Umpiring January 14, 2009

When God is the man 22 yards away

They say 'To err is human, to forgive divine’ and that's concretely manifested in almost every first-class game played in India

Dear readers,

We, Indians, are always looking for divinity in everything. We make Gods out of normal human beings and treat the game as a religion of sorts. Following the same trend even deeper I can clearly see divinity at work in first-class cricket. They say 'To err is human, to forgive divine’ and that's concretely manifested in almost every first-class game played in India.

Take the ongoing Ranji Trophy final for example, whether it was Wasim Jaffer on the first morning or Zaheer Khan on the second. Both of them erred in judgment and nicked the ball to the wicketkeeper but the umpire standing 22 yards away forgave their human follies and divinely granted them some more time to improve on their game in the middle. On the other hand both Ajinkya Rahane and Mohammad Kaif had to turn to their divinity when the man 22 yards away erred disastrously and gave them out when they clearly weren't.

The standard of umpiring in first-class cricket has been below-par for as long as I've been playing the game but rarely do we see people talking about it, apart from the affected players that is. The reason being that the matches were never shown live and hence there was never enough evidence to attract criticism. Now that the matches are shown live and they happen to be really high-profile games, the mistakes are glaringly visible and the consequent criticism very vocal.

I'll avoid sounding like a cynic and hence will mention only a few incidents and leave it to the readers to make up their minds. Not so long ago, in a Duleep Trophy game, we heard someone talking at square leg. Initially, we though the fielder must be chatting with the umpire, which happens quite often, and was a little too loud. But to our utter disbelief there was no-one fielding in the vicinity and the umpire was standing alone. Was he talking to himself? Further inspection revealed he was busy talking on his mobile phone, a fact he vehemently denied, but the next phone call gave it away. It was on silent but the vibrator mode's buzz was rather audible.

Then there was this incident when a bowler bowled six front-foot no-balls in an over without getting called for any one of them. I was at the non-striker's end and kept drawing the crease to attract the umpire's attention but to no avail. I did improve my drawing skills, though, and I can proudly say that drawing a straight line with my bat is not an issue any more!

On many occasions, the umpires walk towards covers or mid-wicket before adjudging someone leg-before wicket. A few of the decisions might have been correct, but as a batsman you don't want to see the umpire moving sideways to decide whether the ball was hitting the stumps or not.

Before you start blaming the BCCI for everything, let me tell you that efforts are being made to improve the standard of umpiring in the country. There are six cameras installed for the duration of every first-class match played in the country. There's an umpire's coach who gets the live feed and monitors their performance. Based on the video evidence he rates the umpires for their competency, decision-making and proper implementation of the rules. Since this started only last year, there is still some time before we start reaping the benefits of the exercise.

Please don't get me wrong, there are still a lot of umpires who have gained a lot of respect from the players and are very competent. Umpiring goof-ups happen in international cricket as well so first-class cricket can't be foolproof. As long as the human element is involved in the game, which I think should be there forever, mistakes are going to be made. Don't we as a batsman or a bowler make mistakes? Since we, cricketers, also make plenty of mistakes on the field, regardless of however much we crib and cry, we do have to make peace with the fact that the man standing 22 yards away is also human and can commit mistakes. After all "to err is human …"


PS: I know it might sound like a plug but I'm also human and hence allowed to err … My book is out in stores and I'm waiting for some honest feedback.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here