Aleem Dar has officiated on-field in more Test matches (132) and international games across formats (391) than any other umpire in history. But on January 26, he will finally get to umpire in his first-ever home Test, between Pakistan and South Africa in Karachi, alongside his compatriot Ahsan Raza.
Dar, formerly a legspinner who played 17 first-class matches and 18 List A games in the 1980s and 90s, made his international umpiring debut in February 2000, in an ODI between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Gujranwala, his hometown.
Since then, while he has stood in numerous white-ball games involving Pakistan, he has not had the chance to officiate in a Pakistan Test match until now, with the ICC's regulations mandating neutral umpires for the longest format. Owing to the logistical challenges of international travel in the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the ICC has permitted the appointment of locally-based match officials from the ICC's Elite Panel and International Panel, which has given Dar and Raza the opportunity to stand in a home Test.
Ahead of the Karachi Test, ESPNcricinfo caught up with Dar for a brief, 15-minute chat.
Can you describe your emotions and the anticipation of standing in a Test in Pakistan? You've stood in PSL games and white-ball games but to be there as Test cricket returns, more nerves than usual?
It's a great honour and there is some pressure as well but that's usual and will go away in three to four overs. I have done 132 Tests overall and none of them were at home so this opportunity is big for me and for my profile. I am proud that I have come this far and it's never easy for any umpire from any country at this level. There have been ups and downs but I know I still have it in me and I can continue to love this game.
It has been nearly a 17-year journey and I am not done yet. Like the players, the match officials also want to umpire in matches on home grounds, something we achieve in white-ball cricket, but Test cricket remains the pinnacle format and I am delighted that I will be standing in two Tests between two excellent sides. I love my job and I am enjoying doing it.
I have done my job properly and with honesty and carried it out with great distinction. But the day I feel I am not good enough, I will walk away. Sometimes the decisions can go wrong, you get the benefit of doubt for that, but the day I feel my judgment is going wrong and I can't trust what I'm seeing, I will quit. I am 53 right now and I have managed to reduce my weight by 10 kilos, and I'm focusing on going on for as long as I enjoy it and do it right.
Do you prepare differently for a Test as compared to limited-overs games?
T20 is fast and requires a different level of concentration while in one-day cricket batsman usually give bowlers some respect but still play big shots, so can't afford to be complacent. Test matches require a different temperament but as an umpire you don't think of it as five-day or four-day cricket. You break it down in your mind, session by session, and don't visualise it as a five-day game, otherwise there are chances you may lose your concentration. It's a tough job and you've got to be mentally strong enough to endure the pressure. You have to be physically fit to maintain your focus on the game, and that is a fundamental requirement to survive in this job.
"I feel in Pakistan, there is a sense of reluctance among the cricketers [to take up umpiring] and that is mainly because the money involved in it isn't as attractive as it should be."
Do you have a pre-match routine that you always follow?
We usually go out and observe players in training sessions to absorb everything. I look out for batsmen in the nets, their style, their technique, their stance, and how much they shuffle, and all this information is going to help me in the game. For instance, Fawad Alam has a unique technique and stance, so observing him in the nets is a kind of practice for me as well. It's similar with bowlers and it's how we prepare as umpires before every game.
With technology around do you feel bad when a decision is overturned?
Technology is really helpful with all decisions including doubtful catches and lbws, and I think the pressure is more on players rather than umpires because they have to perform. I feel as an umpire you are tested especially when you make mistakes. Sometimes in Tests you commit a mistake within the first two overs and that puts you under pressure right from the start and you can't run away with bad decisions, but standing there and feeling let down isn't going to work. So technology actually plays a significant part in improving the umpiring and it is a great help.
Also, you cannot allow one decision to reflect on the rest of your game. It's about getting the right decision and technology is helping you make good decisions. Mistakes can happen but what is important for a good umpire is to improve and make sure the percentage of mistakes is very small. You can't allow your one mistake to make you commit another one thinking about the previous one. You can only survive if you are mentally strong and how good you are with your match-management, and that is where you have to re-gather yourself for the rest of the game.
What's your favourite match that you've stood in?
I am blessed to have stood in 391 games but the game I will never forget is the one from 2004 - Sri Lanka Test against England in Kandy. That was a major breakthrough that changed my career because after the game ICC called me up and told me that I am the part of ICC Elite Panel and that's how life changed. There were almost 59 appeals, and it was tough out there for me with a young career. But I had 99% accuracy in the game, with just one wrong decision. The ball was turning big time, and umpiring when Muttiah Muralitharan was bowling wasn't always easy. It's not just me but for every umpire, turning pitches always test your judgment.
The other game I like to recall from my career so far was the South Africa-Australia ODI in Johannesburg, in which South Africa went on to chase the highest total ever. So these two games were remarkable and memorable in my mind.
How good are the pathways for anyone wanting to pursue a career in umpiring in Pakistan? What advice do you have for someone wanting to become an umpire?
I have been requesting the PCB, persistently, to encourage more cricketers to pick up the profession. It's not true that only a good cricketer can be a good umpire. Yes, it's an advantage and the majority of the Elite panelists are Test cricketers, but I feel more cricketers at any level, if they are good enough, take keen interest in this profession, and understand the players' psyche, they should come forward to pick up this great profession.
But I feel in Pakistan, there is a sense of reluctance among the cricketers and that is mainly because the money involved in it isn't as attractive as it should be. So it's really important here in Pakistan that this profession should be taken more seriously and good amount of money should be handed to the officials. There are a few around and they are doing well but it's still not sufficient.
When someone wants to invest a big chunk of time in this field, then definitely the expectations are to make a good living out of it. When there is no money involved, the pathway gets closed instantly, because cricketers see this as a waste of time and lose interest. We now have the Pakistan Super League but the opportunities are mostly for a few at the top rung, and several at the domestic level get left out. So if you want professionalism in the field, you need to pay more to get quality.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent