Honest but hazy

Amid all the statistical highlights, you get a look at the man behind the umpire, but it's a fuzzy image

Suresh Menon
Suresh Menon
Cover of Rudi Koertzen's autobiography <i>Slow Death: Memoirs of a Cricket Umpire</i>

Zebra Press

If you have the patience to read through the early roll call of matches umpired, individual performances and statistical highlights, you will be rewarded when you finally get to the halfway mark. For that is when umpire Rudi Koertzen, or his ghostwriter, finally decides to give us a glimpse into the man and his thoughts on the game.
"Slow Death" is Koertzen's nickname, for the manner in which his left arm was raised to give a batsman out. Koertzen is one of the most respected umpires in the world, with over 100 Tests and 200 one-day internationals to his name, and through it all, has had the best seat in the house. So few umpires bother to put their thoughts down, that when one does, we expect a point of view that is unique and a set of anecdotes only he is privy too.
But the obsession with recording statistics (which Cricinfo does so much better anyway), takes away from the insights into the game, while Koertzen the man remains hazy.
Still, the value of the book lies in its honesty. Koertzen, like umpires anywhere, has made mistakes, and is man enough to own up. There is no attempt to sweep the World Cup final fiasco of 2007, for example, under the carpet.
In the most rewarding chapter of the book, "The Highs and Lows of Umpiring", Koertzen tells us about the time he apologised to Brett Lee for denying him the wicket of Kevin Pietersen in the Lord's Test of 2005 ("I just lost sight of the ball at the last moment, and it cost Lee a wicket"), or to Kumar Sangakkara, caught by Ricky Ponting at slip in 2007 when the batsman was on 192 ("Replays showed that the ball had, in fact, come off his shoulder").
"One has to grow quite thick-skinned to survive," says Koertzen of his job, "but there comes a time in many people's lives when things become too much."
The pressure comes in different forms. "In the 2005 Ashes series, when the weather was dicey," writes Koertzen, "and Pietersen scored that 158, Shane Warne said to me, 'I have to bowl England out,' as if expecting me to make that happen!"
The occasional slip-up jars, as when Muttiah Muralitharan is referred to as "Muri", or when Sadagoppan Ramesh is "Rajesh Ramesh".
Koertzen's views on technology, on match-fixing, on the best players of his time are pragmatic, progressive, and underline the deep love he has for the game. He hopes that it will be said of him (as it was of David Shepherd) that "For him cricket was a lovely game, a simple game, and a game to be enjoyed. He himself brought so much enjoyment to so many of us."
Slow Death: Memoirs of a Cricket Umpire
by Rudi Koertzen (with Chris Schoeman)
Zebra Press
Paperback 225 pages

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore