England v Australia, 4th Investec Test, Durham, 3rd day August 11, 2013

Who'd be a Test umpire?

From legalised player dissent to big-screen reviews, international umpires are now on a hiding to nothing but humiliation
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The DRS is meant to help umpires, not humiliate them. But Tony Hill was humiliated on the third morning at Chester-le-Street. There can be no other word for it. When Stuart Broad rapped Ryan Harris on the pads dead in front, Hill declined the appeal. Presumably, he felt Harris may have nicked the ball. It was not a ridiculous supposition, for the ball had struck both pads, creating two noises. Whatever the case, Hill felt there was doubt and gave the benefit of it to the batsman, as Test umpires have done for 135 years.

England asked for a review, as is their right under the DRS. The replays showed that Hill had erred; Harris was plumb lbw. The process played out on the big screen at the ground. Ripples of laughter went around as Hill's mistake was not only shown but magnified, replayed, every angle leaving him further exposed to ridicule. The final indignity came when the third umpire relayed the decision to Hill, who raised his finger to an empty pitch. The players had seen enough on the big screen and were halfway inside.

It was impossible not to sympathise with Hill, who trudged off with all the haste and enthusiasm of a newly-dismissed Shane Watson or Jonathan Trott. He looked sapped of all confidence. There is no avoiding the fact that Hill's call was wrong, and that the final outcome was correct. But the process left him embarrassed and must surely have compounded the existing doubts in his mind. How is that good for cricket, or for this match, or for Hill? How does that help anyone?

"Throughout my career I never had a batsman dispute my decision," Dickie Bird said in 2010. That may be a slight embellishment, or perhaps it's true, but one thing is certain: Bird was never made to look a fool. Bird was a renowned "not-outer". If in doubt, say not out. That's what Hill did here. But in Bird's day, what the umpire said was final. Had he given this same decision - and he would've done countless times over the years - the bowler might have felt aggrieved, the viewers curious, but all would have moved on.

Nobody remembers the right calls, even the controversial ones. Kevin Pietersen's caught-behind at Old Trafford will be recalled for Pietersen's rudely-requested review and reluctance to accept the outcome, not for Hill's correct decision to trust his ears in the first place. Or Australia's unsuccessful review when Harris rapped Trott on the pads. Hawk Eye predicted the ball would have clipped leg stump on an "umpire's call" margin. Rightly, Hill had given Trott the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, Hill has made mistakes. He is human. Every umpire in this series has erred. Every umpire in every series throughout history has probably erred. Dickie Bird erred. David Shepherd erred. Tony Crafter erred. But commentators did not forensically dissect every aspect of a decision. That's out, they said. Not, that's out unless he hit it, and let's see if he did, and unless it pitched outside leg, and let's see if it did, and unless it was sliding down leg, and let's see if it was.

The disdain with which Kevin Pietersen called for a review in the third Test was downright contemptible. Where was his respect for the umpire or for the game?
Daryl Harper on the demands of the modern umpire

But technology creates unrealistic expectations. Mistakes are unjustly magnified, wrongly made to appear proof of complete incompetence. How could an umpire get that wrong? That decision that we've just seen six times in slow-motion from four angles and with the help of technology? What a buffoon!

"The DRS has certainly increased the pressure on umpires to get virtually everything right," former Test umpire Daryl Harper told ESPNcricinfo on Sunday. "The high performance experts would tell you that an umpire must put a poor decision out of his mind and focus wholly on the next ball. Sure, it sounds easy enough. I haven't known a single umpire who can do it.

"In the eighties, the general television coverage of cricket was very basic. In the nineties, the quality of technology improved, but even then, decisions were not scrutinised to the degree that we see today. It was common practice to give the batsman the benefit of the doubt to any ball that was drifting towards the leg stump.

"After the turn of the century, umpires made their lbw decisions, only to see replays on the big screen at the ground that suggested that the decision was wrong, before the batsman had even left the field. It isn't a good feeling and definitely gnaws away at one's confidence. After seeing so many replays of balls clipping leg stump in particular, umpires began to widen the target and gamble more often on that count.

"And in modern times, our administrators have now legalised dissent. The disdain with which Kevin Pietersen called for a review in the third Test was downright contemptible. Where was his respect for the umpire or for the game? Having been told to go a second time after the review, how did he possibly escape a sanction for his parting words? I can lip read as well as anyone."

All of these factors can gradually erode the confidence of an umpire. An umpire like Hill, who by the ICC's judgement is one of the best 12 in the world, a man who has made enough good decisions to get himself here, is made to look foolish. Yes, umpires choose this well-paid career. Yes, they accept the pressure that goes with it. But the expectations of players and viewers must remain realistic.

Umpires are not machines. They are men, and men who do their job in increasingly trying circumstances. Once, they were inconspicuous, but never infallible. They never will be, yet cricket has reached a point where decisions and umpires and reviews and technology are the story. It is an unhealthy situation for any sport, and it breeds self-doubt in men whose very job relies on backing their judgement.

"With this respect for officials being stripped back to the bone, I have great sympathy for my former colleagues who are on a hiding to nothing," Harper said. "Our administrators have snatched at the television dollars and sold the officials up the river without a paddle. As often as American sports are unfairly maligned, Major League Baseball allows its officials to make decisions, good and not so good. Replays of missed calls are shown but life goes on."

Life will go on for Tony Hill, and Aleem Dar, and Kumar Dharmasena, and Marais Erasmus. They have all made mistakes in this series. Some have been howlers. But none deserve ridicule. No official should have to raise the finger to an empty pitch. Respect must return. And unless it does, who'd be a Test umpire anymore?

