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December 2, 1997


Code red!

Harsha Bhogle

There have been two incidents in the past couple of months that should make the game's controlling bodies sit up and take notice. The ICC have done some admirable work -- and they are not normally known to be a quick decision-making authority -- in the area of umpiring and television replays. Now, they need to go one step further.

When India played Pakistan at Karachi, the third umpire Mr Riazuddin, produced a shocker when he ruled Shahid Afridi not out on a stumping appeal. The wicketkeeper had fumbled with the ball, but the batsman was way out when he was legally stumped. And again at Nagpur, Mr Godbole provided another example of a decision that should really have gone the other way.

When the idea of a television replay was introduced, everybody hoped it would be completely foolproof; that there would never again be a mistake with run-outs, stumpings and no-balls. Here, every one believed, was a miracle gadget.

What they did not take into account was the finger of the man who presses the button.

It is very easy to say that Messrs. Riazuddin and Godbole are incompetent. To my mind, that would not be completely fair. I suspect the problem lay in the fact that they were inexperienced. And that is where the ICC and the home authorities need to take a very firm stand.

They have to ensure that only experienced umpires -- ideally, only Test panel umpires -- are given the replay jobs to do. There is a temptation at the moment, a most bizarre temptation really, to hand out the job to whoever the local association recommends. This is completely incomprehensible; a bit like asking an amateur photographer with an auto-focus camera to judge a photo-finish.

Like the men in the middle, the replay umpire too should be able to handle the pressure. That comes with experience. Something which also minimizes the chance of one man trying to become a hero by coming up with a sensational decision. Umpire Gobble may well have been telling himself, 'I saw something in that replay that nobody else did. Here's my chance to become the star!'

And he went for red!

That is not being fair to anyone, least of all to the players. Anil Kumble might well believe that he was robbed of a century. And given that he hasn't made one in Test cricket, he probably lost out on something special. The umpires are present precisely to prevent mistakes like these, and surely that must convince everyone that the care taken in appointment of umpires should extend to the man in front of the box.

For some reason, out Board believes that everything other than a Test match is an opportunity to experiment. We saw that last year, when 20 umpires were used for 10 Titan Cup games. If we have 22 umpires (the 20 used plus the two ICC panel umpires) capable of standing in international cricket, we should have the finest men in the world. That is not true. In fact, no country can have so many competent umpires. They just don't grow on trees.

Now, the free gifts are being doled out to replay umpires. It is acts like these that bring down our prestige in the cricket world. Remember too, that because we have virtually no televised domestic cricket, our umpires are not very well tuned to what television can do and what it cannot.

It might be a very good idea to request a top TV producer or director to come down to India and organize a training session for our first class umpires (if that requires an unusually large conference room, you could limit it to our top 20). He could talk to them about camera angles, about the different replays they can ask for, even about how technology can help them give decisions when it seems that the view is obscured. More important, he can tell them about the limitations of the camera and therefore, about what they need to watch out for.

Given the profound impact television is having on cricket, it makes sense for an umpire to understand the medium as well as he does the laws of the game. But for this to happen, somebody in the administration has to be sensitive to the needs of the people who matter. On that count, the BCCI hasn't come out with flying colors lately.

It is a bit depressing to see the country's cricketing prestige being lowered because not enough people care. This unfortunate occurrence with the third umpire is only really a symptom. But then, should we be complaining when we can't even given him a separate room to sit in?

Harsha Bhogle

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