Marais Erasmus is hoping nobody notices him over the next four days. If he is successful in remaining invisible, then he will have done a good job. Years ago when Erasmus was a rugby referee at school level, his father passed on a valuable suggestion. "He told me, the less people know about the umpire the better for the game. So when nobody talks about the umpire then they actually have had a good day," Erasmus said 24 hours before he becomes probably the first overseas umpire to officiate in Indian domestic cricket.
Erasmus arrived in India for the first time this week as part of the exchange programme between the BCCI and Cricket South Africa where one umpire from each country gets to stand in a domestic tournament in the other to improve their skills. Suresh Shastri, the Indian umpire, stood in two Supersport matches in South Africa last year as part of the programme. Erasmus, who was originally scheduled to officiate in the Champions Twenty20 League, is very happy that he has finally come to cricket-mad India, which he knew so far only from TV. He will stand in the Duleep Trophy semi-final in Mumbai and then the final in Chennai from February 5.
Used to making his judgments on the hard, bouncy pitches of South Africa, he has no doubt he will face a stiff task on the flat pitches in India.
"The biggest challenge will be umpiring to spinners when there are fielders around the batsman," he said. "It does not matter where you are [playing]. Those are the most difficult decisions. I know the subcontinental teams appeal with a different style as they play with passion, but I hope to work it out. In South African cricket you might get a spinner bowling for maximum 20 overs from one side and hardly any close-in fielders surround the batsman, so you can judge the decisions better."
He might be inexperienced at judging the bounce on Indian pitches, but he possesses enough knowledge of the Kookaburra ball that is used in Duleep matches, the only brand used in South Africa. "In South Africa we experience a lot of bounce [with a Kookaburra], so there are a lot of not-outs when there are shouts for an lbw because of the height whereas here there is more chance of hitting because the bounce isn't that high. Hopefully, my judgment won't be bad."
A self-confessed cricket fanatic, Erasmus played 53 first-class games over nine seasons for Boland as a bowling allrounder alongside the likes of Omar Henry and Roger Telemachus. He taught Grade 7 kids social sciences and Afrikaans full-time at a school in his native Malmesbury, 70 kilometres north of Cape Town before deciding to take up umpiring seriously.
Since then he has officiated in 37 matches including seven ODIs and two Twenty20 internationals. One of the Twenty20s was at home against Australia, a close contest that South Africa won by two runs. Did he feel the stress? Not really. "Having played the game helped me deal with the pressure."
Having pedigree as a player definitely helps, according to Erasmus. The players trust you more, he says. In his first season as an umpire, during a first-class game, the former South Africa fast bowler Shaun Pollock appealed for a close leg-before. "Not out," said Erasmus. Surprised, Pollock said, "But you were a bowler." Erasmus replied that he was an umpire now.
Pravin Amre, the West Zone coach, who played for Boland in the late 1990s, welcomes the move of appointing an overseas official, especially because of the neutrality it ensures. "They will be under no pressure," Amre said. Erasmus agrees: "It is a safer option." He does, though, go on to add, "It doesn't mean I won't make mistakes."
Looking at the broader picture, Erasmus, who has officiated in New Zealand's domestic cricket too (CSA have had a similar exchange programme with New Zealand Cricket for 11 years), looks at this swap as a form of cross-pollination: Indian umpires can pick something from him and he can get something out of them.
"I don't come here as a finished article. It is part of my growth and my exposure and will eventually help me make it to the Elite Panel. I will be appraised in the normal way like any other Indian umpire, and that will only help in furthering my aims."
As he gets ready to stand in the practice nets at the Brabourne Stadium, where the teams from West Zone and East Zone have arrived, I joke about how his six-foot stature is at odds with his desire to remain invisible. He lets out a loud laugh and says, "Bring on the spinners from both sides. That will only help me."