Russell Tiffin of Zimbabwe, officially one of the world's eight top cricket umpires, is a busy man nowadays. Last April he was appointed to the ICC's elite panel of international umpires, and he becomes Zimbabwe's first professional umpire, trotting the globe to umpire international matches in all of the world's Test-playing countries - except, ironically now, his own.
Born in 1959, Russell comes from a farming background in Zimbabwe, as his family used to farm in the Tengwe area in the north of the country. His father left farming during the mid-seventies, although continuing in the tobacco industry. Russell was educated at Banket Primary School and Prince Edward High School in Harare, where he boarded.
He learned his cricket at Banket, where former national player Brian Oldrieve, also a farmer at Tengwe, was a major influence. At Prince Edward School Rex McCullough was his coach, who encouraged him to keep wicket. He was good enough to play for the Fawns, the national Under-15 team, and he remained a wicket-keeper who batted usefully.
"This all came to an abrupt end through military service, three years of no cricket," he says. "Then I continued with my cricket for Old Hararians (the Prince Edward old boys' team) and represented Mashonaland province." This was before Zimbabwe achieved Test status and provincial sides gained first-class status.
He feels he might have achieved a bit more as a player had his career not been so badly interrupted. Contemporaries of his, such as Dave Houghton, Kevin Curran, Eddo Brandes and Kevin Arnott, were in the national team or on the verge of it, and he was unable to make any progress.
Where and why did he finish playing? "There were a few people involved in hoodwinking me into going into the umpiring field," he says, naming Mashonaland administrator Charles Wallace, national umpires Peter Robinson and Ian Robinson and Dave Houghton. "I developed a better interest in it and it continued. In 1989 was my first first-class game and my first one-day international, here against India."
His umpiring career proper began in 1986, when he umpired second-league cricket in Harare, and he has progressed steadily up the ladder since then. In secular life he worked for Castrol Zimbabwe, but there was no clash in those early days as he umpired only at weekends. Gradually as his international duties increased he needed more time off work, and finally, in May 2002, he resigned his job as general manager of sales on his appointment as an ICC elite panel umpire. "With the amount of travel I do, especially external travel, it just wasn't possible to stay in full employment," he says.
Russell's First Test match was against South Africa at Harare Sports Club in 1995/96, just after he was elected on to the ICC panel, which then consisted of two umpires from each country, apart from England who had four. "It wasn't a particularly good one for myself," he admits, "but it was a first experience and I learned a lot from it as well. It was a good thing for me that I was standing with David Shepherd and I learned from him. He's still a great man to be standing with out in the middle."
His first match outside Zimbabwe was in Lahore, Pakistan, in their series against New Zealand in 1996/97. His partner on that occasion was the late Shakoor Rana, best known for his famous chat with Mike Gatting. "Communication was a bit of a problem," Russell says, "but I got on all right with him."
As umpires the world over awaited with trepidation the announcement of the ICC elite panel earlier this year, Russell says he was not particularly confident of inclusion, although he knew he had had a few good matches in the season before and thought he had won the confidence of the captains.
In 28 Tests and 51 one-day internationals to date, Russell has visited all the Test-playing countries now, including Bangladesh last year. He has yet to stand in a Test arena on the Australian mainland, although he has `done' Hobart, but he is down to stand in the Melbourne Boxing Day Test against England, followed by the Sydney Test. He refuses to name a favourite destination: "They're all much the same," he says, although hinting that Bangladesh is not perhaps up to the same standard yet.
Similarly he is reluctant to name his favourite partners out in the middle, feeling that he can learn something from each of them and they can learn from him. "David Shepherd is still a champion, good to be with," he says, "just like most of the others. I've spent more time with him, I suppose, and he's one of the more senior ones. He's a good fellow."
Russell has a reputation of taking no nonsense from players on the field. "I really haven't had much of a problem, to be honest," he says regarding players' attitudes. "I did have a bit of a problem last year in Port Elizabeth, South Africa against India, but that was soon dealt with. If you show respect to the players, then in comes back to you. Excessive appealing is there, but I think with the four levels of conduct it's up to umpires to deal with. I think a lot of that sledging, intimidatory behaviour, excessive appealing, even swearing for that matter, will be reduced, because of the seriousness of the penalties."
Even so, some will try to cut corners, but can he name any major players who are real gentlemen on the field and play in the right spirit? "I don't have a problem with Andy Flower or Grant Flower or Sachin Tendulkar," he says, before going on to name one or two less so-operative individuals.
"Australians are champion - they get on with the game, they play it hard, they've quietened down quite a bit in terms of intimidation and abuse to other players. The Pakistanis are pretty quiet now.
"The Australians are a very professional unit now; I've just spent some time with them in Kenya and Sri Lanka. Ricky Ponting is a good captain, as is Adam Gilchrist. They've got good control of their team and their competitiveness stays at the highest levels. It will take the other teams some way to catch up to their level."
And tactically? "I've got to mention Nasser Hussain I think he does very well in conjunction with Duncan Fletcher. It's come together with them and you can notice it. The Australian captaincy is there, with Ricky Ponting in the one-day arena. Sourav Ganguly spends a tremendous amount of time placing and replacing the fielders." Partly to waste time also, as Russell concedes. "Stephen Fleming of New Zealand puts together his plans more noticeably than some of the others."
Russell considers the most memorable individual performance was that by Brian Lara at Colombo last year - century in the first innings, double-century in the second, and West Indies still lost. Of the other great players, he says, "One of the first names to come to attention would be Shane Warne. Something is going to happen every time he delivers that ball. He's a wizard with the ball and he's just knocked over Pakistan to gain an amazing victory.
"Glenn McGrath is another classy one, another Australian; Jason Gillespie. Because they come from a professional unit with a good batting line-up they have tremendous strength. The Indians have a very healthy batting side as well and they have a good mix with leftand right-handers. Pakistan can be very much hot and cold: when they turn it on they can be a very difficult side to beat in one-day cricket especially.
"In the World Cup - Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa. These are the sides to be watching out for.
"I think South Africa have their own development to get through and they're trying out different players now - some old, some new. Although they're hosting the World Cup I wouldn't describe them as favourites. Pollock is under a bit of pressure as captain, I think, and with his requirements as a bowler it puts a bit of extra pressure on him. They have home advantage, so I'd still put them in the top six."
Russell has a generally positive attitude towards the greater use of technology in umpiring. "It was a good learning time in Sri Lanka (for the ICC Champions Trophy)," he says, "but I don't think the technology is 100 per cent there at the moment. A lot of referrals did have the reply of `inconclusive', particularly catches behind and close ones into the batsman's body. It did assist with lbws, especially with the three questions we had to ask - did it pitch outside leg, was there an edge and checking for height.
"So that was of great assistance, but I think people must understand that it was a trial period and the full analysis should come out in the next fortnight - the number of referrals, be they lbws, catches or bat-pads, and the number that were inconclusive should show from that as well. But the important thing was that it was still up to the on-field umpire to make the decision. Some people were confused by the misunderstanding that it was the third umpire, once it was referred to him, who would be making the decision. All he was doing was answering the questions that the on-field umpire asked.
"It's going to end up like that; in time, it's going to be a referral that can say out or not out. I'd like to think it's still a long way away, but technology needs to improve a lot more. And we have to ensure that each country has the same equipment, with more than one camera on hand to deal with line decisions, and preferably unmanned cameras as well. Then there will be no blame on the human element."
Russell expects a programme of about 12 Tests and 15 one-day internationals during the course of a year, one April to the next. This year he has exceeded 20 one-day internationals already since April. "It's a lot of time, considering the amount of work you're doing on the field," he says. "This last trip to Kenya and then on to Colombo was 40 days, and it entailed 13 days of actual umpiring."
Next week Russell is off to South Africa, to stand in their two Tests against Bangladesh, followed by two more against Sri Lanka. He returns to Zimbabwe for a month's leave with his family, and then has two Tests in Australia, followed by a triangular one-day tournament there also involving England and Sri Lanka.
"Then it's one week back and the World Cup starts," he muses. "That's a good six-week period as well. Then we're back to April.
"There's a lot of talk about how the World Cup will go and whether we'll still be fortunate enough to host our matches. Let's hope it goes according to all the planning and the money that has been spent on all the arenas. To reiterate, I just hope it does happen, because it won't happen here again for a long, long time. So we must make the most of it and put up a good show."