Michael Jeh December 1, 2009

Out with the neutral umpire

Do we really think that umpires are biased towards their own country

Simon Taufel made some pretty tight calls that were vindicated under closer scrutiny © Getty Images

Prompted by a thoughtful email from a loyal Different Strokes reader, Jamie Droney, I thought it might be a good time to further explore the issue of the video referral system in relation to neutral umpires. I touched on this topic in my previous blog piece and the first Test at the Gabba proved to be a fascinating insight into the tactics and horrendously poor decisions made by the players. The umpires emerged with enhanced reputations, by and large. In fact, around the world this weekend, umpires had a pretty good time of it overall. Simon Taufel (New Zealand vs Pakistan) and Rod Tucker (South Africa vs England) made some pretty tight calls that were vindicated under closer scrutiny.

Put bluntly, the way I see it, with the new referral system, there is no more need for neutral umpires, if ever there was a need in the first place. I’ve never subscribed to the theory that umpires were ever biased on a patriotic basis. Perhaps there were perceptions that certain umpires had ‘issues’ with particular teams or individuals and this may have created tensions that the ICC tried to resolve with neutral umpires. It clearly did not work.

For example, both Sri Lanka and Pakistan seemed to be uncomfortable with Darrell Hair. Likewise, India expressed reservations about Steve Bucknor. Neither of these problems would have been satisfactorily resolved with the neutral umpire solution anyway. So what’s the point?

I think it far better to just work on improving umpiring standards and rewarding the best umpires. That way, if some umpires are constantly being complained about, the ICC can investigate the reasons why and then decide if it is indeed a case of poor umpiring or a relationship/personality clash that needs to be addressed.

The basic question is: do we really think that umpires are biased towards their own country? Whatever the answer, the video referral system makes that question now redundant. If YES, umpires can no longer afford to favour their home country because it will soon show up in overturned video decisions. If NO, then why bother with neutral umpires at all? Keep giving the best umpires the best fixtures, even if it’s in their home country. The video replay statistics should ensure that any crooked umpires will soon find themselves out of a job.

Why should the best umpires never be allowed the privilege of umpiring Test cricket in their home countries? We’ll end up losing good talent if we don’t allow the Dars, Taufels and Doctroves to spend a bit more time on home soil (not that Aleem Dar has much opportunity to do that until they resume playing cricket in Pakistan again). Peter Willey, an excellent umpire and an experienced former Test cricketer (surely that is not a coincidence?), has already voted with his feet, choosing to leave the flock rather than forever live out of a suitcase, far from his home in the Midlands.

I’m still struggling to understand the ICC’s logic when it comes to the neutral umpire theory, especially in ODI cricket. Are umpires biased or not? Simple question - how does having one home umpire and one foreign umpire adequately answer it? Either we believe that home umpires cannot be trusted or we believe in their absolute impartiality. Whichever theory you subscribe to, it doesn’t make sense to have a split team. Is the home umpire less likely to ‘cheat’ if he is partnered by a foreign colleague? Perhaps it is a purely financial decision, saving a few airfares. That seems an unlikely answer.

Now that we’ve got to learn to live with the video referral era, let’s judge umpires on their pure decision-making abilities. They simply can’t afford to be biased because their very careers will depend on their integrity. As my friend so eloquently put it - “I'd rather face the risk of a top umpire destroying his career by being biased in a match than face the risk of a less skilled umpire making a complete balls-up of a match, but doing so in an absolutely impartial manner”.

Speaking of a ‘balls-up’, I bet Chris Gayle’s team-mates must be hoping that he’ll be a little bit less selfish in Adelaide this week. Wasting a referral on lbws as plumb as his were smacks of a selfishness that does not befit a captain’s honour. Even a biased umpire would find it hard to overturn those decisions!

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane