Rob Steen

Non-neutral umpires? No thanks

It might seem like there isn't a need for "independent" umpires these days, but imagine the outrage if a home umpire appears guilty of favouritism

Rob Steen
Rob Steen
Umpires Nigel Llong and Richard Kettleborough check the light, Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, Colombo, 4th day, July 27, 2014

If a decision by Richard Kettleborough was to swing the 2015 Ashes England's way, what would be the reaction of fans and the media?  •  AFP

Once upon a time, not terribly long ago, neutral umpires were going to save the world. Or, at the very least, the parts of it to whom cricket meant something more than a chirping insect.
How far have we come? Let's recall how bad things were. In his compelling new socio-political history of Pakistani cricket, Wounded Tigers, Peter Oborne submits the 1985-86 tour of Sri Lanka, where fury about the officiating during the reverse series had spread from batsmen to war-riven nation. One Pakistani appeal was reportedly turned down with especial venom. "This," the head-shaker stressed without any regrets whatsoever, "is not Pakistan."
In The Unquiet Ones, his terrific new take on Pakistan's cricketing odyssey, Osman Samiuddin reminds us of the catalytic role played by Nur Khan, then the forthright and respected chairman of the Pakistan board. As president of the game's national federation, he had introduced neutral umpires to hockey, and became their fiercest advocate in a cricketing context. The loudest objections, he insisted, came from England and Australia. "I am ashamed to be here," he told one ICC conflab. "You come to my country and call us cheats because of the umpires. We go to your country and have the same issues. It can't be this way."
In "Are cricket umpires biased?", a paper for the 43rd Congress of the German Psychological Society, J Sumner and M Mobley, having analysed all Tests played between 1877 and 1980, warranted that home teams in Australia, India and Pakistan suffered significantly fewer adverse lbw decisions than tourists. For Poms sufficiently venerable to have been hardened by the memory of the 1970-71 Ashes series down under, wherein Ray Illingworth's chaps gained not a solitary lbw over the course of six Tests, this was about as revelatory as discovering that popes are partial to holy supplication. Pakistanis, mind, will doubtless note that the cut-off point was two years before David Constant inflamed Imran Khan and Co at Headingley.
Last year, Abhinav Sacheti and David Paton, both from Nottingham University Business School, and Ian Gregory-Smith from the University of Sheffield, weighed in with a paper for the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society entitled: "Home bias in officiating: evidence from international cricket". Wading through 1000 Test scorecards and live online commentaries from 1986 to 2012 - pre- and post-neutral umpires, pre- and post-DRS - our economists also focused on leg-before verdicts. Albeit reached without any mention of the impact technology has had on the willingness of umpires to reward lbw appeals - or bowlers to screech them - their conclusion was roughly as surprising as being told that David Warner once attended assertiveness classes.
"Our main finding," declared Messrs Sacheti, Paton and Gregory-Smith, "is that home bias has influenced umpires in Test matches in the last two and a half decades but has receded with the introduction of neutral umpires. With two home umpires, home teams received significantly fewer adverse lbw decisions than did away teams. This advantage significantly declined with the introduction of the one-neutral-umpire policy and has declined further with the introduction of the two-neutral-umpires policy."
The advantage to home teams granted by local umpires, moreover, was "more pronounced" in the third and fourth innings. "This is consistent with home umpires displaying favouritism, as decisions made in those innings more strongly affect match outcomes, even as crowd pressure generally declines." Understandably, inevitably, the authors went on to urge caution in those who contend that, thanks to the advent of the DRS and the elite panel, the need for neutral umpiring duos has passed.
But are the authors entirely justified in their scepticism? Put it another way: if Richard Kettleborough (No. 1 for the past two years) really is the best umpire on the planet, shouldn't he be standing in 2015's highest-profile and potentially prickliest Test series, namely the Ashes?
Being a Middlesex follower as well as a fully qualified Pom, this column freely confesses to an appalling lack of disinterest. It would dearly love to see Kettleborough back in significant action at Lord's, likewise Ian Gould, now well on course to outstrip Dickie Bird's 66 Tests and almost halfway to superseding David Shepherd's national peak of 92. The motivation for change, nevertheless, is rooted in one of the two reasons this column adores spectator sport: not the hunger for drama but the thirst for excellence.
However belated, however externally driven, the ICC Elite panel was a splendid innovation. The world is a better place for it. It also does a far better job of living up to its name than when first chosen in 2002. But flawless it is assuredly not.
If the umpire dismisses a leg-before shout and the ball is shown to be clipping, reward the bowler. Either that or banish "umpire's call" altogether
Geopolitical even-handedness informed the formal introduction of "independent" umpires in 1992 (though Imran Khan did get his way after insisting on Indian officials for the final two Tests of the 1986 home series against West Indies, a precedent resisted when Pakistan toured India two months later but not, thankfully, for the ensuing World Cup). To a degree it still does: each of the ten Full Members has two representatives on the international panel. However, eight of the dozen umpires on the 2014-15 elite list hail from England or Australia, just as they did in 2013-14: a tacit admission that the most challenging matches are Tests, which therefore require the most reliable digit-hoisters. Unfortunately, while ODIs allow one local official, in 16 of last year's 41 Tests, nearly 40%, the "neutral" qualifier barred two-thirds of the best.
Even when circumstances change, as they assuredly have done here, turning back the clock always entails a modicum of risk. The ridicule in this instance, moreover, would undoubtedly be horribly loud and horrendously shrill. If Kettleborough or Gould unjustly reprieved Joe Root behind the Grace Gates this summer, or Paul Reiffel refused to turn down a hopeful-but-dodgy imprecation from Ryan Harris, ancient grievances would re-erupt. Spectators, press box and anti-social media would unite in yowling outrage.
Those who understand and appreciate the way the game has progressed would not be among them. They would know that, in an age where the most eminent umpires are centrally contracted and stand to gain nothing professionally (okay, nothing legal) from home-town favouritism, blaming errors on national allegiance could and almost certainly would destroy every shred of the offender's credibility, rendering him unemployable. As surely as day follows night, lawsuits would ensue.
Comfortingly, encouragingly, when it comes to introducing unpopular new regulations and even undertaking chastening u-turns, the ICC has repeatedly proven itself impressively impervious to the slings and arrows of outrage.


