Stephen Gelb July 7, 2008

Give the umpires a break

Optimally there should be four umpires per match but even with three rotating, umpires would spend only two sessions per day on the field.

Like my playing career, my umpiring career has been short and of very modest achievement. For the past 2 or 3 summers, I have occasionally filled in as umpire for my son Samir’s matches for Old Parks club in Johannesburg. This year he played for the under 13Bs and Cs in matches of 20 or 25 overs per side over 4 hours on Saturday mornings. It wasn’t exactly high-pressure, but you do have to follow every ball, and appealing was a big part of the boys’ game (they watch a lot of cricket on TV). Even so, by the end of a morning in the Highveld sun I felt totally knackered, though I’m reasonably fit and healthy (and not too old).

The experience has made me think about what real umpires have to do, how exhausting it must be standing in a Test, 6 hours a day, 5 days in a row, in the much hotter sun of Kingston or Kolkata, with the eyes of the world on your every call.

After the Australia-India Test in Sydney last January, marred by very poor umpiring – decisions and player management – by Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson, I wondered how much of the problem was the result of fatigue. Most umpire-related flare-ups – Darrell Hair, The Oval 2006 (and Adelaide, 1997), Rudi Koertzen, Hobart 2007 – tend to happen late in Test matches, with the game on the line and tensions high.

I suspect that umpire weariness leading to poor judgment was a big factor in these controversies. One of the ‘criometricians’ on the It Figures blog could check if there is a strong correlation between mistaken decisions and the stage of the match, but I bet there is. And it is worth asking Test umpires whether it is a problem.

Players rest while their team is batting. We acclaim the endurance of batsmen who spend 80 or 90 percent of a match on the field, because they have played a long innings. Players learn how and when to ‘switch off’ while on the field. But the poor old umpires are on the field throughout and can never really ‘switch off’.

The solution seems simple: introduce shifts. Have a squad of three or four umpires in a Test match, and rotate them every session out on the field and as 3rd and 4th umpires. Optimally there should be four umpires per match but even with three rotating, umpires would spend only two sessions per day on the field.

Of course Test matches already have four umpires, but only two actually work. The 3rd umpire relaxes in an air-conditioned booth watching the game on television, the 4th brings on the drinks and occasionally a box of balls. Clearly, these guys are pretty underemployed.

Possible objection 1: changing umpires in the middle of an innings will produce inconsistent decisions. But the rules on 'line calls' are very clear. Major league baseball rotates home plate umpires in series between two teams even though the umpire’s view of the strike zone is far more subjective than anything in cricket.

Possible objection 2: there are not enough quality umpires. Perhaps, though some of the worst problems recently have involved those regarded as amongst the very best. In the short-term, a better referral system will help, and over the longer term, more exposure and experience will improve quality. But if short supply is the real constraint, maybe we need to think about Test match umpires from the other – distaff – half of humanity?