A brush-up for the white coats
Umpires in India have for long been only thought of once a year, when new entrants to the ICC's Elite panel are named. The rest of the time they are damned and laughed at. And then a new season starts, where the umpiring standards are the same. Since Srinivas Venkataraghavan retired in January 2004, no Indian umpire has made it to the Elite panel; no one has come close to doing so.
The coming season, though, has the potential to be a watershed year for Indian umpires, thanks to a number of initiatives that the BCCI has lined up aimed at improving their lot. The biggest challenge facing the board, and the umpires themselves, will be to eliminate the scepticism that has built up over the years of neglect.
Earlier this season Venkat, now the director of umpiring in India, made a trip to Australia to see how the system there worked. He came back impressed. What followed was a contract between the Indian board and Cricket Australia for CA to help develop a system in India that would ensure a consistent supply of good umpires. Among other improvements: all senior matches in India are to be video-recorded here on in, thus helping make the appraisal of umpires' performances a more objective process than the existing one, which is based on captains' and match referees' reports.
The board also arranged a seminar in Bangalore for the 105 umpires who officiate in first-class matches in India. The star speaker was Simon Taufel, the ICC's Umpire of the Year for the last three years running, who spent two days with each of three batches of 35 umpires.
Did Taufel think the Indians were as bad as their distance from the elite panel suggests? "They are good in terms of the knowledge of the law," he says. "I am very impressed by their willingness to learn. But they need to be supported by practical training, a proper assessment system, and the knowledge that the best will get to the top."
What struck Taufel most was the underlying scepticism with the system. "Just like players who are dropped and promoted on the basis of performance, the umpires need to be rewarded or punished. They feel there is no feedback for them. They don't know how the matches are allotted."
To elaborate: Ranji Trophy matches are usually awarded in an ad hoc manner by the joint secretary of the cricket board, based on assessments made during previous matches. It is a system that breeds disillusionment. Maninder Singh, for example, who took the exams necessary to qualify as an umpire, quit because he couldn't be bothered to "butter up" board officials to get games. "Umpires shouldn't be left at the mercy of board officials who don't know anything about umpiring," Maninder said.
Lack of feedback about performance is another area of concern. K Hariharan, who was formerly on the ICC's International Panel, agrees that it is easy to become sceptical after a while. "In our system, feedback is very, very poor. We keep thinking we are doing things right until proven wrong. But there is nobody to do that, and hence there is no room for improving."
The new video-based review system will help, no doubt, in better assessment. But there's rather more to umpiring, as Taufel points out. The ICC judges umpires on decision-making, match management, communication and team work, professionalism, preparation; and fitness, diet and appearance. "The other five will automatically lead to better decision-making," Taufel says.
I don't look at the big screen. Once you have made the best possible decision, there's no point looking back. Always look ahead. At the next delivery
CA's objective is to set up a system in India that is not identical to the Australian one but one that suits the idiosyncrasies of Indian cricket. Under the Australian system there is one central umpiring officer, six umpiring coaches (one for each state), and independent selectors to allot matches. The coaches watch every ball of domestic cricket in their states and the umpires are then told where they stand. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and what the scope for improvement is.
"We will send a proposal to the BCCI on how we intend to work," says Taufel. "The umpires need to tell themselves that the board has made a big investment. And given their enthusiasm, their knowledge of the law, things should improve in due time."
"The focus of the camp was mainly on professionalism, on practical training, and how to deal with difficult conditions," Hariharan says. Among the difficult conditions these days is the technology that has put umpires under the scanner more than ever. What is Taufel's take on this aspect of umpiring?
"Technology is both good and bad," he says. "It shows up the umpires, but at the same times provides opportunities to improve." And what when the big screen at the ground shows replays? "I don't look at the big screen. That's what I have told them [at the seminar]. Once you have made the best possible decision, there's no point looking back. Always look ahead. At the next delivery."
Starting this season, the umpires' assessment process in India is likely to do away with the captains' reports. Also, match referees are to be specially instructed to be objective, and about ten umpiring coaches are to be appointed to monitor domestic matches across the various centres. These coaches will provide feedback both to the board and the umpires and act as the vital missing link.
These, if implemented, will be big steps for the Indian board. No matter what the failures of the past may have been, big steps are being taken. It is time to look ahead and onwards.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine