The Friday column December 9, 2005

Overdose for the officials

If you thought the players were the only ones suffering from a packed itinerary, take a look at the plight of the elite umpires

Billy Bowden: the busiest umpire over the last two years © Getty Images

The last month hasn't been a good one for the ICC's elite panel of umpires. First, Darrell Hair and Simon Taufel copped plenty of flak for some contentious decisions in the Pakistan-England series, none more controversial than Inzamam-ul-Haq's run-out in the second Test at Faisalabad, when it was clear to all that Inzamam was only taking evasive action. Then, West Indies' dissatisfaction with the decision-making skills of Aleem Dar, Rudi Koertzen, Billy Bowden and Ian Howell resulted in an official complaint being filed by the board against the umpiring in the Test series in Australia. All the officials involved were among the cream of the crop, yet their performance was far from satisfactory. International players have often complained about a drop in performance levels due to overwork - any chance the umpires suffer from a similar affliction?

The top players in the world typically play around 70-90 days in a year, thanks to the ICC's ten-year programme. Ricky Ponting, for instance, has taken the field 85 times since January 2005, and with a couple of Tests coming up this month, that figure could go up to 95. Billy Bowden, by comparison, has completed 68 days and, with an assignment in Delhi coming up, could have spent 73 days officiating international cricket by the time this year is done. (It could have been even more - Bowden officiated in 12 Tests and 21 ODIs - had all those Tests gone the full five days.) Given that, unlike the players, the umpires are on the field for the entire duration of the game, surely they need a lighter schedule than that.

It's impossible to determine if the fatigue factor is responsible for some of the errors they have committed, but it isn't inconceivable that the sheer number of matches - not to mention the criss-crossing around the globe - takes its toll. The situation has further worsened after the retirement of David Shepherd, who officiated in his last international match earlier this year. The ICC hasn't yet named his replacement, which means the elite panel is struggling with just seven members.

The table below offers the list of the umpires who have been the busiest this year, and the number of days they have officiated. Billy Bowden would have officiated an amazing 73 days if the India-Sri Lanka Test at Delhi goes the distance, ten more than Steve Bucknor and Aleem Dar.

Busiest umpires in 2005
Tests + ODIs Days officiated
Billy Bowden 12 + 21 73
Steve Bucknor 12 + 9 63
Aleem Dar 11 + 14 63
Rudi Koertzen 10 + 16 61
Simon Taufel 9 + 11 52
Darrell Hair 10 + 8 51
Daryl Harper 7 + 17 43

It's also interesting to note just how much the workload for umpires has increased over the years: in the four years between 1996 and 1999, Steve Bucknor officiated a total of 171 days - that's 43 days a year - while for Shepherd the total was only 130 days, that's 32.5 per year. Compare that with Bowden's 73 in 2005, and you realise just how much tougher life has become for the umpire - and that's without even going into the added pressure thanks to the trial by technology. And while 2005 was a busy year for the elite umpires, 2004 wasn't any easier - Bowden spent 75 days in the field, while for Koertzen and Bucknor those numbers were 71 and 70. The table below lists the busiest umpires over the five-year period starting from 1980.

Busiest umpires - 1980-2000
Period Umpire Tests + ODIs Days officiated per year
1996-99 Steve Bucknor 27+45 42.75
1996-99 David Shepherd 21+33 32.50
1991-95 Brian Aldridge 19+30 24.20
1991-95 Steve Bucknor 18+23 21.80
1986-90 Tony Crafter 13+44 21.00
1986-90 Peter McConnell 13+34 19.20
1981-85 Mel Johnson 17+35 23.20
1981-85 Tony Crafter 12+29 17.60

The table illustrates just how overworked the umpires have become - from officiating just about 22 days in the 1980s, the workload has gone up threefold to around 70 days today. Dickie Bird, for example, officiated a total of 167 days between 1981 and 1990 - that's 16.7 days per year. Mel Johnson, the Australian umpire, was the busiest of the lot between 1981 and 1985, and his schedule was a relatively light 23 days per year. (Those were the days when third-country umpires hadn't yet made an entry into international cricket.) In fact, till the 1991-95 period, the workload on umpires was fairly easy. Then, the ICC came up with their ten-year schedule and third-country umpires became mandatory for Tests and then ODIs, leading to a much busier itinerary for the select few. Fitness has increasingly become the mantra for cricketers; given this exacting schedule, the new-age umpire will need to focus just as much on fitness as on decision-making skills.

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo. For some of the stats he was helped by Arun Gopalakrishnan in the Chennai office.