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Keep us neutral, ICC umpires declare

Umpires are united in their belief that neutrality should not be tampered with in the wake of calls for the best officials to be used in the Ashes series after Joel Wilson and Aleem Dar combined for a total of 20 decision reviews in the opening Test at Edgbaston.

Furthermore, Australian and English voices calling for an end to the neutral umpires system first experimented with by Pakistan in the late 1980s and formalised in 1994 are believed to be very much in the minority at the ICC's various committee tables.

The question of dumping the neutral umpires system, a query raised by Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Michael Vaughan among others during the Edgbaston Test has been debated more than once over the years, typically around the time of an Ashes series. Most recently the issue was raised at an ICC match officials forum in 2018, and ESPNcricinfo understands that the umpires were not only united but vehement in their opposition to any change.

Put simply, umpires are happier to accept criticism of their decision-making on a basis of skills, conditions, eyesight - just about anything so long as they are not regarded as biased towards one side or favouring their home team. This accusation, which was levied at countless umpires over many years before the introduction of neutral officials in the early 1990s, is not one that any umpires involved in international cricket would like to revisit, and they have the support of the majority of countries at ICC level.

Wilson, who was standing in his 14th Test at Edgbaston, was subject to 15 of the 20 reviews, with eight of his decisions being overturned after the players made the "T" sign to query them with the third umpire, Chris Gaffaney.

In the wake of the match, Wilson is understood to have spent time reviewing his performance with his umpires coach David Levens, who is responsible for mentoring ICC umpires from Australia, England and the West Indies, and is slated to be working as the television umpire during the second Test of the series at Lord's before he returns to the middle for the third match at Headingley in Leeds alongside Gaffaney. Aleem and Gaffaney will be on the field at Lord's, before the Sri Lankans Kumar Dharmasena and Ruchira Palliyaguruge, plus South Africa's Marais Erasmus, take over for the final two Tests.

In addition to the views of umpires and member countries about the complications presented by returning to a system where it is possible to officiate over Test matches played by your own countrymen, other concerns include the fact that it would simply create a greater array of areas for competing teams to query, given that it would not always be possible to have the supposed "best two umpires in the world" taking charge when other factors like the global schedule and team preferences are taken into account.

The old complaints of touring teams about home umpires are legion, with neutral officials first tried by Pakistan in 1986 against the West Indies and in 1990 against India to help assuage accusations of bias. In Australia in 1990-91, Phil Tufnell has recounted how an Australian umpire, Peter McConnell, made no secret as to his distaste for the English side. When asked how many balls were left in an over at the MCG, Tufnell recounted McConnell's reply as: "Count 'em yourself you Pommie ****."

An exchange of words involving England's captain Graham Gooch followed, and McConnell turned down a vociferous caught behind appeal by Tufnell against David Boon a few over later. South Africa's players were left similarly disenchanted by Darrell Hair and Terry Prue during a Test in Adelaide in 1994, in one of the last series before neutral umpires were formally made part of the system - match referees having been introduced in 1992.

Ponting, though, gave voice to mounting calls for a change. "I would like to think the game has come far enough now for the game to not have neutral umpires," Ponting told cricket.com.au."People might say that with all the technology we've got now, it doesn't matter that much. But it's not a good spectacle when pretty obviously wrong decisions are made. There's been a lot a negativity about the DRS over the years, but we're pretty lucky that we had it last night.

"It's already been spoken about a lot among the players. If it's not brought up, I'll make sure it's added to the agenda. Surely Richard Kettleborough and the like would want to be umpiring the best series. The best umpires can end up missing out on all the big tournaments. It could force umpires into retirement a bit early."

England's captain Joe Root was more conciliatory, noting that umpires made mistakes much as players did. "Players make bad decisions from time to time, lose their wicket or get smacked out of the attack. Umpires are going to make mistakes as well," Root said.

"It's very easy to over-criticise and point the finger. Sometimes there has to be respect and understand they're under as much pressure as some of the players. They might have got a fair few decisions wrong in this game but that's all part and parcel of cricket and that's why DRS is there to overturn the wrong ones, thankfully it was there this game. It's never going to be a perfect system, there will always be areas that can be made better or we can pick holes at. As long as the players understand and accept that, it's the same for both sides. You've just got to get on with the game."

Similarly to players, umpires are assessed and developed over time, graduating from junior and club ranks to first-class level, then Twenty20 international, ODIs and finally a spot on the 12-man ICC elite panel to officiate primarily in Test matches and major ICC events. Wilson is a West Indian graduate of this system, and as such will not be discarded out of hand after one poor game. Along with Levens, the other umpires coaches overseeing development are Peter Manuel from Sri Lanka, Denis Burns from England and Karl Hurter from South Africa.

A more pressing concern is the fact that seven of the 12 elite panel umpires are currently Australian or English, meaning options for the Ashes are relatively few. Last month is was announced by the ICC that S Ravi, India's only elite panel member, had been relegated for performance reasons, with Michael Gough (England) and Wilson being promoted, with the longtime English umpire Ian Gould retiring. the need for a wider spread of umpiring talent has been repeatedly stressed to member countries, among other issues, and a pair of recent developments can be expected to help in the medium term.

The first is the broadening of the DRS to be used in all T20Is, meaning that a wider pool of umpires will become used to dealing with its vagaries either out in the middle or in the third umpire's chair. The second is the gradually expanding pool of skilled Asian umpires via their experiences in the IPL, offering the chance for more to graduate the same system that indicated Wilson's Edgbaston experience was more redolent of a bad game for an elite player than an indication of his overall quality or otherwise.