December 1, 2009

Michael Jeh

Out with the neutral umpire

Michael Jeh


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

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Posted by Billy Bunter on (December 27, 2009, 18:32 GMT)

I must agree that neutral umpires are unnecessary now because of video referrals and intense television scrutiny. Having said that, one should still beware. The reason neutral umpires came about was because there indeed WAS bias from some home umpires. Remember the bad old days of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when teams touring India or Pakistan couldn't get a wicket? Umpires never gave home players out lbw while visiting batsmen were shot out at will by trigger-happy umpires under instructions and/or pressure from home administrators and crowds. At first, the Test scene saw one neutral umpire on the field. Even that was not enough. (Go to youtube and look at Harbhajan's "hattrick". 2 of the 3 wickets were palpably not out.) Hence 2 neutral umpires now. With video referral, neutrality shouldn't be needed in deciding dismissals. But perhaps it can be useful when trying to settle on-field disputes, sledging and cultural differences.

Posted by Pelham Barton on (December 11, 2009, 11:11 GMT)

Coming in a bit late on this, in response to "love goel", Javed Miandad played in 60 home Test matches and was given out lbw 8 times in these matches, all but one by Pakistani umpires. It is true that the first of these was not until his 35th home Test, which explains how the story came into being.

Posted by omar hussain on (December 8, 2009, 11:36 GMT)

You are on the wrong track here.Neutral umpires are the best solution to the umpiring system but like all good employers ICC should assert their merits every year.The referral system is the worst thing happening to cricket.It can be used but only at the umpires discretion for after all he is the person responsible for the final decision.Players complaining all the time will waste precious time in play and make a mockrey of the umpire.If this keeps up we will in no time have mechanical gadgets umpiring matches!

Posted by billy on (December 7, 2009, 0:00 GMT)

i agree with Waterbuffalo's comment. Its the aussie umpires that acted so patriotic whenever they stood in aussie matches in Australia back in 90's. Simon Taufel is an anamoly among the aussie umpires and he seems very unbiased and very very neutral but its not the case for much older umpires from australia like Hair etc, who always if gotten a chance would deny the opposition by reckless decisions. English umpires like Shephard, Bird, Willy were actually very good umpires...Koertzon is a good umpire. Doctrove is the worst of the lot in elite panel as of now.

Posted by The last angry man on (December 2, 2009, 21:54 GMT)

Bobo148 - you've hit the nail on the head. As long as the ICC is appointing and assessing the umpires, the umpires know they must perform or they will be overlooked. Love Goel - Michael mentioned Peter Willey, one of the best umpires in the world, electing to retire rather than spend months at a time on the road. And Waterbuffalo, move with the times - this ain't the 90s any more. Have you ever watched a netball international between Australia and New Zealand? Always great contests broken up by bizarre officiating because the best umps, who happen to come from Australia and New Zealand, can't umpire because of the neutrality policy.

Posted by Bobo148 on (December 2, 2009, 10:24 GMT)

There is no problem in appointing local umpires if the appointments are done by the ICC, from a panel trained & approved by the ICC. Previously the locally appointed umpires were appointed by the host board and there were political and national factors involved in the appointments. Remove that problem and the problems of local appointments are greatly reduced. Add in the player referal system and the arguments diminish dramatically.

Finally, as someone who has umpired to good standard, I am delighted to see the players make asses of themselves with their referrals. Goes to show that their knowledge is extremely limited.

Posted by Saqlain Qamar on (December 2, 2009, 10:23 GMT)

I think they must play with both regular opener, my openers for test match are Salman Butt and Khuram Manzoor and give one more chance to Fawad Alam at number 3 spot, however, Misbah must need rest for this match to adapt the conditions first. I am also feeling bit uncertain about the number of Shoaib Malik. I think he must take responsibilities to bat well in this match.

Looking forward a test win for pakistan.

Posted by faisal on (December 2, 2009, 10:05 GMT)

I think Pakistan should to change in opeining pairs and Shoaib Malik Should to open with Imran Farahat. And Faisal Iqbal should be the part of team and play as a one down player.

Posted by Andrew on (December 1, 2009, 20:51 GMT)

Partly wrong on Gayle. His second one hit VERY high on the pad and was certainly not plumb - well worth a review.

The home umpire in ODIs does 3 things - reduce jet lag, save airfares and represent a reasonable compromise as a "training ground" for Test umpires. Surely you couldn't expect Tucker to make an international DEBUT in Eden Gardens or somewhere? It's hard enough at home.

Third, the neutral umpires thing is not to protect us from the Taufels, Dars etc. It's for the Ranas, Coorays and Questeds that used to get inflicted on touring sides. What's the point changing it? It costs as much to fly Taufel to the Sydney Test from Dunedin as it would the other way around, saving only 5 (or more likely 3) hotel nights. You don't change the system just to give 10 guys a thrill - there needs to be more reason than that.

Posted by Mahek on (December 1, 2009, 15:33 GMT)

While I agree that the best umpires should officiate matches irrespective of their nationality, it's highly unlikely to happen. There will always be questions asked when the home umpire makes an incorrect decision. While some of these decisions can be overturned thanks to the UDRS, one must remember that the close ones go back to the on-field umpire. This is where he might be accused of being biased if he gives all the close decisions in favour of the home team. He may not be doing this out of bias but he will be accused of it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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