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August 19, 1997


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Questions of cricket

Amrit Mathur

While the Indian team suffers in the searing heat of Sri Lanka - signed by the sun, scorched by the fire of Jayasuriya - Indian first class umpires congregated in Bangalore to debate cricket laws. With temperatures around 20, the odd person waring a thin sweater, the atmosphere was pleasant but occasionally the deliberations generated sufficient heat. The umpires in their annual seminar met, discussed, debated, deliberated and exchanged views in what is called a free and frank exchange.

They also raised doubts about rules and their interpretation, in the process asking questions so tricky even the expert panel - chaired by the respected Venkat -- was occasionally befuddled. Actually, why blame the August panel, even the combined efforts of Grace/Bradman/Gavaskar, if possible, would have found it exceedingly difficult to satisfactorily answer all points raise. Debates on delicate issues were lively, there was no shortage of argument or opinion.

Often, the proceedings ranged from the genuine to the bizarre, the complexities raised capable of unhinging the finest brain. For instance: what should one do when the bat leaves the striker's hands but makes contact with the ball which is then caught by a fielder? Or, what is the correct verdict when the keeper drops his gloves to field a ball, but his throw makes contact with the discarded glove, first, before breaking the wicket with the batsman out of the crease?

Answers: out in the first case; not out, and a 5 run penalty, in the second.

The umpires discussed much more than just cricket laws - they spent considerable time on other matters that stir them profoundly. Like the constantly deteriorating relations with players, who once were viewed as partners in a great sporting show, but are now increasingly positioned as adversaries.

Old timers recalled the halcyon days when umpires were respected, addressed as 'sir', looked upon as venerable elders. Appealing then was polite and courteous, and when LBW's were turned down the players apologized, close decisions were gracefully accepted, dissent on the field was absent.

Those days alas are long gone, and there is no point in harking back to a golden age which existed a million seasons ago. Nowadays, players pressurize umpires, use every trick possible to extract a favourable verdict, break into a war dance when appealing, and abuse umpires when their pleas are rejected.

The umpires only theoretically control of the game - in practise, he is actually controlled by top players, who in the process often get away with murder. Every umpire takes a long, hard look before deciding on an LBW shout against a big player -- unfortunate, but this is a fact of life. The same appeal, against a tailender, would result in the finger being raised without much hesitation.

Nowadays, to add to the already substantial miseries of umpires, pressure comes not just from players but also from TV. With intensive coverage from a dozen cameras positioned at every conceivable - and some inconceivable - angle, all action is picked up, even the seam on the ball is distinctly visible, as is the manufacturer's logo. In such situations the pressure on umpires is incredible, every decision is discussed and debated, mistakes identified and magnified. No umpire escapes this non-stop examination, and as a result even good umpires look bad, while ordinary ones look decidedly foolish.

This is clearly unfair, but TV producers also have a job to do. They too are under pressure to improve coverage so that viewers' interest is retained. The doddering grandmother, the busy housewife, the crusty cricket addict should all be entertained, so they remain tuned in. If you can't hold them, then the danger is of them switching channels to a filmi song and dance programme - which means cricket's ratings slump, and the sponsors zip up their moneybags.

That is why you have zany camera angles, spin vision, stump cam, technical gimmicry and chatty commentary, with experts encouraged to express snappy opinions on umpiring decisions.

Mistakes by umpires will never cease, neither are contemporary umpires in any way inferior to their predecessors - the only thing is that they are less respected because their work is constantly shredded by superior technology. Out in the middle, the umpire decides in a split second, without any assistance of cameras - the action is a blur, there is practically no time to think or reflect. Later, these decisions are judged is slow motion with the assistance of sophisticated technical tools. Oddly, the same technology helps umpires in one dayers, where all major decisions are made by the camera and he has a relatively comfortable time.

Says one umpire: "Cricket will never be foolproof, this intrusion by cameras is bad because it lowers the respect of the men in the middle. That is why. after slo-mo replays of close decisions, there should be at least one replay at normal speed. Only then will people realise the conditions in which we decide."

There were suggestions that a dialogue should start with networks for fairer coverage, to limit replays and to restrict biased comment. More so because the camera hardly provides the final word - for LBW appeals, for instance, it is unreliable because it can't judge height or the exact angle of ball movement. The camera has a fixed line of vision; the umpire, on top of the stumps, has the best view.

The players also have a reason why they behave the way they do. They too are under enormous pressure to perform, careers and large amounts of money are at stake. No wonder, given half a chance, they'd prefer to shift the blame on to the umpire. Nobody is ever satisfied with a leg before; bat/pad catches at short leg and silly point are invariably disputed.

When past players are officiating, some of these problems get sorted out because their mistakes are accepted more sportingly. The past player is anyway better placed to separate drama from reality - when close fielders erupt in appeal, he has an instinctive feel for the game and, more importantly, the gamesmanship associated with the game.

In a way, the entire question boils down to better umpiring. Contemporary sport, with its compulsions and intense competition, has little margin for error - there will only be intolerance for mistakes. The umpires thus have to do a better job, concentrate harder, become tougher and reduce errors.

But that is far from easy, cricket has no job more thankless than umpiring - like wicket-keeping to an extent, you get noticed only when you make a mistake. But all your good work is unnoticed.

Meanwhile, in a related development, the Indian cricket empire has struck back at the umpires. Yashpal Sharma and Maninder Singh, both TV commentators, have been given an ultimatum to choose between umpiring and working for the network. The argument is that they were passing judgement on their colleagues while commenting on games, which is 'not in the right spirit'. And so the BCCI, so mindful of projecting the correct image in these turbulent times, has decided to step in and to get the concerned people to come down on one side of the fence or the other.

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