Umpires deserve our empathy not our disdain
They will sometimes miss an edge or two, and sometimes it will happen in clumps, but that doesn't make a bad umpire
When TV commentators and fans start to psychoanalyse umpires, you know it is a declaration day. It can be tough to watch for a spectator, but any top-level sport is a competitive pursuit first and through that it becomes a spectacle. It is a spectacle because it is competitive, and not competitive because it is a spectacle.
So India chose to bat on in order to deny New Zealand even the slightest of sniffs and to not lose the advantage of bowling last. They could have enforced a follow-on, and probably would have finished the Test by now, but they have nowhere to go after finishing early. They will be stuck in the bubble for the South Africa tour anyway so why not make sure you take the extra day and be absolutely ruthless?
Besides, India had a couple of batters who could do with some time out in the middle. Plus, Axar Patel said at the end of the day's play that they used their batting innings to simulate a fourth-innings chase on a turning pitch out in the centre.
It doesn't make for engaging viewing especially when the opposition doesn't have the bowlers to compete in these conditions. Will Somerville, one of the four specialists that New Zealand played in both Tests, has gone wicketkless in the series. Only seven bowlers in the history of the game have conceded more runs in a series without taking a wicket.
In such circumstances, except for those personally invested in the runs, say, Virat Kohli scores, spectators find it difficult to stay engaged. So out comes the usual punching bag, the umpires. Not that the umpires weren't pilloried before Covid-19, but the latest fad is to criticise home umpires because the authorities deem flying in neutral umpires unnecessary during the pandemic. This is the worst slander of professionals in an era where they are professionally evaluated. It is ludicrous to imagine an umpire will carry a bias in front of all high-res, high frame-rate cameras, which can curtail his own career.
If there can be a bias, it won't even be visible to those who build such lazy narratives. The bias can be in the conducting of the game, in how much they let someone sledge, whom they pull up for bad behaviour, how much they let a team play in wet conditions etc. Even bad light doesn't fall under such bias because it is objectively measured. Aside from the odd off-the-record murmur, there hasn't been a big issue on this front either.
Unfortunately, former cricketers, often known to be at odds with umpires when they played, are at the forefront of this vilification. During this Test, for example, Shane Warne picked out one isolated few-seconds-long clip of the Kohli lbw in the first innings and ruled it "simply not-out". He went on to suggest that third umpires frequently misinterpret the technology without ever considering the possibility that it could have been pad-bat-pad. After all, there was a point when the bat was slightly behind the pad and UltraEdge still picked up a sound signature. In the second innings, when the bat was merely an inch or two further ahead, Kohli was ruled not out in near-identical circumstances.
The same people disregard technology when it comes to low catches because technology hasn't played Test cricket and those who have played Test cricket know that every low catch is out even though there is new evidence on display.
Before you know, 20 media organisations are quoting Warne and the umpire is not allowed to defend himself. Even when he does, it never really sticks. Kumar Dharmasena, an excellent umpire, a former ICC Umpire of the Year, provided an excellent explanation for his umpiring error in the 2019 World Cup final. In public perception, it was firstly assumed that a professional of such high acclaim didn't even remember the overthrows law.
Despite Dharamsena explaining that it was physically impossible to know where the two running batters were in relation to each other at the exact moment when the fielder released the ball from 60 yards away, people ignored another playing condition and asked him why he could not check with the third umpire. The issue here is that playing conditions allow umpires to check only dismissals and boundary saves with the third umpire. That the MCC rewrote the law was an admission it could not be enforced in the form that it was.
Just do a search on any platform for "Dharmasena final", and you will know how much we care about the actual profession of umpiring and the process of decision-making, which is why one of the dominant discourses on a slow day was about the umpires in this series when they haven't really been bad. They will sometimes miss an edge or two, and sometimes it will happen in clumps, but that doesn't make a bad umpire. Moreover, we have DRS to eliminate those these days.
You watch out for those who make bigger, conceptual errors, such as this. There are certain lbw calls that are of concern: basically those where it's physically not possible for the ball to strike a batter within the stumps and also hit the stumps. If you falter on these, it might suggest you get affected by other things such as the strength of an appeal.
There was only one call in this series that was remotely close to this category when R Ashwin got a decision with a big offbreak that hit Will Young on the front foot, a rarest of rare dismissals in cricket. However, the low bounce probably clouded everyone to the point that even the batter didn't review it. There have been marginal lbws missed by the umpires in this Test that didn't even elicit a decent appeal from the bowlers. It is because three sets of professionals out there didn't think it was out, and high-res super slow-motion replays showed the ball to be missing the edge or kissing the boot on the way to the inside edge. To use them to beat up umpires is an unfair battle that they can never hope to win.
There are many things that are wrong with the umpiring discourse, which will take way more than this space (you can do worse than to read this), but a slow day is a good time to remind yourself of how good the umpires today are and to remember to use the same empathy we use for the athlete when we come across the occasional error.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo