Law No: 3.1 of Laws of Cricket states that before the toss for the innings, two umpires shall be appointed, one for each end, to control the game with absolute impartiality, as required by the laws. The laws also detail the functions of the umpires, their responsibilities, where they would stand, the signals that they would use while the game is in progress etc. In addition to the laws, there would be special playing conditions involved in conduct of the game as decided by the authority controlling the conduct of the match, which also the umpires are required to implement. Further, national cricket bodies have specified uniforms for umpires, depending upon the version of the game that they officiate.
Like in all other games, in cricket also, umpires are expected to conduct the game without attracting any attention to themselves. Unlike the players whose good performances are applauded, umpires come into limelight when they make bad or incorrect decisions. In the present era, especially after the advent of live telecasting of matches, both international and domestic, some umpires have started attracting eyeballs on account of their mannerisms as well. But, despite this, there still exists considerable truth in the dictum that umpires invariably hit newspaper headlines on account of the wrong decisions given by them.
Any sporting event played at the international level evokes intense competition and national pride. Since the skill levels of the players are almost equally matched in most of the high caliber contests, the margins of victory and defeat are usually narrow. The presence of umpires possessing the required expertise and experience in handling the tense situations that would arise during such matches is a sine qua non for their successful conduct. An umpire who is nervous or prone to giving an incorrect decision in tense situations possesses the potential to spoil a good game. Hence choice of umpires to control the game is as important as the selection of players taking part in it.
What happens when an umpire gives an incorrect decision on the field of play? At the highest level, players are professionals and they are mature enough to consider a mistake as a rare failing which can happen to even the best of individuals. Hence, even though there would be some external expression of disappointment, the players quickly put it behind them and get on with the game. In other words a bad decision is placed on par with a dropped catch, in those cases where it goes against the bowling side, or a very bad stroke of ill luck, if a batsman is at the receiving end.
One poor decision will not alter the respect that players have for umpires; it is only when such mistakes keep happening regularly and repeatedly that competence of umpires get challenged on the field of play. In the present era when there exists the facility of “review” of the judgement of umpires by the players, the possibility of such incorrect decisions have almost disappeared. Even earlier, once live telecast of matches started, with the television cameras and slow motion technology capturing and analysing the match situation in close detail, the quality of umpiring also improved. This was not only on account of umpires themselves being more watchful and diligent in avoiding the mistakes and pitfalls that they could see in the replays but also due to better use of the technology in conduct of the game.
However, spectators who watch the game are more excitable and less forgiving about the mistakes of umpires than the players, especially when wrong decisions involve their favourite player or are seen as being responsible for the loss of the side they support. Fortunately, such instances of anger and anguish directed against the umpires have been few and far between and generally been the exception than the rule. Though every cricket match would have had its share of debatable decisions, instances where they had led to crowd disturbances are not many. Three such occurrences come readily to the mind of this author and they merit being recounted for each of them provides an interesting study into behaviour of the crowd and the manner in which they react in certain situations.
India took on Australia at Bombay (present day Mumbai) in the first Test of a five-match series in November, 1969. Batting first, India scored 271 while the visitors replied with 345. However, Indian batting suffered a collapse in the second innings and hosts were reduced to 89 runs for the loss of seven wickets when S Venkataraghavan joined Ajit Wadekar. The duo hung on gamely and took the score to 114, raising the hopes that they would remain unseparated till close of play, which was round the corner. At this juncture Venkat tried to cut a ball from pace bowler Alan Connolly and umpire Shambhu Pan upheld the appeal, which incidentally was made by only one fielder, Paul Sheehan at cover. Even wicketkeeper Brian Taber, who was supposed to have held the catch did not appeal.
Even as a very unhappy Venkat started trudging his way back to the pavilion, Devaraj Puri, the commentator for All India Radio, announced to the millions of people listening to the radio commentary that umpire had made a mistake as batsman had not edged the ball. This angered the crowd and they started throwing missiles on to the field demanding that Venkat be called back. Bill Lawry, the Aussie skipper, was not the one for such acts of magnanimity and he insisted that the game should continue even though at one stage the smoke arising out of the stands was so thick that the scorers could not see the happenings on the field. Play was finally called off for the day after one more wicket fell but by then the crowd was so incensed that the Aussie players had to remain in the field for another 30 minutes under police protection. The dressing room was pelted with stones and some of the players were also struck by bottles and other missiles hurled at them. When play resumed the next day morning under strong police presence, Australia completed the formalities and emerged winners by eight wickets.
The next incident took place at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in February, 1974, when England were playing the West Indies. After dismissing England for a paltry 131, the hosts had reached 274/6, helped by a superb century by Alvin Kallicharan when Derek Underwood started the last over the day. Bernard Julian, the striker, blocked all six balls bowled in the over. The last ball, which was also played defensively, went towards Tony Greig who was fielding very close to the bat, at silly point. Thinking that the day's play was over wicketkeeper Alan Knott took off the bails at the striker's end while Kallicharan who had backed up at the bowler's end started walking towards the pavilion without trying to get back to the crease. Greig saw this and quickly picked up the ball and threw down the wicket at the bowler's end and appealed. Umpire Douglas Sang Hue had not called time, Kallicharan was outside the crease and hence batsman was declared “run out”.
