Interview - Kevan Barbour

John Ward

December 21, 2002

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Kevan Barbour, also provincial manager of the Manicaland Cricket Association, has risen swiftly as an umpire in Zimbabwe. His rise has now been officially confirmed by his appointment by the ICC to stand in the World Cup in South Africa. Kevan spoke to ZCO about his career, both as a player and umpire.

Short and stocky in build, 53-year-old Kevan Barbour has built a reputation for himself as a strong decisive umpire who relates well to the players but takes no nonsense from them. As a former player himself, a wicket-keeper/batsman, he was not far off the Rhodesian national team, as it then was, without quite earning selection. He speaks as he acts, confidently but without arrogance.

Born and bred in Bulawayo, Kevan attended Milton High School, earning selection for the Matabeleland Schools side. In 1966 made his club debut for Old Techs. He progressed to the Matabeleland Logan Cup team, making his debut against Midlands in 1968; he remembers "we got a big hiding though we had the better side!" He did his national army training in 1969 and, working in the post office, was transferred to Mutare in 1970. He played for Manicaland until 1975, and also represented Rhodesia B against similar teams from Transvaal and Western Province.

"I matured later in life as a player," he says. "I probably should have played more games for Rhodesia, even the national team, but I was kept out, many people tell me, mainly because I lived in the wrong town. I'm not saying I would have played a million games, but I would certainly have played more had I lived in Harare, or possibly Bulawayo. I played international friendly games against international elevens like Brian Close's side that came out, and for various President's XIs; also against Young West Indies and Sri Lanka teams. I also played a couple of Zimbabwe B games against Zimbabwe Schools, but no more than that."

Kevan's highest score in any form of cricket was 200 not out for Casuals Cricket Club against Makoni in a Manicaland league game. He scored several national league club centuries as well. He considers he was more of a wicket-keeper than a batsman, and that he was at his best between the ages of 28 and 30.

Kevan's younger brother Brian did make the national side as an aggressive left-handed opening batsman who was perhaps before his time. Brian made his debut at the age of 19 in 1971/72, scoring 55 and 97 in his first match, and no less a bowler than Vintcent van der Bijl can recall an opening spell of 5-0-39-0 at Queens Sports Club in Bulawayo bowling to Brian. Unfortunately Brian, a particularly powerful puller and cutter, was not altogether approved as in those days an opening batsman was expected to be solid and reliable, and he was rarely trusted by the selectors, and many others who tried to remould his style so that he eventually lost form and enthusiasm and his career was over well before the age of 30.

"He had a very natural talent, and I didn't have his abilities," says Kevan. "I had to work at my game, and because of my efforts I probably am where I am now. He was messed around by selectors and dropped because of the way he played, and had they left him alone he probably would have been even better."

Now working for Rothmans, he was transferred to Kwekwe in the Midlands for two years from 1975, playing for his third province in the national club league and Logan Cup. He then moved on to Chiredzi in the Lowveld for eighteen months, where Manicaland used to fly him up to resume playing for them, until finally settling in Mutare in 1979, where he has lived ever since.

Kevan continued as a player until 1996, well into his forties. "I probably played three years longer than I should have, owing to a shortage of players," he says. "I regret that, because I could probably have started umpiring earlier. I started umpiring in 1996, my initiation year, and touring teams like Northamptonshire and Yorkshire came to Mutare. I did some Logan Cup games and progressed from there, on to the international stage."

Apart from his time in the Midlands, Kevan has been involved in cricket administration in Manicaland since he first arrived in 1970. He started off on the committee before becoming vice-chairman under Oliver Jordan, then took over as chairman and finally as president.

Kevan became an umpire through the encouragement of Alistair Christie and Dave Valentine, umpires in Mutare while he was playing. "I took an interest when I realized my playing days were over," he says. "Being a wicket-keeper I was in a pretty good position to assess the game and get a feel for it. I believe you can become an umpire by passing all the exams, but you may not necessarily have a feel for the game and the knowledge of it. You have to have a feel for it - you can't just be a `paper' sort of umpire, in my opinion.

"My playing experience helped me tremendously: you can anticipate what's going to happen, when they're going to happen, and when they do happen you're ready for it and can often put out the fire before it goes too far because you've been in the same situation before and you can nip it in the bud. On the international stage it's a bit more tricky because you have high-profile players and high-profile international captains, and they always seem to look down on you as an umpire and believe you are going to cheat them out for some reason.

"It's sad that a lot of international teams do come out here and treat you as if you're no more than a Zimbabwean umpire who is going to cheat them out of decisions, which is totally wrong. The West Indies were outstanding: I found Carl Hooper a really great guy to umpire, and Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka was a very quiet guy. The Bangladesh chaps were very quiet; maybe they're just learning the ropes at the moment. The other sides I had more hassles with because they're more high-profile people possibly, and seem to believe that you're not capable of doing the job, maybe just because you come from Zimbabwe, which is wrong. But I'm fully aware of what they're on about all the time."

That's when Kevan's ability to keep in control of the game is needed. "I don't like to play the headmaster either, but often the players make their own bed and they must lie on it. I like to get on with the players, talk to guys and have a good relationship on the field, but I believe the players must go to you; you mustn't go to them, because familiarity breeds contempt and I won't have that. I'm a highly principled guy and will not stand for lack of respect and bad manners on the field, to other players or umpires. It's unacceptable in my book."

What other qualities does Kevan believe are important for a good umpire? "I think you just need a common-sense approach most times," he says. "The law book has so many regulations about things that never happen on the field, but every now and then one of those things does happen and you must very often use a common-sense approach, whether it's sledging or tampering with the ball or running on the pitch or whatever. If you get a handle on it early enough it won't get out of hand, and you've got to be firm and let the players know they can't run you round the park.

"You mustn't be too much of a schoolmaster: communicate when you have to, talk when you have to, don't go overboard by trying to be too friendly with them because they'll read it in a different way, respect the players and realize that you're dealing with their careers sometimes - but don't let that influence your decision. If he's out, he's out, and it doesn't matter who he is. Bowler and batsmen are equal people and there's no favouritism either way.

"Try to be confident on the field; display in body language that you're confident, because I believe body language often gives you away. If you've made a decision that was probably wrong, no umpire in the world I believe is able to put it behind him automatically; it still chews inside your heart and your brain if you think you got it wrong. As an individual, I worry about things a lot and players don't realize that internally umpires suffer a lot if they're human beings.

"In my international career I think I made two wrong decisions. One was giving out Nasser Hussain here eighteen months ago, which I regret doing, an lbw that was the wrong decision, but at the time I thought it was out. When I saw the replay I knew it was wrong, and that annoyed me, because I'm better than that. In my very first game I gave Grant Flower out caught behind of Azhar Mahmood and maybe he didn't hit it. Also possibly in my last game I should have given Barney Rogers out when the ball hit the pad first; I was aware it hit the pad first, but it was one of those very close calls where it was bat-pad or pad-bat, and I gave him the benefit. But if those are the only three I got wrong in six years of international umpiring I'm not doing too badly; I've got far more right than wrong.

"That's all the players want in the end: they want consistency from an umpire, consistent to both sides, they want him to get more right than wrong, and to be confident."

Umpires get to know players very well as people, especially when the pressure is on. Of the international captains, as mentioned already, he has particular respect for Carl Hooper and Sanath Jayasuriya, but is not prepared to mention some of the other international captains whom he found at times arrogant and troublesome. "I do feel there is a definite arrogance on the part of some international captains, which is unnecessary," he says. "We're all human beings; I respect them and they must respect me. But as I said, it's probably because they view Zimbabwe as a minnow and a Zimbabwean umpire as a lower form of life. Maybe when they see people like myself and Russell Tiffin on the panel now, we might gain more respect."

Kevan feels that Zimbabwean players have often put more pressure on him than international sides, especially in domestic matches. "Maybe they believe they can pressure me into giving home-town decisions or the reverse, but I would never do that," he says. "Andy Flower I believe has become a great player in the last couple of years because since he has lost the captaincy he has become more focused on his own game, and the niggling things he used to query before he doesn't worry about any more because he realizes it's a waste of time.

"Heath Streak I like as a person; he doesn't give you any trouble and he's a nice chap on the field. Alistair Campbell is a very quiet fellow who doesn't give trouble on the field; he will try his luck, as many players will, but I don't get the feeling he carries a grudge. Many players are more badly behaved in the Logan Cup than they are in the internationals, mainly because there are no match referees, which I feel is a must in our competition.

"It doesn't necessarily mean television, but I believe you need a man on the ground who is in charge if something gets out of hand so you can report him and say, `That guy needs to be spoken to' or `That guy needs to be fined'. I think once the players know there's a line, that will stop. There are guys who treat umpires with no respect, even bordering on dissent, and it's very hard to stamp it out on the field when you've no back-up on the ground on the day. I believe ZCU needs to look at that seriously to stop this unnecessary player abuse of umpires - especially younger umpires who haven't the confidence to take a grip on the game."

After just six years of umpiring, Kevan is now on the second rung of the ladder, with only an appointment to the elite ICC panel yet to come. ZCU managing director Vince Hogg advised him confidentially of his appointment before the announcement was made that he had been appointed to stand in the coming World Cup.

"I'm deeply honoured and feel very humble that they have selected me," he says. "I'm very fortunate to have two on-field and fourteen television appointments in South Africa. It's a dream come true for me. My international experience (outside Zimbabwe) so far has been Northern Transvaal versus Boland, a three-day game and a one-day game at Centurion Park five years ago, so I haven't umpired outside the borders and now I'm going to be flying all around South Africa. It's a huge eye-opener for me, the guy from Penhalonga, and you'll soon spot him at the airport because it's all new to me!

"I've seen these venues and watched South Africa play Test matches on television, but now actually to visit those grounds and officiate on those grounds where you've seen other people play is an enormous experience for me. I really hope I can prove to the world authorities that I'm among the best in the world, and I believe personally on my day I'm as good as anybody else - I'll back myself on that without trying to blow myself up. We all make mistakes, but I believe I can go further. I hope to do that, and all I can do is to prove it on the field. If I do well on the field during the World Cup, then my future is in the hands of others, not mine."

How did Kevan win this appointment in the first place? "It's quite ironic, because up to a month ago I had done only nine one-dayers and four Test matches, and I was very blessed with that and I really appreciate being given the opportunity. That's a drop in the ocean compared to other umpires worldwide. From what I understand, the ICC guys were selected from reports done by captains and match referees, which all go to ICC, and they presumably selected the best of the bunch from worldwide markings. It must mean my marks have been good and so I'm on the panel.

"All umpires have been told what we're going to be doing, and I've been contacted by Chris Kelly, the ICC secretary for the World Cup, about my appointment and what's going to happen. After the first round is finished, depending on performances on the field, certain guys will be going through to the Super Sixes and carry on to the quarters, semis and finals. If I don't make it, I don't make it, but I'll do the best I can on the field. After that it's up to somebody else's decision.

"After that my ambition is one day to get on to the elite panel - that's my target. A year ago when we first heard about this ICC panel we were all anti because I believe it's bad for umpiring in the long run, because there's no opportunity for other guys within the home unions to get international experience. All they can do is carry the drinks, so to speak, for internationals and do maybe unofficial internationals like South Africa A against Zimbabwe A.

"But everyone wants to go further than that. The elite eight - how long are they going to be there, how are they going to be replaced, and what is the criteria from there. Hopefully if someone does drop out, I'll be considered to go further. But I don't know how it works. Maybe they will reassess in a couple of years' time."

With his increasing profile, Kevin has done more umpiring recently on the Pakistan and Kenyan tours to Zimbabwe. Regarding Kenya, he says he feels they were a better side two years ago when they came out for the Emerging Nations tournament in Harare. "In the one game I umpired for them on the field, they were three wickets down in four overs, so it was quite hard for them to come back after that.

"They are an exciting side, and if they can get a total of 220 or more on the board to defend, I think they've got the bowlers to do it. Their batsmen are not scared to hit the ball, although possibly they hit too much in the air, which can lead to their downfall.

"I was immensely impressed by their management and their attitude: they were well-mannered and on and off the field their players were very polite. That was quite a revelation for me, and a lot of other players can learn from them. Their management was really outstanding - they were very helpful and obliging and very respectful. There are few sides who will actually come and say, `Thanks for standing' and really mean it rather than just go through the motions. I think every side in the world can take a leaf out of their book.

"Bangladesh were very similar, actually, because they're new to this level of the game. I asked the Kenyans what their first-class structure was like, and they said it's very poor and they battle. Their top players don't have a good competition at home to test themselves against; it's not even strength against strength, so it's hard for them. But they are producing good players and have done so for a number of years, so let's hope Zimbabwe can take some notes on how they develop their good batsmen - the Tikolos and Maurice Odumbes and so on, who are top-class players, and on their day they can tear any attack to shreds.

"I've watched our black players progress in Zimbabwe over the last couple of years and I'm very proud of them; there are a lot of good players out there. We had the Casuals Junior Festival in Mutare, which is held every year, and last year was the 38th consecutive year for it to be held. A lot of guys like Andy Flower and Alistair Campbell and Grant Flower and Carlisle and Wishart have been to that festival.

"I was lucky enough to be asked to speak to the boys. A lot of people in Zimbabwe are saying what happens to Zimbabwe cricket when Andy Flower and Alistair Campbell retire or move on. During that weekend I saw a lot of talent in that group of Under-14 boys, and I actually said in public that we had no worries about the future of Zimbabwe cricket. The standard last year was as high, if not higher, than it has ever been in the past.

"So I have no worries about the future of Zimbabwe cricket, with so many black and white players who are immensely talented. Let's hope they are allowed to progress naturally and are not hindered by politics. It can have negative effects on players of all races. Zimbabwe over the years has produced many world-class players - look at the Graeme Hicks, the Kevin Currans, the Trevor Penneys who have gone overseas, or even down south, like the Elworthys and the Benkensteins. Had they all remained in Zimbabwe, we would have a great side. And amazingly Zimbabwe keeps producing these guys off the mill. We keep producing four or five international players every year. It's in our blood, I think, and it's amazing how we keep doing that.

"And it will get better because the black players are more involved in the game now, and will form most of our team one day, not in the too-distant future - and on merit, because they're good players. Taibu showed by exposure he's a good player and he's an automatic selection now; he's proved it on the field. Hopefully other players can be encouraged by that when they see he's got there by heart, passion and ability on the field. It's hard work as well, not just because he's gifted or due to the colour of his skin. That goes for the white guys too - they can't think that just because they have a name they're going to get into the team. No, no, they must prove it on the field - and off the field, I might add."

While following their team in the World Cup, Zimbabweans may also take a little time also to follow their two umpires, Russell Tiffin and Kevan Barbour, who have also shown on the field that they are world class. A successful time could open up still more horizons for Kevan Barbour of Manicaland.

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