Mallender and Aleem Dar to join the elite

Neil Mallender and Aleem Dar are to join the elite panel of Test umpires in April following an annual performance review by the ICC.

Mallender, 42, played two Tests for England in 1992 and became a first-class umpire in 1999, while Dar, who played domestic cricket in Pakistan between 1986 and 1998, stood in his first Test during England's tour of Bangladesh last October.

"I'm very pleased to be given this opportunity. Making this panel was my aim and having made it to this level I will now be aiming to do my best," said Dar. Mallender, meanwhile, admitted the news was something of a surprise. He said, "I was quite shocked when I was told. To umpire at this level was my aim but it has come around sooner than I expected it would."

They will join the established quartet of David Shepherd, Steve Bucknor, Daryl Harper and Rudi Koertzen. Meanwhile, the three umpires who joined in April 2003 - Billy Bowden, Darrell Hair and Simon Taufel - all retained their places.

However, the unlucky three to be dropped by the ICC were Asoka de Silva, David Orchard and Russell Tiffin. When Venkat retires next month, the number of umpires to officiate in Tests will drop from 11 to nine.

Malcolm Speed, the ICC chief executive, said the changes to the panel reflected the strong depth in umpiring round the world. "Over the past two years we have seen a strong group of new umpires emerge," he said. "Aleem Dar and Neil Mallender have demonstrated that they are ready to take the next step in their careers."