However, this annoyed the crowd who thought that Kallicharan was the victim of an act of subterfuge by the visiting side. Some them lit a fire in the stands even as stones were pelted on to the field. Commentators also contributed to adding to the ire of the crowd by announcing that once Knott had removed the bails at the striker’s end, play was over notwithstanding the fact that umpire had not called time. A meeting was held between managements of both sides and finally it was decided that England would withdraw the appeal “in the interest of cricket as a whole and future of this tour”. An apology from Greig was also released wherein he stated that he did not intend that “his instinctive action should be contrary to the spirit of the game”. When play resumed after a rest day, tensions had ebbed and Greig and Kallicharan shook hands on the middle of the pitch to signal that all was well. For the record Kallicharan went on to score 158 and the West Indies won the match by seven wickets.
Tendulkar's run out
The third incident happened at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, in February, 1999, when India played Pakistan in the first Test of Asian Test Championship. The teams had earlier played a hard-fought two-Test series that ended 1-1. Bowling first, India dismissed Pakistan for 185 and then took a 38-run lead. The highlight of Pakistan bowling was a spell by debutant Shoaib Akthar during which he dismissed Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off successive balls, clean bowling both batsmen with fast inswinging yorkers. Helped by a brilliant unbeaten 188 by opened Saeed Anwar, Pakistan scored 316 in their second knock leaving India to score 279 in the last innings to win the match. India was cruising along at 143/2, with Tendulkar in excellent touch, when a freak incident turned the match on its head.
Tendulkar on drove Wasim Akram and, after completing two runs went for a comfortable third. Nadeem Khan, the substitute fielder at long on, picked up the ball just inside the fence and threw it to the bowler's end. Akthar, who was fielding at mid off had come near the stumps to collect the throw. He was standing with his back to the pitch and took a couple of steps back when he saw the throw coming in the direction off the wicket at the bowler's end. As he did so, he came in the path of Tendulkar who was completing his third run. A collision resulted and when the ball hit the stumps, Tendulkar was outside his crease. An appeal by Pakistani players was referred by umpire Steve Buckner to K T Francis, the third umpire, who, after going through the replays repeatedly declared the batsman out.
What made the decision even more unfair was the fact that Tendulkar had ground his bat inside the crease before throw came in but when the ball hit the stumps he was outside on account of Shoaib colliding with him and pushing him out. Tendulkar looked surprised at the decision and when he reached the pavilion, he straightaway headed for the room of third umpire to watch the replay. The action of Shoaib in moving backwards was in all likelihood a normal one, made without any intention of obstructing Tendulkar, but since it resulted in the batsman being pushed out of the crease the proper course would have been for Pakistan to withdraw the appeal, which their skipper Akram refused to do.
Meanwhile, the crowd started getting restive at what they felt was blatant lack of sportsman spirit by the Pakistan side. They started throwing bottles and missiles on to the field causing play to be held up. Tea interval was advanced and after that Tendulkar, along with ICC president Jagmohan Dalmia, walked around the stadium requesting for restoration of calm, so that game could continue. When play resumed, one found that India had lost the initiative and lost quick wickets, to end the day at 215/6. When India lost three more quick wickets next morning, crowd again started throwing bottles and paper on to the ground. The anger of the spectators was directed at the Pakistan players who they believed did not play according to the spirit of the game and newspaper reports in this regard, criticising the visitors, had added to their ire. Finally, the police had to resort to a lathi charge to clear the stadium so that match could continue and Pakistan registered a 46-run win.
An analysis of these three incidents of crowd violence would indicate that the anger of the spectators tend to be directed more towards perceived injustice against the dismissed batsmen, with the wrongdoings getting highlighted by the commentators of the game. If it were the radio commentators who were guilty in the first two instances, it was the print media that provoked the crowd in the last incident. It would sound ironical, but the umpire’s decision could be considered to be doubtful only in the first case. In the other two situations, the decisions of the umpires were correct and it was the attitude of gamesmanship on the part of fielding side that irked the crowd and created the problems. Even in the incident at Mumbai in 1969, the provocation was provided by the Aussie skipper Bill Lawry who insisted on continuing the game even after violence erupted in the stands, seeking recall of the dismissed batsman.
To sum up, one could say that umpires are as prone to making mistakes as the players and this fact is acknowledged by the spectators as well. It is only when the crowd perceives that blatant injustice has been delivered to the players on account of one-upmanship that they get restive. The levels of maturity and sense of responsibility of the commentators and the reporters would go a long way in ensuring that emotions of the crowd do not get whipped up and lead to untoward incidents that mar the image of the game.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)