January 9, 2008

Bucknor's blackballing bodes badly

What will the dumping of umpire Steve Bucknor mean for attracting umpires in the future?



Has Steve Bucknor (left) umpired his last match? © Getty Images
 
To lose one elite umpire could be considered unfortunate, but two in the space of 16 months smacks of extreme carelessness. First there was Darrell Hair, banished from the top table following his bust-up with Pakistan at The Oval in 2006. Now it's the turn of the most experienced man of the lot, Steve Bucknor, who's paid the price for an error-strewn showing at Sydney.

He's umpired in a record 120 Tests, as well as five World Cup finals, but Bucknor's future is uncertain to say the least. Like Hair, he has attracted the opprobrium of a powerful member of the Asian bloc, but unlike Hair, his blackballing doesn't even come with the proviso that his actions were correct within the letter of the law. Instead, in the opinion of the BCCI, his crime was "incompetence" and even allowing for the shrill levels of outrage that have been doing the rounds this week, you'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

On one level, Bucknor's removal from next week's Perth Test is a blessing. His presence on the field would have been a distraction, and the scrutiny to which he would have been subjected would have been unbearable even for a man of his vast experience - umpires are only human, as this week's events have overwhelmingly demonstrated. Malcolm Speed's explanation of the ICC's decision was that it would "alleviate the tension".

Sanity in the short-term, however, is a heavy price to pay for the precedent that this decision sets. Only 24 hours earlier, the ICC reiterated that there would be no change to the umpiring appointments for the Perth Test. A spokesman even invoked clause 3.1.7 of the playing conditions that both teams signed ahead of the series: "Neither team will have a right of objection to an umpire's appointment."

That ruling is up in smoke now, sacrificed on the altar of expediency as is too often the case in cricket's convoluted world. The BCCI have expressed satisfaction with the outcome, as well they might, although arrogantly, their sights have already been on what they describe as the bigger issue, the racism charge that has been levelled against Harbhajan Singh. Bucknor doesn't even get to be the main event in his hour of humiliation. Instead he has been left with his wings clipped in a hotel-room in Sydney, waiting to be whisked away from the mayhem.

At the age of 61, there's no knowing whether he'll be back, or whether he'll want to be back. There has long been a suspicion that his best days of officialdom are behind him - India still hasn't forgiven him for an lbw decision against Sachin Tendulkar at Brisbane in 2003-04 - but for the rest of the world, the overwhelming evidence was provided at the World Cup final in Barbados in April. Admittedly, he was just one of five men to concoct that particular farce, although it was his passivity as the senior on-field umpire that truly exacerbated the situation.

This isn't how he deserves to go out, however, nor how the game should wish him to go either, given the dread it will instill in anyone who dares to follow in his footsteps. Mark Benson is counting his blessings not to have been scheduled to stand at Perth (although his card is clearly marked), while even an ego the size of Billy Bowden's will surely house one or two fears when he steps out to replace Bucknor at the WACA.

Even so, the madness of the past week does seem to be drawing to a close. The flames of righteous indignation are beginning to die down, and while it is hardly the ideal solution, Brad Hogg's tit-for-tat citation for the use of the word "bastard" (a term of endearment in Aussie circles, a term of grievous insult among Indians) could yet be the filter through which Harbhajan's alleged monkey slur can be seen for the naïve, unthinking remark that it surely was.

But the forensic teams will be sifting through the charred remains of this contest for several weeks and months yet. What will become abundantly clear is the need for greater protection for the next generation of umpires - which means more recourse to replays, more breaks between games, and more respect from the players, some of whom made a mockery of the spirit of the game at Sydney.

But before that can happen, the replacements for stalwarts such as Bucknor need to be identified and nurtured, and it's not immediately obvious where they will come from. Tellingly, for all its riches, passion and power, India has not produced a top-class official since Srinivas Venkataraghavan. It's become clearer this week why that is the case. It's a mug's game in this modern world, where a billion armchair critics are better informed than the men out in the middle. In a week of madness, that's possibly the maddest thing of all.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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