Darrell Hair September 28, 2006

Nerves of steel and a heart of flint

The life and times of controversial umpire Darrell Hair

Darrell Hair: plunging the cricket world into dismay © Getty Images
Jack Fingleton once jested that Test cricket umpires were the world's most powerful individuals, able with the motion of a finger to send one nation into ecstasy, and pitch another into mourning. It is a job for nerves of steel and a heart of flint - and, whatever else may be said about him, Darrell Hair has both.

The shambling, ursine Hair, from Orange in New South Wales, rose faster through umpiring than through playing ranks. He plateaued as a pace bowler at grade level, and was given the first of his 76 Test appointments at Adelaide in January 1992 three years after his initial appearance in the Sheffield Shield. Hair struck observers at once with his no-nonsense demeanour and cast-iron certainties - in an era, moreover, where the cumulative effects of television, the introduction of the third umpire, and the ICC referee were making umpiring calls look like mere bases for negotiation.

Hair's physique these days has a touch of Warwick Armstrong; so, increasingly, does his insouciance. Just as well: at one time or another, he has aroused the indignation of almost every cricket nation. South Africans sang a song exhorting him to "put your finger elsewhere" after his decisions in the Adelaide Test of January 1994. Englishmen were dumbfounded a year later by his refusal to involve the third umpire in a run-out involving Mark Taylor at Sydney. The replays showed that it was out.

The Indians took such exception to his decision-making when they played New South Wales in Sydney in December 1999 that Sourav Ganguly stood mid-pitch ostentatiously watching replays on the big screen; Ganguly, Venkatesh Prasad, and Javagal Srinath were reported for dissent to the team management ,which declined to act. Hair even tackled West Indian supporters who stormed onto the ground at Antigua when Brian Lara passed the Test record score the first time. "Darrell Hair was flapping because the crowd were running all over the pitch," recalls Mike Atherton in Opening Up. "He grabbed the spectator nearest to him by the scruff of the neck and gave him a roasting."

Hair's rigid, perhaps puritan, stance on Law 24 also alienated the Sri Lankans, for his public proscription of Muttiah Muralitharan in the Boxing Day Test of 1995; had the Zimbabweans puzzled by his calling Grant Flower in September 2000; and the Pakistanis aggrieved even before the Oval Test by his querying the actions of Shoaib Akhtar in November 1999 and Shabbir Ahmed in January 2004. "You're messing with my career, Darrell," complained Mark Ramprakash after Hair had given him out caught at the wicket at Lord's eight years ago.

The burden of potentially having done so, however, does not worry Hair. He has become, in fact, rather more an umpires' umpire than a players' umpire, supported by his brethren, if not by the administrators. "Darrell's opportunities for umpiring on the international circuit have been severely restricted - and his earning capacity reduced," wrote David Shepherd in his autobiography Shep. "To me, he's a strong, courageous and very good international umpire."

As evinced by his own autobiography Decision Maker, Hair is not just strong on the field; he also knows no inhibition where his public criticisms are concerned. Not only did he criticise Muralitharan for a "diabolical action", but also the Sri Lankan team for being "determined to isolate and intimidate me", and the ICC and the Australian Cricket Board for not standing four-square behind him.

He further irked his employers when he challenged members of the Pakistan team management, before the CUB Series in January 2000, to stand behind imputations of racism made against Australian officials. Squeezed out from the inaugural Elite umpiring panel in 2002, he was nonetheless squeezed back in when the panel was expanded the following year.

In the wake of incidents at the Oval, Hair signified a new approach by offering to resign in return for a severance payment. Its outcome was no more satisfactory, and in some respects less: the ICC piously released the contents of his emails. In fact, they revealed nothing except that Hair does feel the public odium, and that the modern umpire is a man under pressures unimaginable a generation ago.

One of the most memorable episodes in Hair's career was umpiring in Dickie Bird's final Test, at Lord's in July 1996, with its lavish displays of public and professional affection. In the age of umpiring "entertainers" like Bird and Billy Bowden, Hair's manner of officiating can look old-fashioned. He isn't pally with players. He has no endearing mannerisms, like Srinivas Venkataraghavan's chain-flush out or Steve Bucknor's nod. But he has taken Fingleton's jest a little further, for with a gesture of his hands he was able to plunge the cricket world into dismay.

This piece appeared in the August issue of Cricinfo Magazine To subscribe to Cricinfo Magazine, click here.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer