reopening of the umpiring issue in England. And because of the strength of the media, and the fact that it is the only country in which cricket is being played in at the moment, it quickly became a worldwide issue.

The truth is that legislation on the umpiring issue is needed as of yesterday. The ICC needs to act very very quickly to prevent further erosion of an umpire’s stature on the field. And they need, just as quickly, to act on an erosion of dignity off the field.

When Javed Akhtar stood in the last England-South Africa Test match, he received as match fee a total of 62 pounds, while his compatriot Peter Willey received 2700 pounds. On a 1-10 scale of shock and horror, that would merit a 95! That it should happen in an era when the ICC is headed by a person from the sub-continent would push that score up to 100!

I find this awfully strange. Whatever Mr.Dalmiya’s detractors may have to say against him, nobody can accuse him of being insensitive to the question of match fees. Over the years, when he and Mr. Bindra were friends and were driving Indian cricket on the highway to progress, India’s cricketers have benefitted substantially from major jumps in income. Indian umpires are much better paid as well and yet, on the international stage, he seems unable to do anything about this most heinous form of economic racism.

He is a proud man, and I would dearly love to see him handed a cheque that was one-fiftieth that of his English counterpart for the same work done. Would he sip a plain soda at the end of the day while his colleague paid for his own champagne? There are probably pressing reasons why he is willing to live with this reality, but I am afraid the most pressing of them all is not enough to justify this terrible truth.

I have heard it said that a fund that pays for umpire’s fees would require vast sponsorship inflows; that an English umpire cannot be asked to earn less than his colleagues in a county match because they are all professionals; that because each country provides men to the umpire’s pool, it should also pay for them and that umpires should, like players, be paid according to the standard of living in their country.

The sheer inequality, not just in the payments handed out but in the thought that accompanies this, is staggering and there is nothing more humiliating in world cricket today that to see two judges working together to dispense justice and being paid vastly differential salaries.

Mr. Dalmiya sees possibilities for raising money in the game where less shrewd minds cannot, and for him to be party to a thought that says there isn’t enough money for umpires is the equivalent of a Tendulkar saying there are no runs in a Sharjah pitch. Are his hands tied by bureaucratic tape that is so wonderfully handy to some and so insulting to others? I fear so, for this is most unlike him and maybe, part of the money raised from the mini-World Cup in Dhaka could go into an umpire’s fund. It might do more for the game than to spend the money on the salaries of development officers who would write reports on the state of the game in Nepal and in Bermuda.

I suspect though that removing this imbalance would be far easier than finding ways of preserving an umpire’s dignity on the field. Sadly for them, the camera sees everything and they are reduced to the state of a student writing an exam on live television and hearing the howls of derision everytime he goes wrong.

There is not an umpire in the world who has not been made to look silly, and as technical wizards make television coverage more sophisticated than ever before, the frequency of that happening can only get higher. Logic demands that we make use of technology to the extent possible and while that is a perfectly acceptable sentiment, the definition of that limit is not very easy to fix.

Current levels of use are restricted to line decisions, close catches and any action along the boundary line. Nobody has any objections to that and it works pretty well really, except when we have television umpires of dubious quality. But there are calls to extend that to caught behind decisions, to bat-pad situations and even to judge if there was an inside edge onto pad while determining an LBW.

This is where we are starting to get into contentious territory because, in most cases, we are looking at audio evidence as opposed to the video evidence that has worked so well.

As a commentator wearing headphones, I have very often spoken of hearing two sounds while the batsman pushes forward, or of hearing a nick as the ball passes bat. In most cases, the two sounds are bat and pad (or pad and bat) and the ball hitting outside edge as it passes by.

But occasionally, there will arise situations where audio evidence is not conclusive; or is even misleading. In a caught behind situation where the bat is a good distance away from the body, turning up the pitch microphone works very well. But where bat is close to body, the microphone, by current levels of sophistication, struggles to distinguish between the sound of bat on pad and ball on bat.

As a result, the ball may have missed bat by a very small margin, but the resultant sound of bat grazing pad could create confusion, especially since the TV umpire is not a trained man and is not allowed to accept explanations from the director of the telecast. More often, it is the sound of bat thudding into boot as a batsman jabs down at a yorker length ball that creates problems.

In course of time, or maybe even now, by checking pictures from different cameras at the precise point in time, the television crew might well be able to give a definitive verdict. But even if that takes a minute each time, it will lead to frequent stoppages because, once the umpires realise there is a way out of potential embarassment, they will choose that path. Proof of that is the fact that even routine stumping and run-out decisions are now made by the replay.

The romantics believe that the way out is for everyone to exercise restraint. They talk of self-regulation in the game and point to the huge success in golf as illustration. There is also a suggestion that obvious not-outs that are vociferously demanded by bowlers and wicketkeepers be shown on replays with a provision for the match referee to fine the players concerned.

The umpires would probably support that legislation, even if it strikes me as being a bit naive, because there are an increasing number of them who believe that players have crossed the dividing line between gamesmanship and cheating.

I think that is a very tough one and if the ICC does set up a committee to work on it, it should also include a couple of television experts who can advise the panel on what is feasible routinely, with minimal stoppage of play, and what isn’t. If we want technology to rule the game, and frankly we have reached a stage when the argument has long been decided, then we need technical experts as much as we need cricketing ones.

The other way out of course is to have better umpires, and to accept their occasional mistakes with grace. Ah, but then who decides which umpire is better and which one isn’t? Is Hair better than Akhtar? Is Dunne better than Kitchen? Is Cooray better than Sharp?

Thankfully, the camera has no axes to grind ! Because, as the photographer told the ambitious model, “The camera never lies”!

At the moment, though, it is making a fair meal of honour and dignity !

Harsha Bhogle

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