2001 July 2, 2011

BC Cooray's nightmare

In early 2001 an umpire united both sides as well as spectators in agreement that his officiating was atrocious

While the increasing use of technology has reduced some of the uncertainty about umpiring decisions in high-level matches, there are still occasional moans and groans. But in early 2001, BC Cooray, an experienced Sri Lankan umpire, managed something rare in the game. He united both sides in the series between Sri Lanka and England, and also the spectators, who all agreed his umpiring was atrocious.

The 59-year-old Cooray was widely regarded as being a competent umpire - he had stood in 20 Tests going into the 2000-01 series in Sri Lanka - and while nobody had any real concerns when he was appointed for the second Test, he was not popular. "He always looks down on the players and is very bossy, always telling us how to play the game," one England player said before the series. Another privately added: "He is too stubborn. Everyone makes mistakes, but BC Cooray never admitted to making them."

Sri Lanka thrashed England by an innings in the opening Test, in Galle. The scale of the defeat meant England were in no position to moan about the officiating. Journalists from both sides agreed both umpires - Kandy-born Peter Manuel and Arani Jayaprakash from India - had dreadful games, but rightly, coverage centred on Sri Lanka's victory.

At least seven of the dismissals were dubious or downright poor, although that was balanced by two shockers that should have been given out. By the time a thick edge from Craig White was caught at silly point, as England stared down the barrel, there was no way the batsman was going to walk, and so he stayed. Jayaprakash corrected that mistake within the over, when he gave White leg-before to a full-toss that struck him well outside the line of off stump. A vociferous crowd, aided by the endless replays they were able to see, as there were televisions in the stands, jeered.

For the second Test, in Kandy, Cooray and South Africa's Rudi Koertzen were the chosen officials, and it was Koertzen who made the first howler, giving Kumar Sangakkara out caught in the gully when the ball clearly came off his forearm.

When England batted, it was Cooray who took centre stage. Early on, he reprieved Mike Atherton when he appeared to be trapped plumb leg-before, and crucially turned down three confident appeals against Nasser Hussain, who went on to make a match-winning hundred ("four cast-iron outs according to England dressing room", wrote Alec Stewart).

By the time Cooray refused what seemed to be an obvious return catch to Muttiah Muralitharan by Graeme Hick, it appeared his confidence was shot, although he later denied this. Hick, meanwhile, triggered in the first Test, was in no mood to help out; he stood his ground and survived.

"In any Test match there is pressure, especially for the home umpire," Cooray said. "Even when the crowd started to protest, the pressure did not affect me. Over the years I have grilled my mind and learnt how to shut out the exterior influences and focus solely on the ball."

Most observers disagreed. "He looks shot to pieces, battered down by the relentless pressure placed on him by the players of both sides and the cruel dissection and exposure that comes from television analysis," the Sun noted. "By even a reasonable count, the incorrect decisions in this match have gone eight to one in favour of England, all but the first by Cooray."

Such was the level of mistrust in the decision-making among both sets of players, neither was prepared to offer any help to the umpires. At one stage a catch was taken at silly point and the appeal was turned down. At the end of the over, a fielder asked the batsman if he had hit it. "Yes, of course I did," he replied. "Never mind. Better luck next time." A local newspaper led with the headline: "Cooray bats for England".

With the crowd on his back - banners appeared on the third day, lampooning him as "Bad Call" Cooray - and the local media demanding his head, it was perhaps unsurprising that things only got worse.

With Sri Lanka 90 runs behind on the first innings, much depended on Sanath Jayasuriya; more so after Marvan Atapattu's dismissal in the first over.

Jayasuriya pushed at the first ball he faced, a wide, low full-toss from Andy Caddick, and got a thick edge into the ground. The ball ballooned into the air and Graham Thorpe took a diving catch at slip. The England players started celebrating as a genuinely bemused Jayasuriya stood his ground. Cooray then walked over to Koertzen and, after a brief chat, raised his finger. "Even we were a little bit embarrassed about that one," admitted Stewart.

An incredulous Jayasuriya approached Koertzen at square leg to try to get the decision overturned, before eventually trudging off, his mood hardly helped by jeering from the large contingent of England supporters. As he reached the edge of the pitch he hurled his helmet across the boundary. TV viewers, meanwhile, were treated to replays showing the ball had bounced a good foot after hitting the bat.

Cooray characteristically later denied the blame. "I had my doubts about the catch, but Koertzen had no doubts and I therefore had no other option but to give Sanath out." He also claimed he had asked the ICC to allow replays to help with bump balls but that his request had been denied. In fact, had he and Koertzen been unsure, the regulations did allow a third-umpire referral.

The unsavoury nature of the day continued as Atherton and Sangakkara engaged in a heated finger-wagging face-off after Atherton claimed Sangakkara called the England team cheats.

At the close, Cooray and Koertzen had to be given an escort from the field. England went on to win a tight match by three wickets after being set a target of 161, but Cooray still had one last trick up his sleeve, when he gave Alec Stewart lbw to a ball pitching outside leg stump.

"I had many sleepless nights after that Test," Cooray said. "It was terrible, so unfortunate, easily the worst game that I have ever had in my 23-year career. No umpire goes into a match prepared to make mistakes, but a lot of them happened. It just happens, like it did to Peter Manuel in the first Test."

At the post-match presentations, supporters of both sides yelled for him to be named Man of the Match, and shortly afterwards he needed protection as he left the ground. By that time news had been leaked that he had been dropped for the final Test, and his retirement was confirmed soon after. "His final vestiges of dignity were stripped away by leaks from the Sri Lankan umpires committee, placing the blame at his door," the Sunday Herald said.

Cooray, wrote the Guardian, "looked a forlorn figure as he sat hunched in the umpires' room after England's victory… [but] the question lingered why Rudi Koertzen's errors were replayed by Sky TV once or twice whereas Cooray's were barely off the screen".

"Some of the lads reckoned the umpires had made at least 15 major errors in that match," Stewart said. "Even though the majority favoured us, it was a little disturbing."

Atherton, writing soon after in Wisden Cricket Monthly, pulled no punches. "It's really ridiculous that a game which brings in millions of pounds accepts amateurish standards from the officials who run the game. Both teams felt a little hollow at the end."

As the dust settled, attention turned from the umpiring to the conduct of the players, which had, egged on by a complete lack of trust in the officials, turned into something close to cricketing anarchy.

Almost nobody came out of the series well. Players from both sides were fined and warned, the credibility of officials was shredded, and the ICC, not for the first or last time, was accused of failing to act. It was roundly slammed for its immediate reaction, which was simply to consider a ban of televisions inside grounds.

The only good thing to emerge was the speeding up of the move towards the full implementation of independent ICC umpires to all Tests, and also increased calls to use technology more to help them.

What happened next?

  • England won the third Test by four wickets to take the series 2-1
  • The ICC introduced its Elite panel of umpires in 2002, with two independent umpires for Tests and one independent and one home one for ODIs

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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