March 3, 2014

'Umpiring is about excellence, not neutrality'

Interview by Subash Jayaraman
'Umpiring is about excellence, not neutrality'

Subash Jayaraman: Writing in the Guardian in the aftermath of the brouhaha over Stuart Broad not walking during the Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, you said that you had done the job for 27 years and you were pretty philosophical about it and in the end you had become quite cynical. What made you that way?

John Holder: The reality is that there has for a long time been the perception that cricket is a gentleman's game. The batsmen walk when they nick the ball and are caught, and bowlers and fielders only appeal when they feel or are very certain that the batsman is out. Those days are long gone. That was gone even before I started umpiring in 1983. The reality is that, especially when there is big money, the pressure to win is greater than ever. Some players will cheat. Some players will claim catches which they know are not catches. Players and fielders will appeal because they want a wicket. As long as batsmen walking is a concern, most players, even at club level, where I have been an umpire for the last three years, don't walk. The attitude of most players is that the umpire is paid to do a job, so let him do a job. Under the laws in cricket, a batsman is only out on appeal. Lots of players now play it that way.

What I find distasteful is that batsmen who - after an umpire has made a decision that he may have made wrong - may have been given not out are quite happy to accept that and carry on batting, but he then gets what he thinks is a bad decision and he is unhappy. One of my former umpire mates, John Hampshire - we were the first neutral umpires - told me a story that after he left playing for Yorkshire, he played for Derbyshire for a few seasons before retirement. The former South African allrounder Eddie Barlow was captain of Derbyshire. He told his players that he never walks, but if the fellow in the white coat put his finger up, whether it is a good decision or a bad decision, he left the field. He didn't complain.

In life you can't eat your cake and have it. There is lack of honesty in the game. That is a double standard.

SJ: You have played and umpired over a long time. From your playing time to your umpiring time to now, has it gotten much worse?

JH: Yes. I think a lot of pressure comes not only from more money but also from the coaches. There was a coach who was a first-class umpire. He went and coached one of the English counties and told his players that you must appeal. Having been an umpire and having experienced the pressures of umpiring, all of a sudden he wants to pressurise the umpire because he wants the results to go his way. The reality is that the coaches - without success, you've got to know that there is every chance you will lose the job, [so] the coaches encourage the players to appeal, because then you hope the decisions will go their way.

SJ: Does someone making a strong-throated appeal, instead of a polite enquiry, sway the umpire?

JH: It shouldn't. But the main thing about it is that there are times in the middle where you think the batsman is out but no one appeals, or [there is] just a plaintive appeal, a half-hearted appeal. You would look like an absolute mug if you put your finger up. And because of this little weak appeal, that is being unrealistic. Umpires will make decisions when there are good, strong appeals. That is human nature.

SJ: But then isn't that what leads to excessive appealing, trying to coax the umpire into making the decisions that you wouldn't have otherwise made?

JH: No, I think it is often the desperation of the situation that will encourage the fielders to appeal excessively. Also, I maintain that players watch umpires as much as umpires watch players. Players can tell umpires who are weak, who can be swayed by strong, vociferous appeals, and they will appeal accordingly. But if as an umpire you feel the appealing is excessive, it is potentially designed to intimidate you and your decision, you speak to the captain.

In my last year, I did a one-day game at Hove between Sussex and Surrey. I was standing at square leg, and the wicketkeeper kept on appealing, "Howww.... Howwwwww!" and I said, "Excuse me, just say 'How is that?' and that is the end of it. You don't have to keep shouting." I think he was quite surprised with what I said. That was a blatant case of a wicketkeeper desperate to get a decision in their favour who kept appealing and appealing. It was against the spirit of the game as well.

SJ: You have made your opinions on the DRS clear in saying that the players shouldn't be the ones initiating the review.

"I have absolutely no doubt, especially how things are, that other umpires have been approached [by bookies], because the umpires' decision-making can influence the game massively one way or the other"

JH: The whole idea of the players' challenge is the drama of television. There is an appeal, the umpire has made a decision, then you get a huddle between the fielders and the two batsmen confer. There is a bit of drama. If the umpires are uncertain of what has happened, and if he was allowed to ask the third umpire, "Can you tell me what happened?" I don't think that is as dramatic as the challenge of the fielders or the batsmen.

SJ: You would rather have a situation where we go back to a time where we have no DRS?

JH: Absolutely. You want to train your umpires to be as good as they can be. The umpires have to have that desire to be as good, not just to be in the job earning big money. You are out there under the microscope, the scrutiny of millions of people, you have to do everything, do all you can to be as good as you can be - your physical fitness, knowledge of the game and concentration, etc. I would like to see the game go back to just people playing the game, umpires making decisions and getting on with the game.

SJ: Doesn't the DRS actually bring down player dissent a little bit, because players have a recourse if they felt that they have been given out wrongly or not given correctly?

JH: I umpired 11 Test matches and I don't remember any raw feelings and players being feeling hard done by. I am sure I made mistakes, but I don't remember any instances of dissent. I gave Graham Thorpe lbw in my last Test match, at Lord's. The ball had pitched outside the leg stump. I gave him out lbw. I got it wrong. There was no dissent whatsoever. I think if you have a good relationship with the players and they respect you as umpires, they will accept your decisions.

But I think, as TV technology has improved, there are commentators who like to be controversial. One of the worst around the world, Bob Willis, who after seeing that the umpire has made a decision and then after seeing three or four replays, suddenly says, "That was a shocking decision." Most decent commentators don't talk like that. The commentators only know that the mistake is made because of the TV replays, the ultra-motion replays. Someone as professional as Richie Benaud would say, "I'll play it at normal speed and you make your judgement."

SJ: I interviewed Simon Taufel, who said that the perception of neutrality is very important.

JH: Look, I think that the perception is only a perception because other sports have a so-called "neutral official". The reality is that with the TV technology being as developed as it is, you are earning, let us say £200,000 an year, you cannot afford to go out there on the field making decisions based on bias, on likes or dislikes. You have to be as good as you can be, because if you can't, you are going to lose the job. Umpiring is and should be about excellence.

SJ: Last year, with the IPL, when the spot-fixing scandal broke, there were allegations about Pakistani umpire Asad Rauf, and the year before that there were umpires caught in an Indian TV sting, and the umpires were from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. You said last year in an interview that you were approached in 1993 in Sharjah. Have you heard of other umpires being approached?

JH: Yes. The former South African umpire Cyril Mitchley said that he was approached once and he was offered $100,000 to make sure Pakistan won a Test match against Australia in Lahore. He went on to the field for a pre-match inspection. As he walked off the field, someone approached him and told him that there is $100,000 if Pakistan won the Test match. Knowing Cyril, his response would have been very short and to the point. The second word would probably be "off".

I have absolutely no doubt, especially how things are, that other umpires have been approached, because the umpires' decision-making can influence the game massively one way or the other.

SJ: Are you aware of any safeguards that are put in place for the modern-day umpire to be protected from this?

JH: You can't protect anyone for 24 hours a day. A lot of it is about education, about having pride in yourself, because the reality with this match-fixing thing is that people think that there is easy money. There is no such thing as easy money. Once you get into it, you are into a spider's web. There is every chance that you are going to get found out. People like [Hansie] Cronje and [Mohammad] Azharuddin never thought they were going to get caught. Salman Butt and the others at Lord's never thought they will get caught out. What happens to you is that your reputation, all that you worked hard to achieve in the game, is forgotten and you are remembered as being a cheat.

SJ: There was a ten-year gap in your international umpiring career. In a recent interview you mentioned submitting a match report after that England-West Indies Test in 1991 about ball-tampering going on. You think you not being an umpire in international Test matches was a direct result of you alleging ball-tampering?

JH: I didn't allege. I said plainly that it happened, because I saw it and I reported it. I have no doubt whatsoever that my omission from the Test panel after that Test match - because I had a very good Test match - was because I had reported the English players for ball-tampering. I had a good Test match at The Oval and the press was quite surprised when the Test panel was announced for the 1992 season that I wasn't on it. The former Warwickshire fast-medium bowler Jack Bannister, who was commentating on BBC when it happened, did some digging and found out about the ball-tampering that I had reported. In his book, he mentioned this incident where I got dropped from the Test panel and the surprise that I caused among them in the media. His book was previewed before the start of the 1992 series against Pakistan. The bosses at Lord's were livid. One of them made a statement to the effect that there was never any ball-tampering.

