'Umpires are not soft targets, they're participants in the game'
Simon Taufel is speaking Hindi. "Pehle aap," he says, holding the door at the luxury hotel where he is staying in Kolkata. ESPNcricinfo asks him to go first. "Aap ke baad," Taufel insists with a smile. Two years after retiring from the ICC's Elite Panel, where he was consistently acknowledged as the best umpire, Taufel has not lost his drive. As the advisor and mentor to BCCI's elite panel umpires, he now travels the world and is a frequent flier to India, where he is heavily involved in the grooming and development of domestic and international umpires. Here's his take on the state of umpiring in India, what has improved, and what still needs addressing.
Why have we not seen an umpire like Simon Taufel in India?
I cannot answer why we do not have anyone at the international level. There has been a lot of debate about that, but for me to explain the work we are doing in India I need to establish where we come from. Two years ago when I stopped umpiring, we looked at developing a structure of advancing umpiring globally. We have four umpiring coaches who work with the ICC. I look after India and have looked to establish a relationship with the country. We develop coaching plans and strategies and a consistent pathway of what is needed to succeed at the highest level and appreciate that the game is changing all the time. The latest technology and umpiring in different conditions is a part of it - like umpiring in hot conditions in Kolkata.
Do you see a lack of belief in their own ability among Indian umpires?
What has struck me about Indian umpires is their passion, enthusiasm, desire and hunger, their thirst for knowledge and their love of the game. We have tried to harness that and support them with better resources. We are encouraging them and guiding them about where they can improve and develop.
I feel the IPL is a tremendous opportunity for the Indian umpires to work with the best in the world and learn from them. There's great media scrutiny, huge crowds, and the top players are involved. We can see how they respond, and reinforce what they are doing well. They are doing well largely and it is about giving them self-belief. There have been a lot of success stories over the last few years. We have had Indian umpires officiating at the World Cup and we have two umpires going to the World T20 qualifiers. We had three Indian match referees this IPL. We can provide the right environment, the rest depends on them.
Is the balance involved in officiating in a high-pressure game easy to achieve?
No, it's not. That is the challenge. In this part of the world, umpiring is always seen from a decision-making perspective, whereas in some other countries it is all about people skills. It is about how you handle pressure and respond to the players, the respect, trust and other soft skills. We are trying to redress the balance between the tremendous knowledge of laws that is present here and combine that with the soft skills. The only way you can do that is by engaging them and talking to people. That is why it has been great working with them in the background at the IPL. We can engage with them in post-match debriefs and the hotel rooms. We can talk about how to handle an error or a setback, how to deal with a player who is in your face, and how to deal with iconic players while being a good officiator.
You speak quite a few words in Hindi and can even string together short sentences. It must come handy in your job.
The key is understanding [each other]. We can talk about different languages and cultures, but unless you understand me as a person and I understand you as a person, unless we know what things mean, we do not have effective communication. Unless we have understanding and acknowledgement and respect, we do not have effective communication. It might sound basic and fundamental, but if this is my designated country for me to work with, I need to understand India. I need to understand the culture, the biases. I need to understand some of the words, some of the meanings, because that will help me understand where these people are coming from. Human behaviour is a funny thing - if I stick out my hand, chances are that you are going to reciprocate. If I raise my voice, chances are you might raise your voice and get upset. So if I am looking for understanding and a particular behaviour from the people I work with, I need to try and demonstrate that initially.
Have the Indian umpires reciprocated?
They have responded tremendously genuinely. There is an element of Indian culture where sometimes people tell you what you want to hear. But what I am looking at is the genuine effort and understanding to do things for the right reasons. Not because I want it, not because the ICC wants it, but because it is the right thing to do. When we talk about consistency, when we talk about best practices, when we talk about effective teamwork, one of our strategies - not just in India but with all the top domestic umpires - is to reach an understanding about how we are going to work with each other. That could be from what words mean, what signals we give to each other on the field, how we prepare for a game, how we appreciate individual differences, what is expected when you do a match report, what is expected when you go in for a code-of-conduct of hearing, what is expected when you look at a suspect bowling action, how you carry yourself when you walk out of a hotel, how you arrive at a game, how you stick together as a team at events.
Now, we have umpire exchange programmes between the boards. So Shamshuddin went to Australia this season. Nandan is about to go to England to do an exchange. Chaudhary went to Australia last season. What is really encouraging and pleasing is to see is how the Indian umpires are fitting into umpiring systems around the world. They speak the same umpiring language.
Do you think domestic umpires in India are not getting enough respect from the players?
Yes, I do. We expect of our umpires that they have tremendous empathy for what the players go through. They put in lot of hours of training. They want to be successful. There is a lot of money involved in their contracts. And there is a lot of fame and fortune that they can attain if they are successful. We would love the players to appreciate and show equal empathy for the difficult nature of our job, appreciate that better umpires get it right, that we are human beings after all. We do it because we love it and because we want to add value. I am yet to come across an umpire who wants to give a bad decision or have a negative impact on the game. There is a lot of pride amongst our group.
Would you like to see more players venture into umpiring? Is playing experience an advantage?
What I would like to see more in India is players respecting how difficult umpiring is; maybe try it themselves. It would be great to see a Rahul Dravid or a Sachin Tendulkar donning a white coat.
What specific feedback have Indian umpires given you about the players?
Umpires come from a background of being forgotten about. In many countries umpires are the last group to be thought of, whether it is change rooms, provisions, support structures, catering, uniforms. The work we are trying to do in India is no different from some of the other parts of the world. We don't want to be treated better than the players. We want to be treated equally because we have an equal contribution to make to the game. When the umpires do well, they won't get noticed. When the umpires do something wrong, they stick out.
So here in India I'd love the players and the captains to realise they need to be part of the solution to improve Indian umpiring and not part of the problem. At the end of the day, you can tell a winning captain's report from a losing captain's report - umpires either have given too many lbws or they have not given enough. If they [players] are going to give us feedback, give us constructive feedback. Don't tell us they missed three caught-behinds and three lbws. Tell us he seemed to lose concentration and focus in the last session on day one. That he was not in a good frame of mind to communicate effectively. That he was in a bad position to make that run-out decision.
You have been interacting closely with Indian umpires from 2006. In which areas have they shown growth?
One of the areas they have changed is in their honesty. The first part of really developing as a human being or a cricket umpire is being honest with yourself about what you are doing well and what you could do better. There is a culture here in India where sometimes you get things because of who you know or because there is a way around the system. Now the umpires themselves have embraced honesty. They have embraced the value of integrity and being true to what they have got to do. And to make tough decisions because they are the right decisions to be made - whether it is a suspect bowling action, whether it is out or not out, whether it is starting a game or finishing a game.
The BCCI has made tremendous progress in providing an environment that supports that shift. They are also promoting meritocracy - that umpires will go forward based on their performance, not from where they came from or who they know. Last year, a panel of match referees was formed and we worked with 120 candidates and chose 50. They have contributed to a stronger domestic circuit this year.
How do you evaluate progress?
It is easy for me to evaluate as I come back every year and I see things from a fresh perspective. Indian umpires are now being chosen for world events and the playoffs of the IPL. When I joined the IPL in the second season , there were no Indian umpires in the playoffs. Here we are six years later, we have got the highest number of Indian umpires involved in the playoffs. The other night we had two Indian umpires on field in the Eliminator.
That tells me, tells the rest of the world and tells the Indian umpires that people who are selecting them for those matches had faith and trust in the performance abilities of those umpires. That is a tremendous progression. People talk about 10,000 hours or ten years from average to world-class. It takes time for the whole culture to shift and for the environment to move with it. And everybody has got to be doing it together. It is not about one person, it is about a team. It is about people complementing each other by doing things in a consistent and focused way to deliver a group outcome. The goal is not to put an Indian umpire on the [ICC's] Elite Panel; that is a nice by-product. The goal here is to improve and to shift umpiring in this country, and position ourselves, and deliver the best umpiring to people who play.
As a by-product, we should do better at first-class, Ranji Trophy level. We should do better at IPL. And we should be supplying more umpires to ICC events. That is how we evaluate. I have got a qualifying event coming up where 14 teams will look to qualify to the World T20 next year. I have got two umpires from India participating there. Last time we had one. That is a shift. That tells me we are making progress. We had an Indian umpire [S Ravi] attend the World Cup and perform well. Firstly, he got selected, and secondly, he performed well. He held his own. He has been doing Test matches for a couple of years. In the IPL this year everyone has improved. That is progress.
Yet the general perception remains that Indian umpiring is not up to global standards.
That is an unfair view. I genuinely believe that Indian umpiring is holding its own on the world stage. There is work to be done in all countries. But internationally we are making progress. Domestically we are making progress. Is the job finished? No. It is constant work in progress. Our challenge is to get the resources, tools and knowledge and experience, just like the players.
I was talking to [Anil] Kumble at breakfast - it is about [attaining] a consistent strategy across the 29 states. When someone starts at the grass roots to teach them and help them to be a good umpire, and keep working on their skills as they grow all the way through. Part of the challenge now is, how do we take it to the grass roots? That is a big challenge because of the volume: the amount of cricket played, how many umpires there are and the number of players.
Everybody has a role to play. The media in the way it promotes positiveness of umpiring and match officiating. The players in the way they respect the role and they conduct themselves on the field and the feedback that they give us. The administrators in creating an environment where people can excel and the pathways are clearly defined. And the public in the way they talk about umpiring and in the way they encourage people to be involved in the game as well. We are not soft targets. We are participants in the game. We are a team and we are doing the best as we can.
When will India have an umpire in the Elite Panel?
Our focus is to improve Indian domestic umpiring. We have produced four quality International Panel umpires. They are doing extremely well and one of them [S Ravi] officiated at Lord's in a Test match. It is his fifth Test match. He has been to a World Cup and put his name up for selection. The rest is up to the selectors. It is a team effort. It is not just about me. It is the work that all the umpiring coaches do.
How proud were you when Ravi stood in the Lord's Test last week?
I did say to Ravi on the first morning that when you leave the umpires room and walk downstairs into the Long Room, when the umpires enter that room, all the members part, they separate and give you access to the ground and they start to applaud spontaneously. Then the hairs on the back of your neck will rise. [I told him] I want to think about the fact that I'm going with you, your team-mates are going with you. It is a great honour and privilege.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75