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Thegimp on August 13, 2013, 5:40 GMT

    Hill had a shocker, let's not mince it. Umpires have always had to make close calls and we have always forgiven the odd error, but in this series you can only laugh because not to do so will simply depress. I just find that I'm glad I'm only watching and not playing because then I would be ropeable. To say that it's acceptable that he got three right and three wrong is a joke. 50/50 isn't good enough. Ask your employer, if your boss says it's OK for you to get 50% of your work decisions correct then I want your job.

  • Cricket_theBestGame on August 13, 2013, 1:56 GMT

    @JB Baxter - i completely agree with you. its a tough job no doubt. you did raise a valid point of umpire having to look at the NO ball then look up and see the rest of the picture. maybe just maybe, this is the reason why most umpire err because their attention is diverted for that 1 second from watching No ball and looking up?

    it explains why Dharmasina regularly checks for No ball. ...so why not help them and handover checking the No ball to 3rd umpire? then onfield umpire can keep looking at the batsman where all the action is. if there is a No ball 3rd umpire can whisper into onfield umpire. just like now when umpires check for it after a batsman is cleaned bowled..would be no differnt. though it would give more time to umpires..

  • ballsintherightareas on August 12, 2013, 19:25 GMT

    Well said. Absolutely right.

  • quarterjack on August 12, 2013, 13:47 GMT

    Is giving the bowler "the benefit of the doubt" any more fair than doing the same for the batsman? Should a ref give a penalty if he's not sure or refuse it for the same reason? One side is going to be angry with the decision. Keep some form of review, but limit its use to LBW, which is probably the most contentious decision an umpire can make. Take a leaf from baseball's page: show the feed only to the umpires, and only to the field umpires, not a third or fourth official. The crowd doesn't need to see it. Keep the challenges, and tie an unsuccessful challenge to some form of mark down -- a loss or addition of two runs, say. Decision-making must remain in the hands of the umpires on the field.

  • android_user on August 12, 2013, 13:28 GMT

    Super article. The situation is not helped either by commentators (Mark Nicholas is often a guilty party) second guessing appeals using phrases like "must be" then saying very little when the umpire's decision is shown to be the correct one and their guess found to be wrong. A little more humility and empathy and a little less grandstanding would go a long way. Would be great to see Sky or Ch5 (perhaps via the analyst) do an in depth feature on being an umpire to give people a better insight as to their role rather than at times hiding behind the technology and countless slow motion technologies. A start might be to show the piece in real time speed. The commentary from Geoff Boycott summed it up for me when reviewing a bat pad decision in England's first innings saying that he didn't need to look at it on DRS he could see it on the replay. Something not afforded to umpires in the first instance.

  • Calypso_Kid on August 12, 2013, 12:39 GMT

    Yes, DRS has shown up umpires. But the number of failed reviews has also shown up the players. Nicks & close LBWs are fiendishly hard to judge, even by the man holding the bat. So let's accept the DRS genie is out of the bottle and get its use right.

    The excuse for not using DRS on every iffy appeal is that it delays the game. But we have delays anyway, as parties confer whether to risk one of their two precious reviews. So let's cut out the middlemen and go straight to DRS, just like the TV stations do anyhow.

    And if DRS devalues umpiring skills, so what? Umpires are servants of the game, the contest is not about their skills. They will still be the judges of a myriad things: wides and no-balls, catches close to the ground, short runs, intimidatory bowling, was a stroke played, unfair play in all its forms. And of what is so palpably out or not-out that referral is pointless.

    Whole series have been decided by umpiring mistakes and the sooner DRS takes us past that, the better.

  • Sigismund on August 12, 2013, 12:19 GMT

    Wel said again, Brydon. My immediate thought when Hill gave Harris not out was that it was an excellent decision, and the only right one. It looked and sounded as though he might well have hit it. It has to be not out - those are the rules! You've got to do better than that if you want to get him out. Inevitably, though, dismay for poor Tony Hill was shortly to follow. Those commenters who don't agree 100% with this article have completely lost the plot. Judgement, the skill of the umpire, is not about technicalities; it is about the balance of evidence and the upholding of sporting justice. The 12 on the elite panel are the very best in the world at doing this, and the current system is making a mockery of them. Most of us have to make do with accepting decisions from some bloke from the other team who doesn't know the rules; but we still manage OK. Give the umpires their integrity back; they are the lynchpin of the game.

  • timallen1950 on August 12, 2013, 11:30 GMT

    The answer is, only allow the umpire to use the DRS when he is unsure. That way he can give each of his decisions with greater confidence and is not open to ridicule. We should be supporting umpires not leaving them open to humiliation.

  • itismenithin on August 12, 2013, 9:59 GMT

    Fully agree with the article, Umpires are humans and bound to make mistakes. The question to be asked is can the Umpires get any better, is it possible for human eyes to spot those fine edges. If not why ridicule the umpires? One of my fears when DRS was introduced was loss of respect of umpires and i can see than happening now. If we need quality umpiring then we need to respect the their job. In the current form even technology is not 100% so there isn't really strong case for it to replace umpires completely.

  • dummy4fb on August 12, 2013, 9:56 GMT

    In order to avoid this DRS controversy I suggest the following. No public TV replay of the HAWK EYE. The decision is reviewed by the third umpire and an out or not out decision given. This would stop all the arm chair umpires from giving an opinion from sometimes 6000 miles away.