128 and done
Steve Bucknor is like a walking, talking slow-motion replay. For 20 years batsmen the world over have failed to find the fast-forward button to skip through the agonising pauses before his nod of the head and raise of the finger. It's no surprise that he has thrived in a sport where games can last five days.
But what is unexpected, or even unbelievable, is what he plans to do when he retires from umpiring international cricket this month. As he sits awkwardly on a low-slung couch, his long limbs skewed at all angles while he reluctantly reflects on a record-breaking career, Bucknor sparks up when he explains that he is working to become the Usain Bolt of senior citizens.
"I am now in the process of preparing for a track meet in July, believe it or not," he says with a wry smile. "Every year there's one over-60s track meet in Jamaica. I do sprints. From childhood days I was an athlete. Running is a part of me."
Whoa there, Steve, back up a minute. Sprints? Seriously?
"I do 200 metres, 400 metres, I am part of the relay quartet, 4x50 and 4x100. I also throw discus and shot."
It's a strange mental picture, "Slow Death" Bucknor on the starting line, flying out of the blocks. Everything about him seems weary, from his languid lope onto the field at the start of play to the nerve-fraying trademark pause before sending a batsman on his way.
There are those who believe it's an affectation designed to draw notice to himself, but it's clear the last thing Bucknor wants is to be the centre of attention. At 62 he is many things but not a showman. As he sits in his Cape Town hotel, his floppy white hat on the sofa next to him like a security blanket, he speaks softly and rarely makes eye contact.
When he hesitates after an appeal it's not because he wants to show off, nor does he wish to make the batsman sweat. It's because he is looking for every possible justification to give the batsman a reprieve.
"There's a routine. As a youngster I started umpiring as a protector of batsmen because I got so many bad decisions," he said. "My thoughts before making a decision: I am trying to find every reason to say not out.
"When that has expired, when there is nothing to say that he is not out, then I make my decision to say out. I am never truly happy to say that's out. I'd rather look it over, I have my [mental] replays. I think about it and I will linger a little bit longer. I am trying to say not out every time."
It's a technique that has served him well. No umpire has stood in more Tests than the 128 Bucknor will finish with after his final appearance, in Thursday's South Africa-Australia match at Newlands. He has officiated in a record five World Cup finals and his first, in 1992, was his proudest moment in cricket. He entered the tournament as the least experienced umpire and earned his stripes through consistent strong performances.
Since 1994, when the neutral umpire system was introduced and the ICC established an international panel, Bucknor has been more or less permanently on the road. For long periods at a time, particularly over the southern hemisphere's summer, when most cricketing nations host matches, home for Bucknor is a series of hotel rooms and his "family" consists of the handful of other Elite Panel umpires who are in the same boat. It takes a certain type of person to handle the lifestyle.
"I am one who stays indoors a lot. I watch a lot of television, I do some writing. I am the loner [of the panel]. A big loner," Bucknor says with a grin. "It gets lonely but this has been my life. If you are a professional, you go to work. You need to take home money to your family to make sure certain things are taken care of. For that reason my family was the most important for me staying [in the job] this long."
And quite a family it is. Bucknor has raised seven children back home in Jamaica, and the youngest is only 13. One son, Sean, is now a professional soccer player in the US, following a sporting career similar to his father's, who before he concentrated solely on cricket umpiring also refereed a FIFA World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles.
That was back in 1988, the year before Bucknor stood in his first Test and one-day international matches. Back then there was no third umpire to help judge line calls, and replays, if shown to the viewers at home, were generally not analysed over and over to find any hint that the umpire was wrong. It's a new trend that clearly gnaws away at Bucknor.
"No, they don't understand," Bucknor says, when asked if the public realised how hard it was to umpire at international level. "What you have most times, you have a few million armchair umpires who know if your decision is correct because they see 10 replays at super-slow motion, from different angles. The umpire sees it from one spot at normal speed. He has to decide there and then.
"Even commentators who think that they know so much about cricket, they are so critical of umpires. Some of them [say], no that is wrong, but this is after they have seen 10 replays. The job is a difficult one, and sometimes made more difficult by the comments from these personalities on television and radio."
Things haven't gotten any easier for Bucknor in the past couple of years. He was one of the on-field umpires responsible for the bad-light fiasco in the 2007 World Cup final, and his career hit a trough after the controversy of the Sydney Test between Australia and India less than a year later. Bucknor made some incorrect decisions in that game and after the Indian board demanded his head, he was stood down by the ICC for the next Test, in Perth.
"I have made mistakes and this is a part of life," Bucknor said. "How you see things at that time, you rule on it. So I do not regret making mistakes because if I regret making mistakes then I am going to regret being a human being.
"I believe if you are correct 95% of the time it's seen to be okay, which means 19 out of 20 correct. So you try your best to be correct every time. But there are times when things happen that you don't see, you don't know, and mistakes are made."
It's a philosophical Steve Bucknor who leaves international cricket after two decades. His final appearances will be in the one-day internationals between West Indies and England on March 27 and 29. He knows his body is still up to the rigours of the game; he simply feels that he's had enough. A former maths teacher, he has ambitions to become a regional umpires manager in the Caribbean.
"It doesn't bother me," he said of retiring from umpiring. "It's a matter of where will I earn my next salary."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo