Simon Taufel September 9, 2011

'The key to umpiring is people skills'

The world's top-rated umpire talks about the challenges of officiating at the highest level

Simon Taufel is seldom sighted at Test matches involving his home country, Australia. The life of the neutral umpire is transient and demanding, without the plaudits the players earn for performing on the same international merry-go-round. Taufel made an exception for the first Test between Australia and Sri Lanka in Galle, for it coincided with a third umpire accreditation seminar he conducted in the country. As befits the most lauded of 21st century officials, Taufel took it as an opportunity to learn, and to discuss the role of the umpire at a time of shifting sands for technology, player behaviour, playing conditions and security.

In the current climate of inconsistent use of technology, what should the umpires' attitude be?
We just have to keep working at our skills and working on what we have got, to be able to do the best we can and support our match officials in a way that keeps the support and focus on the players. If we can get as many decisions right [as possible], if we can understand what we are using, and work within those parameters, and remain unobtrusive through our decision-making, our match management, our communication, our team work, the rest will take care of itself. We always look for ways to get better, and through the accreditation process that we're developing at the moment we hope to benchmark and standardise those things, while acknowledging and accepting we do have inconsistencies with the inputs.

When considering the television pictures and other aids, must an umpire be completely sure or can he make a judgement call based on the circumstantial evidence before him? On day one here in Galle, Usman Khawaja might have been out but the clearest evidence was lacking.
From a third umpire's perspective, you're looking for a high degree of confidence, you're looking for conclusive evidence to suggest that the original decision was incorrect. So for edges you've really only got three main areas to assess. You've either got Hot Spot, clear deviation, or audio. In that case with Khawaja, you've only got clear deviation and audio. So as a third umpire you're looking for both of those things to be present to suggest the original decision was incorrect. That's the fundamental premise we have to work with: the original decision is correct unless we have a high degree of confidence and conclusive evidence to tell us that is not the case. It's not necessarily about benefit of the doubt to the batsman, but that the benefit of doubt goes with the original decision, and that's sometimes hard for people, and sometimes umpires, to get their head around.

Cameras, technical aids, frame rates - what chance is there of standardisation?
The ICC has gone through that process where it has had a technology conference with the major suppliers of technology. Obviously it is a funding issue, and you're asking the broadcasters to provide their resources, their equipment, their intellectual property, and have third-party suppliers of ball-tracking and thermal technology without the game necessarily giving them a financial return on it. So I can understand there's a commercial aspect there to address. But from a game perspective we want the best. If you look at what the teams work with today and the amount of support staff they use to get their players prepared, it's incredibly professional. From a match-officiating perspective, we're using very inconsistent supply of those tools [and there are grey areas over how accurate they are], but still come up with high performance. There's not a lot of rocket science in this - if you're inconsistent with your inputs, and they differ all the time from series to series, of course there is a higher [likelihood] that your outputs will be inconsistent.

Cricket is a game of variables, and everything is different. [We] have two umpires on the field who may have a different standard about an lbw, or a bat-pad or a caught-behind. We are trying to look for consistency, so if we want to be consistent we need to make sure that we provide technology in a consistent way across all series to be able to deliver the players that level playing field.

Daryl Harper's tenure as an umpire ended unhappily in the West Indies. Do you feel umpires receive enough respect on the field?
My view is, with the role of technology and the amount of scrutiny we're under these days, I think people have a greater appreciation for the challenge of being a match official. Personally, though, I'm not sure that has transposed to respect for an umpire's decision. I think we're creating an environment where it is okay for a player to question an umpire's decision, and that doesn't sit comfortably with me. As a player I was always taught to accept the umpire's decision and get on with the game. I think we're breaking that down a little bit.

[For instance, when] I judge bad light to be the case, I'm seeing a lot more questioning of that. I'm seeing a lot more questioning of following instructions on over rates or changing gloves or bringing drinks out. [Players and coaches and team management] are getting used to being able to question decisions or go to a higher authority. People see that on TV and it goes down to the lower levels of the game, and I see in my son's Under-10s game a player who does the sign of the "T" when he's not happy with a decision. As a parent and spectator I'm not comfortable. I appreciate the game is different at the international level and it's a professional occupation, but it is a game and it has to uphold certain values.

"I think we're creating an environment where it is okay for a player to question an umpire's decision, and that doesn't sit comfortably with me. As a player I was always taught to accept the umpire's decision and get on with the game. I think we're breaking that down a little bit"

The Ian Bell incident at Trent Bridge caused numerous conversations about the spirit of the game and the laws. How did you see it?
We talked about that at our conference in Dubai, and [about] some of our techniques as match officials with those types of scenarios. There is no doubt in my mind as an umpire that Ian Bell was run out for the right reasons, according to the laws, the playing conditions... and I think if Ian had his time again he'd do things differently. You can do a lot of things in the game of cricket out there on the field with the agreement of both captains. You can change playing times, change intervals, replace players… From a technical point of view, once the batsman left the field, he was out, gone, and could not be called back. But it just goes to show what can be achieved in the game with the agreement of the two captains. It took a lot of heat out of the issue and certainly made the third and fourth Test matches a lot easier to umpire, than [if there had] been this underlying undercurrent of unfairness.

We also discussed the incident in New Zealand where Murali was run out going down the pitch to congratulate Kumar Sangakkara, and the ball hadn't even come in at that stage, so it was still live. The view we took was in those circumstances was, we will go across to the fielding captain and say, "Look, is this the way you want to play the game? Do you want this appeal to stand?" If he says "Yes, I do," then you have to apply the laws as written.

It is often said of Australian umpires that they have traditionally had a great understanding of the laws but can lack an appreciation for cultural subtleties. Do umpires from each country have different cultural traits that inform their umpiring?
They do, but [...] the difference between a good umpire and a great umpire really comes down to people skills and life skills. We can all know laws, we can all know playing conditions, we can all enforce them like a policeman. But the difference lies in being a good person and being able to communicate, to be able to resolve conflict and deal with issues as they come up. That means you've got to listen and show empathy. So if there's a blow-up on the field, the best thing you can do is listen to what the player's saying, let him get it off his chest, understand his problem, and then decide on a course of action. If you step in too quickly, you'll have a problem. If you take too long to step in, you'll have another problem.

When I look at all of the good umpires of my time, and I take key attributes from them, it is the ability to build relationships, to have professional dealings with the people that matter within the game, to be able to manage a game of cricket, and manage a professional entertainment package, realising it is not just bat and ball.

When I look at the feedback from coaches on the cricket committee, the words of Mickey Arthur still ring true in my ear. He didn't talk about bat-pads, lbws or caught-behinds, he talked about communication, about umpires being approachable, umpires being consistent in their application of playing conditions in relation to ground, weather and light. He talked about being able to have a conversation with a match official and understanding that they've got a job to play. To me that's what umpiring is all about.

There was heavy criticism of your decision to go off for bad light during the England v India series. Will we always be gnashing our teeth over that issue?
It's a judgement call on the day, with specific circumstances, and what I'd like people to appreciate is, sometimes the view you might get from a grandstand is not the view the umpire is getting out on the field. Yes, we do use light meters to support those decisions, so we get a benchmark in consistency of light meter readings for when we turn lights on, and there are lots of aspects to that. But all I'd ask people to do in terms of this issue is realise we will try to maximise play where we can, but our first and foremost responsibility is to the safety of the players and to our safety, and to be able to see the ball. When we feel we get to a stage where we can't see the ball, then it isn't a safe and reasonable environment to work within. We have the 12 best umpires in the world officiating at the ICC elite panel level, and there are times we don't get everything right, but on this particular issue I think our experience, our judgement and the wisdom we apply to that type of topic is pretty good.

In that case it was more a question of fielders querying the light than batsmen. How do you weigh up risk to fielders versus risk to batsmen?
Equally the same, and when you look at the fact we have two umpires out there, an umpire at square leg... when we can't see the ball from side-on, and you've got men around the bat, even with a spinner operating, you know that you've got a safety issue about hitting the ball into a player. I'd rather be criticised for coming off a fraction too early than have someone get hurt and come off too late.

What do you do to stay on top of your own skills?
I've certainly adopted the Ric Charlesworth methodology, that getting to the top is hard and staying there is even harder. So every time I see a new guy come onto the elite panel - for example Richard Kettleborough or Kumar Dharamasena - I have a chat to talk about the fact that the hard work has only just begun. Yes, you've broken into this level, but consistency of hard work is now the main issue, and what are you going to do every game, every day, every year, to become a better match official than you were?

It is very easy to sit back and criticise people or criticise organisations. The real key for me is, well, what leadership role can I play within that to be able to move the game forward and make it better for the next generation? There's a bit of legacy leadership. How can I leave it in a better state than when I found it?

My message to all the people considering umpiring as a career is: use every opportunity you've got to improve, don't take things for granted, take personal responsibility for what you do, for your own performance. Try not to look at yourself as a victim. Look for ways to say, "What's my role in this, what part can I play to make it better?"

And even with conditions out here that are very difficult for the umpires - I think they had 25 appeals on day one of the Test match, and three spinners within the first 30 overs... that means the match is very challenging, every ball of every over. If you can get through that, you can get through anything. Rather than look at it negatively and say, "Gee, I've got a lot of decisions to make", say "What a great opportunity to show everyone how good I am."

How do you best train umpires for international cricket?
Making the connection, engaging people from different continents and different cultures, is incredibly different. How I would engage an Australian and how I would engage an Indian or a Sri Lankan or someone from the UK is incredibly different. How do I get the best out of them, how do I know they've actually understood what we're talking about and what the learning opportunity is?

Looking at accreditation, and how we're trying to simulate game activities rather than just have them sit in a box, we're trying to get them to make their mistakes off the field, away from having an impact on the game, and that's the future of match officials' education and performance development, getting them to make mistakes away from the field, and then assessing what they know and don't know. [You can] say, "Yes, I understand." I can't believe that. Show me, apply your knowledge in a way that makes me confident you have that skill and can apply it, before you put your ICC shirt on and go out there. None of us want to see an umpire fall over or get burnt too quickly before he's had an opportunity to get his career moving.

It's been a while since the Lahore terror attack. Do you share a look of recognition when you see the Sri Lankan team?
On the day, one of my concerns after we got back into the umpires room at Lahore, after we all gave each other a bit of a hug and made sure we were okay, was go to the Sri Lankan dressing room and see how they were. I talked to a lot of their senior players about were they okay, who was injured, who needed attention. That's not an umpiring issue, not a performance topic, but you've got to want to personally connect with a few of these players and show a genuine interest in their welfare.

What it has meant for me is, I've got a higher degree of awareness about the importance of security in umpiring. Our game has changed as a result of that, in the same way it's changed in the way it has around match-fixing or betting. You can't eliminate those issues, but you can manage them in a way that minimises the risk and the damage.

Your words when you returned to Australia were strong, but you also looked like you were still in some shock.
Like a lot of us, we felt angry, we felt frustrated, we felt isolated. There are three teams in this game, the two competing teams, and the third, of match officials, scorers, people who manage and conduct the game, who for all intents and purposes were forgotten about. We were left behind, physically left behind, and weren't provided for in a way that was consistent with the threat that existed. If you look at how it was reported, a lot of the focus was on the players, quite correctly, but there was another team that day, and that team was left behind, isolated, and put in a situation where the ultimate sacrifice could have been made. People died in our vehicle, and that's nothing to take lightly. On the day those human emotions and reactions came through. Everywhere we go now there is a greater focus on how is our third team going to be provided for. All we want is to be treated, not as the main focus, but as an integral part of the sport.

Did you think of giving up the job, or at least spending less time away from home after Lahore?
Probably the biggest disadvantage in our side of the sport is the amount of time you spend away from home. If you look at the average profile of the new elite panel umpire coming through and you look at the average profile of the panel members in 2011, they're in their 40s, they've got two or three kids, and they've got a reasonable, good job with their home board or in private enterprise. We have to look at ways to support those guys and keep them in the game.

I think the days of a Steve Bucknor umpiring 20 years at international level is probably gone. You're looking more now at a shift where to have a 7-10 year career at the elite level, you're doing very well.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo