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?

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • testli5504537 on November 10, 2012, 12:25 GMT

    Well that game takes the cake.They tried to give that game away at least 7 or 8 times. Somehow they pulled it out. Huge 2-out hit by J-Roll!Anyway, toorrmow is super-critical again. I believe if the Phillies remain at worst a game back going into the weekend, they can get it to a playoff, if not win it outright. If they fall two back, I believe they are done. Obviously if the Phillies win and Dodgers lose, that is the best scenario and then it's a three (or four) game season.One other thing - Dodgers play in Colorado at 3:30 toorrmow afternoon (Philly time). So the Phils should know exactly what the Dodgers did when they take the field. Can Brad Penny continue his late-season struggles at Coors?

  • testli5504537 on July 8, 2008, 13:32 GMT

    Thanks for all the support for this idea. I don't know how to bring it to the attention of the powers that be, but without being immodest, I do think it should be looked at seriously. It won't solve all the problems with umpiring, but it will help, especially if combined with careful use of technology & with a transparent performance evaluation system.

    To clarify for a couple of responders: I wouldn't claim to have offered in the 600 words allowed, proper evidence that umpires' performance suffers as a result of fatigue - I suggested a thorough statistical analysis & a survey of umpires (& I would add now, players). My intuition is that the conclusion of a rigourous analysis would be that fatigue does matter.

    On the baseball analogy: umpires do not rotate within single games, which last only 2-3 hours. But MLB teams play series of several games over a few days. The same umpire crew handles a full series, & the home plate umpire rotates through the crew for each game in the series.

  • testli5504537 on July 8, 2008, 6:30 GMT

    Couldn't agree with you more. Umpiring has got to be the most demanding job in cricket, including keeping wicket, and most Umps are into middle age. Rotating between three so nobody stands more than two consecutive sessions should be the norm. As for lack of "Elite" umpires, I don't see a big difference between them and the next rung who stand in one-day matches.

  • testli5504537 on July 8, 2008, 6:04 GMT

    Although the article is written in good spirit, the evidence it uses is flimsy. The author quotes 3 bad decisions late in the innings and uses that as his basis for argument. I would like to point out the other side of the 'umpires are human' argument. Anyone remember Emerson no-balling Murali? Or Hair reporting Murali and Chauhan ? Australian umpires have been known to report players from teams that are going to tour aus in the near future (and notoriously the spin bowlers). Are they doing so out of fatigue? Are we to ignore this issue because it evokes sharp sentiments from both sides and focus only on the aspect of fatigue? Truth is as Stephen writes, we don't have quality (& unbiased) umpires. We need to invest in better umpires and hold them accountable. Mike Denness got off, Hair got off, Emerson retired happily but the players have a lot more at stake and we cant short change them because we are stuck on some archaic notion of needing a human umpire. The game is more important

  • testli5504537 on July 8, 2008, 5:31 GMT

    Fergus, certainly the idea to give a break to the umpires has some merit. No one doubts that. They definitely need some rest like everyone else. The only thing I objected to was the data Stephen has compiled to make his point. Symonds' example was the most prominent one. And it is a fact that it occurred in the first inning. If he had not mentioned it, I would not have been able to say anything. :-).

    Having made my point if it was not clear earlier, I will not comment further on this issue here.

  • testli5504537 on July 8, 2008, 0:13 GMT

    There is a bit of a break in an umpire's routine as he moves between the two roles of bowler's end and striker's end, and during the changeovers. But the baseball analogy fails here, as one umpire has the plate for an entire game (not to say that rotating the umpires is thus bad, just that diamond practice is meaningless in that respect).

    As to the actual idea, it seems to me that three is the right number, as it balances the sessions properly (and the TV umpire doesn't need the same kind of skill as the ones on the field, so you could specialize that position). The rotation schedule does need to be made known in advance, so that there can be no accusation of favoring one side in the rotation (to the extent the final set matters, that is just one more variable the captain would need to consider at the toss).

  • testli5504537 on July 7, 2008, 20:10 GMT

    Having umpired myself in club games, I think this is a very good suggestion and one that ICC should have looked into a long time back. Even though I do not agree to the assertion that most bad calls are made due to fatigue at the end of the day, still it is important to give umpires some respite. It will also give umpires some time to reflect upon the decisions that they have made in the previous session after looking at replays, which would help them in the game ahead, similar to bowlers

  • testli5504537 on July 7, 2008, 11:03 GMT

    Shripad, this was a good suggestion to fix problems. It didn't need you to hijack it to protest about something you can't change.

  • testli5504537 on July 7, 2008, 10:34 GMT

    Symond's decision that is one of the decisions mentioned in this article, was given in the first innings on the very first day!!!

    No, this has very little to do with the fatigue but more with the prejudice that is there in an umpire's mind.

  • testli5504537 on July 7, 2008, 8:05 GMT

    The umpires can never really switch off?? If that were the case they'd all be mentally shot after half an hour of play. One needs to switch off whenever possible; for at least a few seconds after practically every ball. In the same way that someone standing at slip or batting all day would, you need to concentrate only when necessary.

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