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February 9, 1999


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The moving finger

Prem Panicker

I remember the laugh Michael Holding gave when, in Delhi just before the second Test, I referred to him as the 'neutral commentator' for this series.

"All commentators are neutral by definition, Prem," he said in that accent of his that is as much a trademark as his forthright mode of speech. "Only, some are more neutral than others."

I was forcibly reminded of that remark when I read Pakistan captain Wasim Akram's suggestion, in various media columns, that we should have neutral umpires for a series as important as this.

First up, it needs admitting that the umpiring in the two Tests of the Friendship Series has been little short of atrocious. A bad decision or two is pretty much accepted as part of the game, but what we got was a display of sheer incompetence, both at the M A Chidambaram Stadium and at the Firozeshah Kotla.

To my mind, 'neutrality', real or perceived, is not the real problem -- competence is. The events in Madras are an exemplar. To recap in quick time, some of the most glaring errors from that first Test: Yousuf Youhanna, plumb in front to Sunil Joshi in the first innings, is given the benefit of non-existent doubt. Saqlain Mushtaq is give out caught at short square leg, again in the first innings, when there was clearly no touch. Saurav Ganguly is given out caught off the richochet by Moin Khan in the second innings, when the ball very clearly had bounced off the shin guard of the silly point fielder and into the ground. Javagal Srinath, the last man to go, is adjudged played on -- the umpire failing to notice that Saqlain Mushtaq was several inches over the line when he delivered that ball.

The first decision was made by Ramaswamy. The other three were made by Steve Dunne -- the 'neutral' umpire. A case could be argued that two such decisions as the ones against Ganguly and Srinath, coming in a match that was won and lost by the narrowest of margins, could have cost India the game -- but that is not the point here. Such arguments make little sense -- just as it is pointless to argue what could, or could not, have happened had A V Jayaprakash not got it horribly wrong in the Pakistan second innings when he judged Afridi and Ijaz out (speaking of which, the same 'what if' would apply, for instance, to the decision giving Sachin out LBW in the first innings, remembering that he was coming off a century in Madras in his previous knock).

Obviously, bad decisions had been made in both Tests. Obviously, they had an effect on the eventual outcome. Obviously, Tests deserve to be decided on merit of the 22 players out there, not on the competence or otherwise of the two referees.

Solutions need to be found, with urgency -- the stakes in international cricket are too high, these days, to allow an obviously untenable situation to continue. However, as is obvious from the Steve Dunne example, 'neutrality' is not the real issue, it is ability.

It also needs underlining that the problem is not endemic to India alone. Despite the best efforts of the Pakistan media, just now, to paint India as a land of hatchet-wielding umpires, the aforementioned media would do well to remember that Pakistan itself is the land that got a reputation of developing umpires from whose rule-books the concept of LBW had been completely erased. Bad umpiring has marred Tests and ODIs in New Zealand recently. Indifferent officiating has been a feature of recent cricket matches in Australia. And even England -- supposedly the land of the best umpires of them all -- are not immune from shockers.

So for starters, we need to stop looking at it as a typically Indian problem, and admit that it is worldwide. And then look for solutions.

Such a solution, I suspect, should be two fold. The first applies to umpires who are part of the National Grid-sponsored ICC panel.

Supposedly, these are the best umpires in the world -- but you wouldn't think so, would you, had you witnessed Mr Dunne in action recently? What in actual fact this panel is, is a collection of two umpires from each country, the umpires being nominated by the home boards and accepted by the ICC.

That seems a strange way to run this man's ship -- but then, the mischief is done, question now being, how it can be undone. The best option would be to have match referees being asked, mandatorily, to submit at the end of each international a comprehensive report on the performance of the umpires. The report could cover decisions given or not given (let us remember here that a genuine dismissal, not given, is as crucial as a wrong dismissal), the umpire's handling of the players in the field, his entire conduct of himself and the match.

These reports need to be submitted to a specially constituted panel, which will keep tabs on performances. Any umpire drawing a maximum of three adverse reports needs to be removed from the panel -- and the umpire nominated by the concerned country to replace him should first have his performances examined before he is given the ICC slot.

It all seems simple enough -- and I don't see one single reason why it won't work, why it will not ensure that incompetent umpires are weeded out and only the very best ones go out under ICC colours to do duty.

The second part relates to domestic boards -- again, not just the Indian board. I think that umpires at the domestic level need to have their performances analysed by the respective boards -- and no one found wanting at the local level should wear the white coat in an international. Further, some thought needs to be taken before appointing officials for an important series -- for instance, A V Jayaprakash, all of two Tests old, had no business being pitch-forked into the high pressure cauldron of an Indo-Pak Test series.

Given these two, I frankly see no reason why international cricket matches cannot be better refereed. Nor do I see any particular difficulty in implementing the above suggestions.

So just what is keeping us, anyway?

In passing, one other thought about umpiring, that Akram might like to consider. And it has reference to the kind of appealing that was going on in Madras.

There was something very filmy about the whole thing, frankly. The instant the ball hit pad, or was gathered by the keeper, up would go four, five of the Pak players, including bowler -- and immediately, without waiting for the decision, rush towards each other for high fives and happy dancing, thereby giving the impression that the umpire's decision was a foregone conclusion.

And when the umpires did not respond positively, there would be expressions of disbelief that would have had Laurence Olivier, could he have seen them, acknowledging that he was in the presence of master thespians.

This is not merely my perception, mind -- the mild-mannered match referee, Cammie Smith, was impressed sufficiently by the events to call Akram over after the Test to caution him, and tell him to get his team to go easy on the war-dance next time out.

And the point that maybe Akram and the Pakistan team needs to take note of is that any umpire, 'neutral' or no, is under severe pressure in a close-run game -- he deserves to be let free to run the game as best he can, without the additional pressure of such absolutely needless theatrics.

Going out of your way to make things tough for the man out there and then complaining when he stuffs up doesn't make much sense, does it?

Prem Panicker

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