What actually happened was West Indies were batting - this is about 20 minutes before lunch - and struggling. They had lost a couple of wickets in their first innings, facing a pretty big England total. I was at the Vauxhall End and I saw a player walking with his back to me with his elbows working sort of together. I thought that was a curious way of polishing the ball. A couple of overs later, I saw that this persisted. A couple of overs later, after the last ball from my end I asked for the ball. One side of the ball had a dozen big gouge marks, an inch or an inch and a half long, like a player has been using thumbnails. I went to my colleague, Merv Kitchen, who was at square leg, and asked, "What do you think of this ball?" He straightaway said that it has been scratched.

I called the England captain, Graham Gooch, and said, "Captain, one of your players is tampering the ball. This is illegal, and it must stop right now." I regret not changing the ball at that time. I didn't want to cause too much embarrassment. I just thought I would say something. For the rest of the game, I would inspect the ball and the tampering had stopped. We should have applied the law and we should have changed the ball. But the law was a bit wishy-washy. It said that you can change it for one with similar condition. There was no penalty at that time. We agreed that the ball had been tampered with and we should have changed it for an old ball. Then the whole world would have seen what had happened. It meant that the board would not have been able to deny that the ball has been tampered with, because there was my report as well.

SJ: Why didn't you pursue it further, since they were messing with your livelihood?

JH: I hadn't signed a contract to just umpire Test cricket. So I had no right to umpire Test cricket. Every year it was up to the authorities at Lord's to appoint from the first-class umpires on the panel to make a decision on who they were going to pick for umpiring Test cricket. No one had a right to umpire Test cricket.

SJ: You have a match report as well and you had a discussion with captain Graham Gooch on the field.

JH: The match report is confidential and it went to the board. I have no doubt that it was a report, possibly from the England captain, on my performance in that Test match that got me dropped from the Test panel. Just like Darrell Hair got penalised for doing his job properly at The Oval a few years back.

SJ: You were the umpire when Sachin Tendulkar was making his debut against Pakistan in Karachi. And you were the umpire past whom he hit his straight drive to get his first Test hundred at Old Trafford in 1990. I read that you gave him some cricketing advice when he made his debut.

JH: That debut Test match at Karachi, the pitch was one of the greenest pitches I have ever come across. That was designed for Waqar [Younis], who was making his debut as well. All of a sudden Sachin came on against three world-class bowlers on a pitch tailor-made for seam bowlers. He was like a fish out of water. And this ball was whizzing past the nostrils off a length and climbing. He thrashed it around. I think he got around 40 in his first innings, clearly out of his depth. When India came to field, I said to him, "You are playing against the best bowlers in the Test match level now. If you want to score runs, you have to be a little bit more circumspect. Take your time." But I think it was the essence of the occasion, the conditions. He was out of his depth.

It was like an year later [at Old Trafford], but he had gone from being a kid to an adult. He looked completely at ease on the international scene. He batted superbly. I think the run that got him his hundred was an off drive for four. I was at the bowler's end. And then there the tsunami game at Lord's in 2005. He came to raise funds for tsunami victims. Darrell Hair and I umpired it. I had to go into his dressing room to his team. He received me so warmly. "John, it is so nice to see you." And I hadn't seen him for a number of years. He is just a very lovely young man.


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Posted by regofpicton on (March 7, 2014, 0:16 GMT)

Mr Holder makes an important point, and one that had not occurred to me. Like Mr Holder, and most fair-minded fans, I do not think a batsman has any obligation to walk if he nicks the ball. But as Mr Holder says, if he is happy enough to be given not out after getting an edge, he has as obligation to display the same equanimity when given out when he has not touched the ball. Apart from anything else, this would be a cost-free way of bringing a little more courtesy onto the field.

Well said!

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Subash Jayaraman
Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch

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