The arduous task of umpiring

The arduous task of umpiring
Cheteshwar Pujara made the most of a reprieve to guide Saurashtra home in the Ranji Trophy semifinal against Karanataka. IANS
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The week that went by saw the completion of matches in the last-four stage of Ranji Trophy, the premier domestic tournament of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Kerala, who reached the semifinals for the first time ever, were pitted against reigning champions Vidarbha. This match took place at the Krishnagiri Stadium in Wayanad, which would give Dharamshala a tight competition for the most beautiful cricket ground in the world. Unfortunately for the hosts, the hard, bouncy wicket that was prepared for assisting the Kerala pacers was better utilised by Umesh Yadav, fresh and raring to go after the tour of Australia with the national team. The absence of Sanju V Samson, their leading batsman, who was injured in the quarterfinal against Gujarat also added to the woes of Kerala. The end result was that the hosts were outplayed, and the match got over in less than two days, with the visitors recording the victory by an innings and 11 runs.

The other semifinal saw a close contest between Karnataka and Saurashtra at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bengaluru, where the latter, despite conceding first innings lead, romped home by five wickets. Saurashtra’s win was fashioned by a solid unbeaten knock of 131 by Cheteswar Pujara and his 214-run partnership with Sheldon Jackson, who also struck a century, in the second innings. A target of 279 is not easy to attain on Indian wickets and Karnataka appeared to have gained the upper hand when they picked up three quick wickets, with only 23 runs on the board. However, Pujara and Jackson weathered the storm and steered their side to the final with high quality, sensible batting.

Controversial decision

One would have expected that critics would be showering wholesome praise on Pujara, who is in sublime form at present, as was demonstrated so vividly in the just concluded Test series in Australia. However, one was surprised to note that newspapers and websites had chosen to focus on the “reprieve” that Pujara got through an alleged umpiring lapse when he was on 34 in the second innings. Karnataka players believed that he had nicked the ball bowled by Vinay Kumar to wicketkeeper Srinivas Sharath but the umpire did not uphold the appeal. Karnataka players did not hide their disappointment and even the commentators who claim to have seen replays of the live recording claimed that there was a snick, which the umpire missed. Pujara was booed by the spectators who had gathered on Sunday to watch the match, with many of them calling him a “cheater”. After the conclusion of the match, the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) issued a press note stating that they had written to the BCCI to complaining about the poor quality of umpiring. It appears that Karnataka players felt that another decision, on an appeal against Jackson, also went against them.

Reading about this incident took me back to the days when I had started officiating first class matches. There was no concept of match referee during those days and no one had thought about recording the proceedings using television cameras. There would be occasional instances where players would show their unhappiness with the decision of the umpire, which would be reported in some of the local newspapers. Umpires were handicapped in this regard as no one sought to know their version about the decision nor could they rely on any evidence for support in this regard. In other words, it was the word of the players against that of the umpire and the general consensus among the match officials was that it was best to ignore these incidents as minor irritants.

In this context one has to mention about the reports appearing in the media about sound of the “snick” or “edge” being audible even in the press box. As an umpire I was taught to focus on the ball and believe only my eyes. One had to see the ball touching the bat to be convinced that there was an edge; without that there was no way one could give a batsman out on any appeal made in this regard. The obvious corollary to this is that one should not decide based on sounds that are heard and a decision is to be arrived at purely based on sighting the “snick”. There are ever so many sounds that can emanate in a cricket field and some of them can resemble the sound of the ball grazing the bat. Hence it would be unfair to judge an appeal based on a sound that bore a close resemblance to an “edge”. However, one finds that such discretion and caution are not exercised by persons watching the match in the cooler climes of the pavilion or press box.

Simon Taufel
Simon Taufel is widely regarded as the finest umpire to have graced the game. File photo: AFP

This situation changed considerably after the advent of recording of domestic first class matches and analysis of decisions by match referee and umpires together. The BCCI introduced live recording of all matches organised by them about a decade ago. It was made mandatory that umpires and match referee should sit together at the close of each day's play and go through all the decisions. In addition, umpires could also call for recordings of specific events that they wished to see again. This ensured that umpires could understand where they tend to make mistakes and take steps to prevent them. This also had the beneficial effect of bringing down the incidents of “playacting” by players who were not happy with any of the decisions. Further, it also emerged that on an average, Indian umpires made a mistake once in every 24 instances that they were required to judge. In comparison, Simon Taufel, who is acknowledged as the best in the business, has a record of making one error in 28 decisions. This would indicate that the average Indian umpire does not fare much below the best in the world. Thus, recording of matches have helped to improve the quality as well as the confidence of Indian umpires.

Mistakes are bound to happen

It should not be forgotten that umpires are humans and hence prone to making mistakes. There would be umpiring errors, which are of similar nature to a batsman playing a bad shot or a fielder dropping a catch. Like players, umpires too have bad days, when there would be more lapses than usual, and my experience is that both players and officials tend to take such things in their stride, as part of the game. It would be fallacious to believe that umpiring decisions can have more impact on the result than the performance of players, which ultimately holds the key to success or failure.

Good cricketers know that their job is to play the game and leave the job of umpiring to those posted for this task. One would never find Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni or Virat Kohli stand their ground and remonstrating with the umpires. They too have been at the receiving end of many debatable decision, but they understood that nothing could be gained by such actions and it was better to accept the decision of umpires and move on. Ian Chappell, considered as the most aggressive among the cricketers to have led Australia, never questioned the decision of an umpire nor did he show any dissent, even when the decision was wrong.

The BCCI has a system wherein the performance of the umpires are graded by the match referee as well as by the captains of the two sides. These reports are elaborate ones that require care and attention while being filled up. The contents of the reports are not made public but are made available to the umpires sub-committee of the BCCI which decides on the postings of umpires. Thus umpires with excellent reports would be granted more important matches during the ensuing season, while those with consistently poor grades would find themselves officiating less stressful games. These reports are also discussed with the individuals concerned during the annual seminar of umpires so that they are guided on areas where they should improve.

Since the BCCI has provided a system for assessing and reporting the performance of the umpires, it was not proper on the part of the KSCA to go public with a statement criticising the officials. This is tantamount to applying pressure on the officials and sends across a wrong message to the umpires that incurring displeasure of host associations would invite retributive action. Such gestures not only go against the spirit of the game, but would also lead to dilution of umpiring standards in the country. The BCCI and the Committee of Administrators (CoA) should take the KSCA to task for its action, which alone would reassure the umpires that they can go about with their work fearlessly.

Since the topic for the week is on umpiring, one must mention about the sad demise of Dara Dhotiwala, a former Test umpire. He had officiated in the famous tied Test at Chennai in 1986, played between India and Australia, though he was not at the bowler’s end when the last over was bowled by Greg Mathews. He made his debut in the Jalandhar Test match played between India and Pakistan in 1983 and he had the rare distinction of giving a batsman out off the first delivery he umpired in Test cricket. Mohsin Khan of Pakistan offered no shot to the first ball of the match bowled by Kapil Dev; the ball swung in and hit him on the front foot and Dhotiwala had no hesitation in declaring the batsman leg before wicket. He also holds a special place in the heart of this writer as he was the examiner when I took the umpiring test in 1991 to qualify for officiating Ranji Trophy matches. Rest in peace, umpire Dhotiwala!

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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