July 3, 2011

The art of making Taufels

Adam Wakefield
Australian cricket may be under review for its problems, but its umpiring system still serves as a blueprint for the rest of the world

As the game has become more professional, and richer, the pressure on umpires to get it right has risen at a steady pace. Imagine the demands on Simon Taufel and Aleem Dar when umpiring this year's World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka in Mumbai, with thousands in the stadium and over a billion outside it willing the home side on to victory. How does one go about preparing an umpire for a day like the one Taufel and Dar faced? For an answer, Australia would be a good place to look.

Of the 18 officials who did duty at the 2011 World Cup, five were from Australia - the largest representation by any nation on the tournament panel. On the ICC's Elite Umpire panel, four out of 12 are Australian. Clearly they are doing something right, with Taufel having won the ICC Umpire of the Year award five times in succession.

How does the Australian system work, and why is it so successful at producing a relatively high number of top-quality officials? For answers to those questions, I spoke to Denis Burns and Sean Cary, Cricket Australia's Umpire Educator and Umpire Manager respectively.

Cary, a former Western Australia fast bowler with 102 first-class wickets, describes the typical path of an Australian umpire: starting from community cricket, then feeding into the state association programmes and umpire courses on offer. The elite from there are selected for state panels that supply officials for the national CA men's competitions, such as the Under-17 and Under-19 tournaments.

The umpires who progress from there move to CA's emerging umpires' programme, where each umpire is worked with individually. Apart from detailed assessment of their on-field abilities, off-field factors such mental health, nutrition and fitness are all monitored. For example, weight and fluid loss are recorded from game to game, as is the amount an umpire moves. All this data is used to craft a holistic picture of an umpire's performance.

"The game is taken very seriously from community level onwards," says Burns, who worked in umpire education for many years before joining Cricket Australia after the 2008 season. "Umpires who evolve from that system, who also have history of playing in that competitive environment, bring that work ethic with them.

"What we do at Cricket Australia is pick up those guys who are emerging at state level and put sufficient training and support in place to make sure they hit the ground running if the call comes at national or international level."

An advantage Australian umpires have over those from other countries is that their domestic travel schedules are nearly as demanding as international itineraries, as Burns points out. You pass through several time zones when flying from Perth to Adelaide or Melbourne. "We make heavy physical demands in terms of travelling, and if they were not physically fit it would be difficult to cover the lifestyle we impose on them," he says.

Burns believes the approach towards self-assessment that the Australian umpiring system encourages allows officials to reflect on and improve their performances. Self-evaluation is seen as the first step to overcoming barriers. "It's not a non-mistake culture," he says. "They know that if there are mistakes, they are stepping stones in terms of their own learning and they're very open in sharing that."

An important element within the support structure is the five-member Umpire High Performance Panel, which has two key roles at domestic matches - acting as the match referee, and more importantly, assessing the umpires' performance. "They're the mentoring team to our umpires," Cary explains. These are the men who are sounding boards when the umpires need to critique themselves, discuss their issues or problems.

An advantage Australian umpires have over those from other countries is that their domestic travel schedules are nearly as demanding as international itineraries. You pass through several time zones when flying from Perth to Adelaide or Melbourne

And they don't all come from cricketing backgrounds. One member has previous and current experience working with the Australian Football League in referee training and development; another is a former referee from the Australian Rugby Union. This brings a mix of umpiring skills and techniques from different sports to the table.

What makes the process effective is, it is two-way: the umpires also assess the effectiveness of the panel. Burns says the concepts of critiquing and being open to learning something new make have an important role, since "everyone wants to improve their game, but they also know the game changes and people change".

This approach can be seen after every inter-state game, when a member of the panel meets the umpires and captains to discuss issues and concerns from the match. Such an open conversation between umpires and players right after a game, when the emotions are still unchecked, seeks to bring the two parties closer, unlike in the days when the captains and umpires sat in different rooms.

Burns and Cary supervise the Umpire Project Panel, the aim of which is to assist former first-class players who are interested in becoming umpires. Of the project's previous three candidates, Rod Tucker is now a member of the ICC Elite Panel, and Paul Reiffel and Paul Wilson are on Australia's 12-strong national panel. Shawn Craig, currently part of the programme, went from having never umpired before to standing in a second-grade final in his first season.

Keeping former first-class players involved is an important part of Cricket Australia's umpire-retention strategy. Burns explains why former players make good umpires: they are able to go and "meet their mates who are still playing state cricket or even international cricket and say, 'Hey, I might have well given these guys some stick when I was playing but now, on the other side of the fence, I can tell you it is a bloody hard job.'"

Former cricketers bring a level of credibility to umpiring roles based on their history as players, which Burns and Cary believe helps bridge the gap in communication between players and umpires. Ex-players have the advantage of being able to offer a player's point of view on a variety of issues.

Three years ago Cricket Australia introduced a Level 1 umpiring course that focuses not so much on the laws and the fine print of the game as on ensuring that once a person completes the course, he is able to go back to his community to administer a game of cricket such that everyone on the field has fun and enjoys the match. CA hopes that the wider provision of a focused Level 1 course will lead to a higher retention rate, since often the challenge is as much keeping an umpire in the system as it is getting them involved. The board is also looking to offer the course in schools as a supplement, in the hope that it will lead to a new generation of younger umpires, who will pursue the craft seriously later in life.

While the Level 1 programme may still be relatively new, CA values it to the extent that those involved in teaching it are often on the national panel, or former Test umpires, or current members of the ICC Elite Panel. It is not uncommon to hear about Taufel doing a seminar on self-assessment, or former Test umpires Darrell Hair or Dave Orchard speak about the role of the umpire to a group of novices.

In Burns and Cary's view, using such high-level presenters shows CA is serious about attracting new umpires to the game, and about offering an environment where those good enough move through a system designed for the ultimate benefit of officials, players and spectators.

Australian cricket has acknowledged the importance of the continued development of umpires, and through these projects and programmes has evolved its approach to suit the modern game. These programmes, combined with the culture of cricket in the country, have allowed Australian umpires at the international level to have self-belief and to know that they deserve to be there, and belong there.

I took the Level 1 course before meeting Burns and Cary, and now, after hearing their point of view, Australia's continued and evolving success from an officiating standpoint doesn't surprise me at all. It isn't surprising because it is expected.

Adam Wakefield is a freelance journalist from South Africa currently residing in Melbourne who recently took Cricket Australia's Level 1 course for umpires