Samir Chopra March 3, 2010

Walking in an umpire's shoes

An international cricketer could do with a little apprenticeship in umpiring as part of his graduation to the highest form the game

How tough is it to deal with the stress of giving a decision under stress? © Associated Press

Like every single cricket fan on this planet, I've cursed umpires and given the finger to the gentlemen who give my heroes the digital salute. But I like to think I've grown (just a little bit) out of my previously immature reactions to them. For willy-nilly, I took Atticus Finch's advice, and walked around in an umpire's shoes. And from then on, I never viewed umpiring in the same light.

In my university days, I played a bit of casual cricket with my mates at college. Nothing too serious; our talents were limited. But Hindu College, my alma mater, was a cricketing powerhouse in the Delhi cricket scene, and there were plenty of stars to watch up close and admire. The concentration of cricketing talent in our institution meant the inter-departmental competition often afforded some of the best cricket viewing of the year. We could get close to the action, and we could see players that were Ranji, and possibly India, aspirants. The strongest departments (History, Political Science, Economics, General Arts) were packed with members from the college team. (Unsurprisingly, the sciences were left to fight for the scraps).

One fine morning, a group of us gathered to watch Political Science take on General Arts (Indian folks will know the latter better as "the BA (Pass) boys"). The games were 40-overs a side and approximately ten players from the college side were out there in the middle, playing for the two departments.

A few overs into the game, one of the fielders trotted over to us (down at long-off) with a request. One of the umpires had to go off for a family emergency; would one of us agree to umpire? (I hasten to point out the reason the fielder had picked us was because we knew him from some friendly games earlier in the season). I eagerly volunteered; umpiring seemed like a great way to get into the thick of the action and watch it up close.

A few minutes later, I had started to regret my decision. The action out on the middle felt fast and furious; the fielders were aggressive and hortatory; a fast bowler who was constantly over-stepping didn't appreciate my no-balling; and the fielding side's captain, who came on to bowl his off-spinners, was a pesky, inquisitive, irritating type, who kept moving me around.

I was surrounded by young men, older, and bigger (make that much bigger) than me. It was noisy and even the unambiguous sounds I expected to hear out in the middle were not so clear. Bat against cloth, pad against ball, pad buckles against bat, ball against body; the sounds were a little potpourri of clicks and nips.

I felt a buzzing in my head; I was keeping track of too many things, and was worn down by the stress of feeling I might get things wrong. And I did. A batsman went down to sweep the off-spinner; the ball had pitched on off and middle. He had plonked his leg down the pitch; the ball would have spun past leg. I was worn out. I raised the finger. He glared; I averted my eyes.

Shortly thereafter, I asked to be relieved of my duties. I wanted to be back on the sidelines, smoking a cigarette, sipping a cup of tea, soaking up the beautiful Delhi winter sun. I didn't want to be hassled and harried out in the middle. I wanted to enjoy the game, damn it all.

I think my experience is instructive and it forms the basis of the following modest proposal.

An international cricketer could do with a little apprenticeship in umpiring as part of his graduation to the highest form the game. The Don studied for, and passed, an umpire's exam. In similar fashion, I propose that a pre-condition for playing in a Test should be that the player in question should have umpired in a few games; perhaps first-class games, perhaps something a level just below. (Australians could consider umpiring in the city grade competitions, for instance)

They should stand for a few days in the sun and properly soak up the hurly-burly an umpire experiences. They should experience, in no particular order: the stress of giving a decision under stress; being pressured by constant appealing; feeling like all eleven men in the fielding side dislike you and multi-tasking that would put a modern computing architecture to shame.

Perhaps then, with their felt experience of an umpire's lot under their belts, they might experience some empathy for the lot of those who "only stand and wait."

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here