Rediff Logo Cricket Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 6, 2000


India Down Under

send this story to a friend

Prime obsession

Fourth Umpire

It's touring season again. International cricket seems to hit a peak of excitement at the turn of every year, and the turn of the century is proving to be no different. As tends to happen from time to time, there is a new dominant force in the game - only this time, it's the men in the white coats.

The modern game, it appears, is as much about them as it is about the twenty-two bodies actually playing. Can there be a worse advertisement for this glorious game of gentlemen than the media in the days leading up to, during, and subsequent to a Test match being filled with little other than commentary on the umpiring ? Bias, racism, cheating, incompetence, conspiracies - whether it is England in South Africa, or Pakistan and India in Australia, the allegations fly fast and furious.

Why though, are we in the media so obsessed with the umpires? Why are they detracting, and it most certainly is a detraction, from the essence of the sporting contest itself ?

Perhaps the best case in point is that of the Australian umpire Darrell Hair. Hailed in his own country as righteous and courageous (there's a double-edged sword if ever there was one), he is ostensibly reviled in South Africa, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere, where accusations of prejudice are rife.

Hair has been no stranger to controversy since he made his international umpiring debut. His decision making has been slammed from all quarters, and he has been spared no accusation by fans and the media alike. And yet, he is far from the only umpire to have ever erred against visiting sides. In fact, the Australians will tell you that he once cost them a Test series against the West Indies when he sent a bemused Craig McDermott back to the pavilion.

There are several other umpires, both on the National Grid panel and otherwise, who are equally bad (or good) in their decision making, and there are more who may well be worse. None of them are subject to anything like the vitriol directed at Hair, however.

Consider the cases of Steve Bucknor and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. Along with David Shepherd (who for this writer stands alone at the top of the heap), those two gentlemen are consistently rated as the top umpires in the game. Careful scrutiny will reveal though, that they are perhaps little more than average when it comes to the quality of their decision making, pure and simple. They certainly aren't any better in that regard than one Darrell Hair.

The difference lies in the way they do their job. Venkat and Bucknor, the latter's penchant for dramatising his decision making notwithstanding, appreciate the nature of their roles. They understand that as umpires, they are facilitators, there to enable a game of cricket. As a spectator, when Venkat and Bucknor umpire, whether they make mistakes or not, you are focused on the cricket. The same cannot be said when Darrell Hair is in the middle.

One cannot help but feel that Hair believes himself to be the star of the show. Self-aggrandization is the name of the game when he umpires, and he seems intent to stamp his authority on the field of play. He evokes comparison with the English soccer referee, Uriah Rennie, who is constantly disparaged in the media and by fans from all over. Nothing unusual, except for the fact that Rennie is probably one of the best referees in the Premiership, as far as his decision making itself goes. Unfortunately, he chooses to run the game in such a way as to make it all about him, as opposed to the footballers the fans have come to see, and as a result, he will continue to be disparaged.

Once an umpire begins asserting himself in an officious manner, it is no longer relevant whether he is right or wrong. In fact, this may be the one situation in which the old adage is reversed, and the umpires is wrong, even when he is right.

Look back just a fortnight, to a tour game between India and New South Wales, officiated by Hair and Simon Taufel. There were several noteworthy incidents during the match, most prominent amongst them a tendency of the Indians to spend too long watching the big replay screen at the ground. The umpires weren't willing to tolerate any indiscipline, and they set about making themselves clear to the players. Days later, Hair's attitude, comments, and whole role continue to be debated. And Taufel ? Well, there aren't many people who remember that he was the other umpire. I doff my hat to him for a job well done.

What is perhaps the saddest thing in the case of Darrell Hair, is the fact that he could potentially be a leading light in the game, if he could apply his principles in an appropriate manner. It is in many ways refreshing to see an umpire who believes in discharging his duties, and is not willing to sit back and let the proceedings careen out of control. There are only three or four umpires who are able to do that effectively today, and Hair could easily join their ranks. Certainly he could potentially do a lot more for the game than the Indian umpire AV Jayaprakash, who, according to reports, failed to either censure or report Wasim Akram and Shahid Afridi after both had apparently hurled invectives his way.

Umpires have their work cut out for them these days. More than the mere pressure and scrutiny of every move being analysed in slow-motion on camera, the very nature of the game itself has changed, lending itself to more and more controversy. To get it right is a very tough ask. However, the game is still about the players, and the sooner that simple truth is considered, the better we will all be for it.

Guest Columns

Mail Fourth Umpire