Dunne provides rare insight to Kiwi umpiring

Lynn McConnell

August 12, 2003

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Alone in the Middle - An Umpire's Story by Steve Dunne with Brent Edwards; published in New Zealand by Penguin

Various aspects of the New Zealand cricket spectrum have been covered in books, but former international umpire Steve Dunne has been the first to present the umpire's view.

Like the judges of common law whose positions they most resemble, umpires have preferred to be assessed by their deeds rather than offering to explain them - in New Zealand at least.

There are any number of books by umpires in the history of cricket overseas from Frank Chester's How's That? to the industry that is Dickie Bird. Australians have also been quick to rush into print - Darrell Hair didn't even wait until retirement to put out his first book, and earlier there was Lou Rowan's book, The Umpire's Story, which explained the events of Ray Illingworth's Ashes-winning tour of Australia in 1970-71 among other Australian umpiring issues.

But it is refreshing to have a New Zealand slant on the life of an umpire, and Dunne has worked meticulously with the man who has seen him in action most among the New Zealand media, the Otago Daily Times sportswriter Brent Edwards. They have provided a smooth and compelling tale, not the least in the circumstances of Dunne's last season and the fatal illness of his wife Lesley. The effect on Dunne made his achievement in standing at all that season all the more remarkable.

In a sense, the writing of the book appears to have been cathartic for Dunne who, having bared his soul, ends by saying that his first-class days may not yet be over and that he is reconsidering his retirement decision.

He has already had his views on the Muttiah Muralitharan throwing call by Hair aired, but there are some other interesting events that he has been involved in that have not previously emerged. One related to a blatant case of ball-swapping which probably went on a lot more than has previously been known.

It occurred at Eden Park during the first Test of a New Zealand-England series in 1992. New Zealand's coach Warren Lees went to the umpires' room and asked for the box of balls in order to make the choice for the match. At the first drinks break, the umpires noticed the match ball was considerably darker than anything that had been in the original box - the New Zealanders had substituted their own ball.

The umpires - Dunne was accompanied by Brian Aldridge - decided to handle the situation themselves and conveyed to the New Zealand team that they were unimpressed with this illegal act. But when the same procedure occurred before the second innings the New Zealanders did the same thing. The umpires decided that instead of using the burgundy-dark ball the New Zealanders had given them as their choice, they would replace it with a lighter and more orange-looking ball. The darker the ball the longer it retains its bounce and ability to be swung.

When the New Zealanders were thrown the lighter ball, they couldn't believe it. But the point had been made and the International Cricket Council ensured that in future the ball would be chosen in the presence of the umpires, which like so much when gamesmanship becomes involved was as it should have been done in the first place.

Dunne is also firm in his belief that something needed to be done about the substitute-fieldsman law which he described as "an absolute joke". "Fieldsmen have to seek the permission of the umpire to leave the field, but if a player says he has an injury, how can you effectively debate it? You must allow him to go," says Dunne. "If a player says he wants to go off and change his boots, he should be allowed to do that, but the fielding side should have only ten players while he is away. Substitutes should not be allowed for things like that."

Dunne's remedy was to have all sides name a substitute fieldsman who should be allowed to go on and off the field as required. If a team had two players "injured" then they would be forced to field ten men only.

He also made a case for umpires who so often have their decision-making challenged on the grounds of bias, less now than previously because of neutral umpires. "Umpires are not cheats ... It is the players who are the 'cheats', if that is indeed the right expression. How many times do you see a batsman nick the ball and stand there innocently as if nothing has happened? How many times do you see bowlers appeal for lbw when they know the ball has been nicked onto the pad? How many times do you see teams go up for bat-pad catches when they either haven't got a clue whether it is out, or they know the ball did not hit the bat?"

Dunne also brings an anecdotal element into his tale, although it tends to be more on the local - as in his Dunedin playing days - and the international stage rather than the local first-class scene. He has twice related the tale of Mark Richardson and the Brian Lara "Zoe Goss" incident, and the West Indian reaction to it in a three-day match against Otago. Richardson took all the West Indies could throw at him and scored a century which won the plaudits of the tourists after his dismissal. But perhaps the reason was that there is a lack of characters in the modern game? Pity if that were the case.

Alone in the Middle is a refreshing read which makes some useful points and is a welcome addition to the New Zealand cricket library.

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