The Thursday column January 15, 2004

Spare the umpire

If Steve Bucknor is looking for some R & R, he should strike India off his list of possible destinations

Wearing the umpire's hat isn't easy
© Getty Images

If Steve Bucknor is looking for some R&R after he is through with his job in the VB Series, he should strike India off his list of possible destinations. His notoriety has spread so far and so wide that he will struggle to find a corner in this vast cricket-crazy nation where he will not be heckled. He fell in India's esteem the moment he handed out that dubious lbw decision against Sachin Tendulkar at the Gabba, and since then his stock has continued to sink. Consumed by nationalist fervour, television channels and the newspapers in India have painted him as the great denier. Some newspapers have even moved their focus to the umpiring community in general, and some of it would lead the innocents to believe that umpires have been conspiring against India for years.

The truth is that Bucknor has had a bad series. Like every human being, he is entitled to be fallible. Players make more mistakes than umpires. Tendulkar did few things right till the last Test, Ricky Ponting dropped three catches, and Rahul Dravid once ran Sourav Ganguly out. Umpires, you could argue, are paid to make the right decisions. But players are paid even more to score runs and take wickets, and yet we are infinitely more tolerant of their failures. Possibly it is because umpires are not joy-givers, and they are seen more as spoilers and positions of authority that we are naturally inclined to rebel against.

However, this is not to suggest that umpires should be beyond reproach. Like players, they too must be judged by performance and form, and those who make consistently poor decisions should be eased out. It is quite possible that Bucknor's best years are behind him, and if his decline is linked to advancing years, then it's a matter that needs addressing. But umpiring is one of the toughest jobs in cricket, and they must be spared the vilification which might discourage honourable people from taking to umpiring.

It is ironic, but not surprising, that the truly aggrieved are in fact more accepting of umpiring mistakes. Perhaps because they have an acute comprehension of the difficulties of the task, players are able to be stoical about wrong decisions, unless they detect malice.

Most umpires recognise the thanklessness of their task and live in the knowledge that they will often be judged by their mistakes rather than successes. The umpire has been an integral part of the game since its inception, but rarely would you find a eulogy for him in cricket literature. Cricket writers' prose never extends to describing how magnificently an umpire managed to transfer his attention from the bowler's front foot to the business end within a millisecond and, amid a cacophony of noise, detected the thinnest of nicks to rule the batsman not out to an lbw appeal that had looked perfectly legitimate. Those who we anoint as our sporting gods, we forgive a thousand indiscretions, but it is the fate of the umpire to be roasted on the pulpit for every lapse, as if to be an umpire is to not be human.

It is possible that over-reaction to batsmen given out wrongly can make umpires over-cautious, for it is the privilege of batsmen to receive the benefit of the doubt. Was it a coincidence that Bucknor was decidedly reticent about handing out leg-before decisions after the Tendulkar lbw which occupied more newspaper columns than the day's play? It can be argued that umpires should not allow criticism to dictate their responses on the field, but to expect them to be completely inured to the broader society is unreasonable.

All this brings us to the question of whether they should be provided with the same technological aids that expose their decisions to scrutiny by the rest of the world. Technology has, after all, been used satisfactorily for adjudging run-outs and stumpings, and umpires periodically seek help to determine fours and sixes.

It is relevant to point out, though, that all of the above involve line decisions where the television camera is able to provide incontrovertible pictorial evidence. No foolproof method has yet emerged to ascertain nicks and catches close to the ground. That leaves the lbw, the most complex and contentious mode of dismissal in cricket. Plenty of television channels use a technology called Hawk-Eye which is able to track the assumed path of the ball, using a fairly comprehensible mapping technology. Former cricketers and commentators who have debunked this technology out of hand have probably not studied it at all.

There are two big issues, however. The technology can track the path of the ball accurately only if it has travelled about two feet after pitching, and unlike the umpire, it will not grant the batsman the benefit of the doubt. Also, it can not detect a nick. So while the umpire can get a decision with this within two seconds, he will still have to make a call based on his eyes and ears, and his understanding of late swing.

The bigger question is whether cricket needs it. Beyond the compellingly romantic belief that the subjectivity of an lbw decision actually enhances the beauty of cricket, is cricket ready for, provided a perfect technology was developed to hand out foolproof lbws, a paradigm shift? The lbw is not as rare a mode of dismissal as the run-out or the stumping, and cricket, since its very inception, has been played under the premise that the batsman gets the benefit of the doubt. Now, if every marginal decision went against the batsman, the equation of the game would change so dramatically that it could become a different game, with the past becoming irrelevant. Is it worth it? Would life be as beautiful without its imperfections? Let the umpire be, let's get on with cricket.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket and Wisden Cricinfo in India. His Indian View will appear here every Thursday.