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February 22, 2000


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'Anything that helps us get it right is good for the game'

Faisal Shariff

David Shepherd Come February 24th, when India take on South Africa in the first of the two-Test Pepsi Cup series, David Shepherd MBE will walk out to officiate in his 50th Test match.

And that calls for celebration - for the roly-poly Shep has down the years served as a model of what the good umpire should be. He is at one and the same time firm yet mild-mannered, controlling the game with the barest minimum of fuss.

You know an umpire is top notch when players accept even the rare bad decision with smiling good grace - and by that yardstick, Shep is the best there is today. Ask Protean skipper Hansie Cronje, who rates him the best in the business - this, despite being wrongly judged caught at slip during the tied semifinal against Australia in the 1999 World Cup.

He is at one and the same time a simple simon, and a showman. The little skips he does each time the score reads a Nelson are as much of a Shep trademark as the firm, controlled manner in which he handles the players, refusing to take any nonsense on the field.

David Shepherd, on arrival in Bombay, spoke to the media at the Wankhede Stadium. Excerpts:

Mr Shepherd, what are your views on this whole neutral umpire thing? Does it mean less opportunities for home umpires?

Well, it is because of the National Grid Panel, and the ICC. Yes, now I am here and there will be only one Indian umpire standing for this Test. Some years back, there would have been two Indian umpires, so yes, the opportunities for home umpires are getting limited.

Having said that, Imran Khan once suggested that there should be neutral umpires at both ends?

Let me put it this way, an English umpire would love to stand at Lord's, that is an ambition. Just as an Indian umpire would love to stand in Calcutta. But if you have neutral umpires at both ends, no Englishman will ever stand at Lord's, neither will an Indian stand at Calcutta. These are goals we set ourselves, and I think it should be encouraged, which is why I am not for neutrals at both ends.

Now that we have the independent panel of umpires, and a match referee, what difference do you see in the conduct of the game?

Well, life has become somewhat easier. We get a lot more help from the cameras, including showing fours. And the match referee has been a great help, especially where it concerns standards of on-field behaviour. The referee can fine the player for bad behaviour, he can even suspend them. I think that is quite right, the players should remember that they are role models.

Television replays are a touchy topic with umpires today. What are your views? Do you think it puts pressure on you?

Yes, there's a lot of pressure on umpires. None of us like to get it wrong. We all have pride in our performance, just like players have pride in their performance. But we are human, we make mistakes - and having those mistakes flashed on the big screen does put us under some pressure.

Talking of mistakes, would you call a player back if you thought you had got it wrong?

If I could do it quick enough, yes I would.

What about sledging?

The match referee can step in and fine or even suspend players indulding in such things.

But the referees say that they can't take action until the umpires report such incidents?

Well, it is up to the umpires and referee to work together on this thing.

What is the response to the call, in England, for former players to become umpires?

Well in England, that is generally the case anyway. We have around 26 first class umpires in England and I suppose 24 of them have played at first class level and one or two of them have played at the international level.

Hasn't the standard of the first class game come down drastically in England?

Possibly, yes. That is why the national side is not as strong as it was years ago.

How do you think having played Test cricket at a high level helps when you become an umpire?

A person who has played Tests knows the routine, he knows what goes on. Because he has played himself, he has a feel for the players. He knows what they are going through, what pressures they are under.

Your little jigs when the score hits a Nelson is the stuff of legend, what's the story behind it?

It is superstition really. 111 is the bogie number, we say in England - it is 87 in Australia. And to avoid anything bad happening, the way is to get your feet off the ground, so you keep skipping around.

Bad things happening to whom?

To the game, the batsman, the bowler or even the umpire.

These days, pretty much every country has training academies for cricketers. Do you think there should be one for umpires as well?

Possibly, more training is certainly useful. But the thing with umpiring is that you can't replace the experience on field.

Getting back to innovations, there is some talk that the snickometer could be introduced into the game, to find out whether the batsman has edged the ball?

I think that as technology improves, more decisions will go to the camera. People wonder whether this will take something away from the umpire. My take on that is, we don't play the game for the sake of the umpire, we play the game for the game's sake. And anything which helps the umpire to get the decision right must be good for the game. Anything, as long as it is practical, must be good for the game.

And while on technological innovations, how about stuff like captains using earpieces to take instructions from the coach?

I am not in favour of that, not really, but I suspect it might come about in the figure. They do it in other games like rugby, baseball, so maybe cricket will soon go that way too. It will be very sad if that happens, it is like saying the captain doesn't know how to do a job. Can't he do the job himself, as he has been doing all these years?

Another issue is uniform payment for umpires everywhere. What are your views?

It is very true that there is disparity. But you should also bear in mind that the cost of living in various countries is different. The cost of living in England for instance is considerably higher than what it is in India to take an example - so that could be one reason for disparity in wages.

How much less testing is it to be a third umpire rather than an umpire in the middle?

To be quite honest, I haven't done it often. People say that it is easy, all you have to do is watch TV. But I think there is more to it than that.

Do you think an umpire's performance is generally 50-50, in terms of right decisions and wrong ones?

Well, I wouldn't want to put numbers to it, but generally, umpires get a lot of it right a lot of the time. Then again, you have to remember we are human beings.

You are on the verge of your 50th Test - how have the players treated you during this long career of yours?

Oh, very well, the players have treated me well. If they hadn't, I wouldn't have lasted this long.

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