'I was never too scared to apologise'

The recently retired South African umpire on owning up to errors, his favourite people on the field, his past life and his future

"I gave Daryll Cullinan out at the Wanderers one day and he gave me the name Slow Death. He said, 'Why do you make me suffer and wait for that slow-death decision?'"  •  Getty Images

"I gave Daryll Cullinan out at the Wanderers one day and he gave me the name Slow Death. He said, 'Why do you make me suffer and wait for that slow-death decision?'"  •  Getty Images

After your final Test, you were presented with a bronze statue of yourself. Now you're back home, does it have pride of place in the living room?
It's not on the mantelpiece yet. When I landed in Jo'burg I was at the carousel and I waited and waited, and eventually I saw this broken box come through, and I thought, "Oh, don't tell me!" But there was nothing in it. Two or three minutes later one of the porters came and said, "Does this belong to you?" Luckily the statue itself didn't get damaged, just the base has broken off. I will get that repaired and it will have a special place at home.
When the Australians gave you a guard of honour on your last day at Headingley, was there a tear in the eye?
I was so happy when I got to the middle. I was at square leg so I could take a decent deep breath before I had the second over. I did feel a bit emotional. As we walked off I was fine, particularly with the way the guys were joking with me. It didn't get to me until after I received the statue. Somebody had an interview and I had a bit of a lump in the throat.
You're staying involved in the game, though, as the ICC's Regional Performance Manager for Africa.
I'm really honoured. They approached me and I had a discussion with Vince [van der Bijl] and the boys. It was a long career for me. The things I've learnt during my career - the good and the bad things that happened and you survived it, that's something I can use with the young boys coming into the system to let them know what it's all about.
As an elite umpire, how many days a year would you spend away from home? And what are you planning to do with all your spare time now?
On average between 220 and 250 days. Now that we're involved in the IPL, it could be a bit longer. Now I'll probably spend 220 to 250 days with the family, which is a huge change and something I'm looking forward to. I've been on the road all the time and I never actually saw the kids grow up. We'll have fun now. I'm not too old to go and have fun with the boys; we'll go and spend some time together. I love my game hunting. I'll do a bit of that and play as much golf as I can, and do some fishing off my boat.
There must have been a lot of downtime while travelling. How did you fill the hours?
When I went for the first time to India and Sri Lanka, you made an effort to go to the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, the Taj Mahal in India, because that was something new to us. There's a lot of things to see and learn about the cultures of the different countries. The rest of the time you spend a lot of time looking at the ceiling of your hotel room or watching TV.
How did you get involved in umpiring - was it a progression from being a player?
I played Premier League, our top-division club cricket in Kimberley. I had a bit of a suspect action when I was bowling. I was a medium-pace bowler, but in order to get the ball around the batsman's nose you had to put in a little bit more effort. I think that's probably what most of the quickies used to do years ago. I had one of those actions and I knew there wasn't really a future for me to go to provincial level. It was hard to break through. One Saturday I just decided I'd had enough. I did the umpires' exam with Don Lee, who was the president of the umpires' association at that time. I was on the field the next Saturday, and 10 weeks later I did my first first-class game, Griqualand West and Western Province B.
"When I got the schedule with the appointments for the World Cup, I saw I was doing the opening game with Venkataraghavan. I said to my wife, 'I'm sure they made a misprint here - is it possible that the Dutchman Rudi Koertzen from Despatch could go out at Lord's and do the opening game?'"
On officiating the first match of the 1999 World Cup
How did you earn a living away from cricket?
Before I turned professional, I worked for the railways as a carpenter in Port Elizabeth. Then I worked as a superintendent in the building trade, in the civil engineering section, supervising new buildings and renovations. I worked for them for 28 years and was a semi-professional umpire until I decided in 1993 to take a retrenchment package, because I had the option to go to Johannesburg and work at the head office. But I wasn't prepared to leave my relaxed home in PE to go to a mad city like Johannesburg.
How do you handle the inevitable criticism and pressure that come with the job?
You've got to have a thick skin. I remember when I started, Kepler Wessels said to me one day, "You're not going to have an easy road to walk. It's going to be tough and the guys are going to put so much pressure on you and you're not going to survive." I said, "Kepler, you don't really know me - the more pressure you put on me, the thicker my skin gets, and the thicker my skin gets the more difficult it will be to get anything out of me." I would still do my job, but the more pressure they put on me, the fewer 50-50 decisions they would get in their favour - that was the type of person I was during that time. The [media] criticism honestly has never worried me. For someone to criticise you who has never been there in the middle, they wouldn't have a clue what's going through your mind. That didn't really bother me.