While we're on the subject of better officiating, there is another matter the ICC should consider with some urgency: is it time to consign that dreaded term "umpire's call" to the non-recycling bin marked "Unduly excessive compromise"? Yes - and not solely because, as Hashim Amla has been merely the latest luminary to have the good fortune to discover, neither mankind nor even womankind has yet unravelled the enduring mystery of how much of the ball needs to hit a stump to dislodge a bail, let alone how hard.
At first, the logic seemed impeccable: if, on reviewing a not-out lbw verdict, only half the ball was predicted to have been stumpward-bound, the umpire could scarcely have been said to have committed a "howler", the eradication of which had been the explicit aim of the DRS. Less happily, if not unreasonably, the converse applied too: if the verdict was out, the far-from-immaterial projection that half the ball would miss the target was utterly irrelevant. One action, two contrasting yet perfectly acceptable judgements. Had they lived long enough to witness this curious new world order, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel would surely have founded the Surrealist Cricket Society.
As time wore on and scores of eminently plausible reviews were overturned, so the h-word needed to be kept uppermost in mind, at all times, above all whenever the efficacy of Hawk-Eye was questioned. The verdicts may have been wrong overall, but at least they were not only not howlers but actually partly right.
All the same, if two wrongs never make a right - a dubious notion admittedly, as politicians frequently if unwittingly remind us - nor do two half-wrongs. So let's make one of those half-wrongs a right: if the umpire dismisses a leg-before shout and the ball is shown to be clipping, reward the bowler. Either that or banish "umpire's call" altogether.
There is one reason for doing the latter that defies argument. In seeking, forgivably if misguidedly, to preserve the umpires' authority, and hence dignity, the authorities have penalised the players. Honestly: should that really be the order of priorities?

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now