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

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? Email us with your comments and suggestions.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 5, 2011, 15:04 GMT

    It is unacceptable..Martin, you are entitled to remind cricket lovers about a good piece of cricket happened in yester-years.. mocking someone who is 70 years now for a few days of lapses he had in 2001 is unacceptable...he might have had a medical condition unknown to you, to the world or to himself...

  • al on July 3, 2011, 22:11 GMT

    @Isaac_7: Do you see contradictions in your own comment ?

  • Clive on July 3, 2011, 21:15 GMT

    If memory serves, BC Cooray served as the third umpire in the final test in Colombo -- and managed to get wrong the only important decision he had to make in that match too. However, he wasn't the only one -- the umpiring was atrocious in all three tests (e.g. Nasser being given out at Galle off a ball he middled to the boundary). The officials at Galle were appalling, and S.A. umpire David Orchard made some wrong calls in the final test too. I think general umpiring standards have improved out of all recognition since those days, and the DRS puts right the real shockers. A big thing was made about Cooray's howlers because they tended to favour England, whereas the other officials' blunders favoured Sri Lanka. Accusations of bias were unseemly -- Cooray was just incompetent.

  • LAVIGNE on July 3, 2011, 20:08 GMT

    India have won the WC and are leading the rankings for Test cricket ! But it is very strange that there is NO indian UMPIRE in the elite panel ! Why ? Are Indian umpires so unfit that none can sustain the rigours of International Test matches ? Or may be they do not like to travel ! There is a single Indian match referee (J Srinath).

  • Pratheep on July 3, 2011, 19:40 GMT

    There was this Sri Lankan Umpire Dooland Buultjens along with B C Cooray, whose bad decisions in Sharjah odi series made India stay away from Sharjah for few years. Although, India suspected much more than mere bad umpiring. Among, the Sri Lankan umpires officiated Tests and ODIs since 1982 to 1995 K T Francis was the reasonable one. All others were below par. Oh there was this TM Samarasinghe who always plays safe - you wouldn't get a LBW decision from him.

  • Dummy4 on July 3, 2011, 17:52 GMT

    So there actually was someone who was worse than the great Asoka De Silva...

  • shishir on July 3, 2011, 13:59 GMT

    Sri lankan umpires has a history of dishing out the most "SHOCKING" decisons .

  • Vijay on July 3, 2011, 11:53 GMT

    The Best of B.C. Cooray's celebrated umpiring incidents. http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/current/match/65191.html

    1996 World Cup Semifinal - West Indies is chasing down Australia's modest total of 207 under the leadership of the fierce Richie Richardson (in possibly his last match) whilst facing off stiff resistance from Shane Warne. Richie Richardson slog sweeps Warne towards the boundary with such force that it looked to be a certain boundary. But, the ball never reaches the fence. TV Replays later reveal that the ball managed to find a certain B C Cooray on the way. And, it hit him right on his face! THUD! What's even more startling is that B C Cooray never seemed to duck or attempt to block his face like the other umpires do. He never even sensed a ball coming towards him. And, he didn't know what hit him till it hit him. The play stopped for a moment to allow Cooray to get some first aid. And, WI lost by just 5 runs.

  • Johnathon on July 3, 2011, 6:40 GMT

    @Aus Sore Losers Can tell you're an Indian still sore about the Bell decision where the 2.5 meter law was enforced in the tied WC game, because Billy Bowden is one of the great umpires out there and is very genuine in his umpiring. If he is not sure, he always refers it to the third umpire... gotta love them new zealanders... great people

  • Johnathon on July 3, 2011, 6:27 GMT

    @Arun Venkataraghavan? Hmmm.... why doesn't that name remotely connect with anything I can think of (and trust me, if i even saw a player with this long name, it would stick)? Maybe cause he wasn't that great of an umpire. I've watched a lot of cricket in the 90s and I do not even recall an umpire like this.

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