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

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

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