When you gave Kumar Sangakkara caught off his helmet for 192 in Hobart, it was reported that you later apologised to him. Did you often say sorry if you realised you'd made a mistake?
I've always been like that. If I'm standing at square leg and a player walks past and says, "Hey, I didn't hit that", I'd say, "Well, if you didn't, then I'm sorry". I wasn't too scared to [apologise]. Sometimes we make mistakes where, if I see it on television I think, "Why did I do it?" - trying to find out why I got that decision wrong. The Sangakkara one, I did feel sorry for the man, because the game at that stage was fairly balanced and he was going strongly. There were two sounds and I thought it came off his glove onto his helmet, but it hit his shoulder and then his helmet. When I saw it I thought, "Goodness, that wasn't a very good decision." When he came to me after the game and thanked me for the game, I said, "Listen man, I believe I got that one wrong and I'm very sorry." I probably earned a bit more respect from him as a person.
Where did the "slow death" raise of your finger come from?
When I started to umpire, I used to stand with my hands in front of me. I remember my wife was watching a TV game one day where I was officiating and she said to me, "Take your hands away from your front and put them behind your back." I started doing that, but then I started to fiddle around with my hands - it's in my pocket, then it's on my side - so I decided to grip my left wrist with my right hand and hold it there so I couldn't move it around. Because I would hang on to it, it just came naturally that I would count one, two, three, think where the ball was going, and then have a slow release and start lifting it. It just stayed with me - I don't think it was something deliberate. I gave Daryll Cullinan out at the Wanderers one day and he gave me the name Slow Death. He said, "Why do you make me suffer and wait for that slow-death decision?" It just stayed with me. I had to laugh at one of the producers one day. They said, "Can't you just speed it up a little bit, because we struggle to fit it into the super slow-mo replays."
Did you ever change your mind halfway through raising your finger?
Yeah, there have been times when it got to the side and I thought, no, I can't give that out, so I'd just put it back in my pocket. Then I had the excuse that I was looking for my handkerchief, I wasn't planning to give somebody out. It does happen. Because everybody knew the way I did it, they were watching for that movement in the left arm. Once that arm started to move, they knew it was going to come. But I had occasions when I pulled the gun out but didn't fire the shot.
What was the highlight of your umpiring career?
Definitely the opening game of the 1999 World Cup at Lord's between England against Sri Lanka [his first game at Lord's]. Every single umpire in the world, every player, would give whatever they can to walk out into the middle at Lord's. It's just a special ground. When I got the schedule with the appointments for the World Cup, I saw I was doing the opening game with Venkataraghavan. I said to my wife, "I'm sure they made a misprint here - is it possible that the Dutchman Rudi Koertzen from Despatch could go out at Lord's and do the opening game?" I was nervous as hell. That for me was the biggest thrill in my career.
Who was your favourite colleague to stand with?
There were two - the one who had always been my idol was David Shepherd. We [South Africa] only got back into international cricket in 1992, but in the mid-70s we sometimes had the opportunity to watch some cricket highlights from overseas. He has always been my idol and I always said I'd love to be like David Shepherd one day, if I do umpire. He was my greatest colleague. And now it's Steve Davis from Australia. He's a good man to umpire with, a good colleague, a partner that you can hang around with and have some fun with. I hope he will have a long, illustrious career in the middle, and I'll be following him.
Who was the hardest bowler to umpire?
There's only one of those. The day when he left, 99% of umpires said, "Thank god he's gone." I was probably the 1% that said, "I'm happy to see him going, but it's also sad to see him going." That was Shane Warne. Special bowler. Never is a long time, but I don't think there will ever be a legspinner in world cricket of his calibre. A good man off the field, but once he put his foot over that boundary rope he was the devil! He put pressure on you and he knew how far he could push his luck. Once he got hold of you and you started making mistakes, that would be the end of you in that game. He would put more and more pressure on you - but he was definitely the best.
And the funniest player?
Big Brian McMillan. The big Mac. We always had something going on the field. He was good fun. I remember sometimes I would turn down a decision and he would walk past me and he would take my dark shades off and clean them on my tie, and he'd say, "Can you see a bit better now, Rudi?" But he was always a gentleman on the field. For me he was one of the better guys to have on the field.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo