Umpires under fire December 11, 2003

Gunning for the men in white

Being an umpire is no picnic at the best of times, what with the endless television replays and commentators eager to scrutinise every decision, but the last few days have seen them under attack across the world

Daryl Harper: under pressure
© Getty Images

Being an umpire is no picnic at the best of times, what with the endless television replays and commentators eager to scrutinise every decision, but the last few days have seen them under attack across the world.

It all started in Australia when Steve Bucknor, hitherto regarded as one of the best in the world, made a poor decision in the opening Test between Australia and India at Brisbane. To err is human, but to forgive (as far as the media are concerned) was apparently not an option when the victim of his mistake was Sachin Tendulkar.

The reaction was out of proportion to the crime, with Bucknor savaged by all and sundry. It was one mistake in a match which was drifting towards a draw. It was a poor decision, yes. But his record remains excellent, and while he admitted that "everyone makes mistakes including myself", he added that he had not become a bad umpire overnight.

Barely had the fuss over that decision died down than Daryl Harper was under the spotlight - before the match in which he was officiating (the second Test between Sri Lanka and England at Kandy) had even started. The local Island newspaper slammed Harper for his errors in recent months - especially his refusal to uphold two confident shouts against Brian Lara when the Sri Lankans were in the Caribbean in June.

The pre-game sniping made it almost inevitable that he would be singled out for attention, and by the close of the first day the journalists were in overdrive. "Does the ICC think that Harper is indispensable," spluttered The Island, "or do they have double standards on the reports of the captains? Or is it that the ICC has double standards for Asian and non-Asian umpires?"

The articles conveniently overlooked the fact that Harper had turned down two seemingly plumb leg-before shouts against Sanath Jayasuriya shortly before lunch - perhaps it would have weakened the assault on his alleged anti-Sri Lankan bias. At least the local crowds haven't taken to burning effigies and staging protests outside the ground as they did last time England were here ... not yet, anyway.

Sachin Tendulkar pads up, Steve Bucknor gives him out, and the furore starts
© Getty Images

At the same time another official - this time Darrell Hair, no stranger to controversy - was under the spotlight two days before he was due to stand in the opening Test between South Africa and West Indies at Johannesburg.

Hair rubbed the South Africans up the wrong way during their recent tour of Pakistan when some supposedly questionable decisions ended up with Andrew Hall being suspended and Shaun Pollock fined. Local papers increased the pressure with comments that Hair appeared to be "out to get the South Africans".

Eric Simons, South Africa's coach, said that his side had no issues with Hair, but added that he had asked for a pre-match meeting to "to get clarity on exactly what will be permissible and what not. We want to know where the line will be drawn from a disciplinary point of view. There should be no grey areas to cause uncertainty." One can't help feeling that the media will be waiting, pens poised, for the first sign that Hair has got something wrong before unleashing more vitriol.

The no-win position of the umpires was highlighted when Muttiah Muralitharan was bowled on the second morning at Kandy. The ball clipped the top of the off bail and neither official was sure if it had hit the stumps or whether Chris Read's wicketkeeping gloves had dislodged the bail. After a delay, the matter was referred to the third umpire, who quickly sorted the situation out. Given that a favourite whinge is that more decisions aren't adjudged by TV replay, surely this was a case of common sense prevailing to get the right outcome? Not a bit of it. Cue the commentators lambasting the umpires for referring something they shouldn't have. Damned if you do ...

Without doubt, umpiring international cricket is one of the most stressful - and lonely - occupations. But to be at their best, officials need to be relaxed and at ease with themselves. The constant sniping makes for good copy and helps to fill the drinks breaks and moments between overs, but it is going to make any umpire start questioning their own ability - and that's when the mistakes will come.