International cricket has begun to resemble a mad whirl. But at the centre of the merry-go-round stands a reassuringly calm figure: umpire Steve Bucknor. No Test series is complete without him.

Steve Bucknor in the heat of Lahore - part of his endless world odyssey © Getty Images
"Checking in, sir? There you go - room number 1845. Have a nice day." International cricket is becoming a ceaseless circuit round the globe, like Formula One, though not quite so fast -- or so easily exempted from tobacco bans. The growth of triangular and quadrangular tournaments has turned a once-leisurely sport into the equivalent of David Lodge's Small World. It is becoming ever madder as Dhaka and Nairobi are added to the circuit of nine Test countries and the offshore venues of Toronto and Sharjah, Hong Kong and Singapore, and Florida sooner or later.

Fly in for the next tri-series, check into the team hotel, and you could be anywhere. Wake jet-lagged before dawn and your hotel room won't easily supply the answer. The television offers CNN and BBC World. The windows are sealed against whatever sort of air is outside in the grey light. Stumble down to the hotel coffee shop for breakfast and an Indian waiter will be waiting, wherever you are, and even in the lift you won't escape the muzak of Manilow or Mathis. Have we reached the stage where that has become the signature tune for the cricket of our time?

The boards don't seem to have noticed, or cared, but the more that cricketers play, the less they put into each performance. Except on the village green, I have never seen batsmen so un-sad at getting out as some were in Sharjah in December.

An autograph-hunter or two hangs around the lobby. Another vanload of cricket coffins and players' cases arrives from the airport, to the delight of the concierge. Just as some batsmen have made every first-class score from 0 to 100, I'm sure that some player one day - perhaps Ijaz Ahmed or Courtney Walsh - will one day occupy every hotel room from 1 to 1000. In the Rawalpindi Intercontinental for the last World Cup, South Africa's Daryll Cullinan was staying in room 337, and although he had played an innings of 337 for Transvaal only three years before, he had not noticed.

And there, coming into the lobby now, carrying some shopping for his family back home in Jamaica, is a personification of calmness at the centre of the merry-go-round -- the National Grid international umpire, Steve Bucknor.

Every umpire conveys some kind of subtext when he becomes the focus of attention and raises his right index finger. David Shepherd says: `Ho, ho, ho, it's a rum old game and I'm afraid that's out!' Dickie Bird, should the occasion arise, adopts the cheerful brutality of the surgeon who wants to get it over with quickly, for everyone's sake. Bucknor, after several moments for reflection, raises a long, languid finger with his habitual air of tranquillity, touched by a hint of sadness for the victim.

England played the opening game of their West Indian tour at Bucknor's home ground, Jarrett Park in Montego Bay. The first big cricket match he saw - "in short pants", as he remembers - was when the Australians visited in 1954-55: he has had subsequent occasion to see a lot more of Peter Burge. But football played just as large a part in his sporting life as he grew up to be the first tall and athletic member of his family, and studied at Cornwall College with the aim of becoming a teacher. He was a goalkeeper -- a calm and collected custodian, we may imagine -- who became established in the parish leagues of the 1960s (parishes still being the administrative units of Jamaica). In 1964 he was selected in goal for the schoolboy international against Brazil when Jamaica drew 1-1. Yes, against Brazil. It is only now that Jamaica have qualified for the World Cup, according to Bucknor, that football is again as popular as it was in the 1960s.

But there was a problem in those days in both cricket and football: to get anywhere you had to live and train in Kingston, not stay out in the parishes. Steve grew up wanting to be the second Conrad Hunte, at a time when West Indies never could find a partner for the man himself. He was also an opening outswing bowler for his club and parish, St James. He represented Western Jamaica at cricket, and twice captained the Rest of Jamaica against Kingston, in waterlogged games. In other words he has played to a higher standard than almost anyone on the International Panel apart from the English umpires. But rather than Kingston, with its similarities to Harlem, he preferred the life of a high-school teacher along the north coast, who also coached cricket, football and - Jamaica's speciality - track and field.

He diversified further in 1972 by becoming a referee and umpire, in addition to playing. The state of West Indian umpiring had been disorganised until Gerry Gomez, who served the game in every capacity, took on the (unpaid) job of giving it some structure. By the time Bucknor wanted to qualify, there were written examinations for him to sit in Jamaica, then written and oral and practical exams for his West Indian certificate in 1974.

He made simultaneous progress with the whistle and was selected for FIFA's international panel in 1985: quite a challenge since Jamaica is not far from Latin America, and football is closely linked to national prestige in those parts. The highlight of his football career was to referee a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Dutch Antilles; but it is significant that he cannot recall how many internationals he refereed. "It's a different atmosphere altogether in football," he says, calmly, softly. "In cricket the players come round after-wards and shake your hand and say 'good game'. Even the losers. It's a lot less stressful, and the financial rewards are better because a football referee has so few games, perhaps two a year for a quota. Sooner or later there would've been clashes between the football and cricket so I'm happy it worked out the way it did." Which was that FIFA reduced the age limit for referees from 50 to 45, and Bucknor gave up football in 1992.

"I enjoy it tremendously," he says of the new lifestyle of globetrotting umpire, "and the travelling and working with different colleagues. One-day games are a lot more physical than Tests - you have to do more 11 moving about in the field, so I go jogging on the road and exercise in my hotel bedroom [high jump and triple jump used to be his specialities]. I've learnt to live with the loneliness you can feel sometimes." He has a big family at home, six children and a stepdaughter.

Hearing is as important as seeing. Whatever the noise from the crowd, you hear it if the batsman touches it
Last summer, when he flew to England to stand in the first Test against Australia, he was given a Surrey 2nd XI match at The Oval to warm up. He wanted the practice so he could attune his hearing, as much as to develop his concentration or his fitness for standing all day. "Hearing is as important as seeing. Whatever the noise from the crowd, you hear it if the batsman touches it." His must be acute.

Have you seen those white lines 30 inches to either side of the stumps in some one-day internationals? Bucknor has played a sizeable part in popularising an idea which stemmed from limited-overs cricket in South Africa. He was chosen to stand in the last World Cup final at Lahore, as he had been for the previous one in Melbourne, and he asked for the white lines to be marked, as an aid in adjudicating on wides. He had found that the side batting second was inclined to complain that the definition of a wide was more lax for them than for the side batting first. Again on the first morning in Sharjah, where England won the Champions Trophy, he, Cyril Mitchley and KT Francis asked the groundsman to mark the lines, "solely as a guide".

A second problem is fielders moving behind the batsman's back. In the recent third Test between India and Sri Lanka at Bombay, Bucknor was umpiring when Rajesh Chauhan deliberately dropped back behind square leg at a pre-arranged signal, and caught Aravinda de Silva off a hook. Bucknor could not see what was happening behind square leg as the Indian bowler ran in. Shortly beforehand the Indians had attempted the same move, but the non-striker, Roshan Mahanama, had stopped the bowler and warned de Silva. Perhaps that is the way it should be in future. If it becomes the duty of the non-striker to tell his partner, and he frequently has to do so, the bowling side might soon give up the ploy, lest they be fined for a slow over rate.

Another feature of Bucknor's umpiring is his use of as few words as possible. He prefers signals because "the fingers are very, very clear". Standing first in West Indies, he noticed how the batsmen of each island had slightly differing ways of asking for a guard, some saying "middle and leg", others "leg by middle", or "two legs", and so on. So he learnt that what was clearest was to raise his index and middle fingers when they had taken `two', and to say nothing. If a batsman asks for leg, he raises one finger; if he asks for middle, Bucknor points to his middle finger. Everybody clear?

Most specialist batsmen, in his experience, ask for leg, and the lower orders for middle-and-leg, or two. Most Sri Lankans have the peculiarity of asking for and marking leg, then centre, and placing their bat in between: was this the English fashion a hundred years ago when cricket was spread in Ceylon? The only batsman he has known to ask for middle-and-off was Graham Thorpe in the Edgbaston Test last year, when he wanted to combat Shane Warne and cover his stumps. In Sharjah Thorpe again used the guard against the West Indian legspinner Rawl Lewis.

Bucknor and Ricky Ponting exchange opinions during the 2003-04 VB Series © Getty Images
The most difficult bowlers Bucknor has umpired have been Wasim Akram and Dominic Cork. Other umpires will also say that Akram is the hardest, especially when he goes round the wicket and bowls from wide out in the crease and everything happens so quickly. Above all, though, Akram and Cork are "toe bowlers", like Ian Botham used to be, as it is only the toe of their front foot which lands in delivery, leaving their heel in the air. For them Bucknor likes to mark with chalk the furthest point their toe can go without committing a no-ball. Legally, it does not matter that their heel is in the air, so long as it would have been behind the line of the popping crease.

Bucknor stood in the first Test of the India-Sri Lanka series in Mohali. After a break for the second, he did the third before flying to Sharjah (inter-national umpires like these one-off tournaments as the organisers pay them directly, so tax is avoided). He then flew to Melbourne for Christmas and the first Test between Australia and South Africa before returning to Jamaica, after almost two months on the road, for the first Test between West Indies and England. His colleague Cyril Mitchley was doing a six-week stint at the same time.

ICC deserves congratulation for taking away the acrimony that crept into Test cricket when the stakes were raised in the post-Packer era to highly paid levels. It can be argued that two independent umpires per Test would be better still, though that might discourage home umpires; it is certain that one independent is vastly better than none. There could even be two panels, A to do all the Tests, B to do games involving Kenya and Bangladesh and `A' Tests, with promotion and relegation based on merit. But that in effect happens now, as the best umpires, like Steve Bucknor, are given the most Tests (in 1994 who else became the first overseas umpire to stand in a Test in England?). Yes, it is not a bad life at the top for an umpire now, provided you don't mind the travelling and the ceaseless scrutiny of every mortal mistake.