If in doubt, blame the umpire

It’s always the umpire’s fault.

It was the umpire’s fault that India lost by 285 runs at the Adelaide Oval today. It was the umpire’s fault at Hobart when Pakistan could only take six wickets, and not ten, as Australia scored 369 to win. It was the home umpire’s fault that India defeated Pakistan by 212 runs in Delhi earlier this year.

It was the umpire’s fault when England drew the Second Test against South Africa yesterday instead of, um, drawing.

When the home umpire gets it wrong, the cry goes out for neutral umpires at both ends. When the neutral umpire gets it wrong, the cry goes out for video umpires to overrule their counterparts on the field. When the video umpires get it wrong, it is because they are too inexperienced/too old/too young/too experienced to be wasted as a video judge.

There are more examples involving more countries but I could go on. This is all nonsense, of course. Cricket is a game of human elements, most of all the human element of one team of eleven being better than the other team of eleven on the day. Batsmen, bowlers, umpires, fielders, are all human and all do their best.

Both Test matches just ended in the past 24 hours, in Port Elizabeth and Adelaide, have had their share of “controversies” involving umpiring decisions. The most ludicrous thing of all was the focus in most papers around the world this morning in their reports covering the Australia-India Test.

India were reeling at 76 for 5 at stumps yesterday, but what is the focus? The lbw decision against Sachin Tendulkar yesterday. Not the fact that four of his team-mates also fell in humiliating fashion yesterday afternoon, as did another five this morning.

The issue at hand is whether Tendulkar was out lbw when he ducked into a Glenn McGrath bouncer which failed to lift (taking his eye off totally off the ball, a poor lack of technique from the “world’s best batsman”). The ball hit the ducking Tendulkar on his shoulder in line with the stumps. The Australians appealed, and Adelaide umpire Daryl Harper raised his finger.

An appalling decision surely. How could the batsman duck so low that the ball would hit him shoulder without passing over the stumps, and thus be too high for an lbw? Surely this was a dreadful, biased decision by a home town umpire who wanted the local team to win? If you read the papers today, and especially some of the Indian ones, then that is what you would be led to believe had happened.

There’s a slight problem though. Harper’s decision was correct. Channel Nine’s side-on television replay showed that the ball was on a downward path when it struck Tendulkar and would have carried on to collect the stumps had the Indian captain not been in the way.

Harper made mistakes in this game as all umpires and players do. In the first innings he unhesitatingly gave Tendulkar out to a bat-pad catch which, when seen from the TV camera on the mid-on boundary, did not come off the bat. There were other calls during the Adelaide Test that looked less than 100 per cent perfect, one lbw verdict against Justin Langer in the first innings comes to mind. And we don’t often get to hear about the many instances when the umpires call “over” after either five or seven balls by mistake. But we also don’t give them their due credit when they get it right.

Instead of vilifying the umpire for making an unusual and contentious lbw call, Daryl Harper should be given full credit for a courageous and thoroughly correct decision. He did his job, exercised his judgment and got it right.

One of the off-shoots from these blown-up “umpiring controversies” is the perennial call for “neutral” umpires at both ends. The idea has quite a lot of merit, especially considering that almost every international sport uses referees or umpires from neutral countries these days. But there is no guarantee that neutral umpires will improve actual standards at all.

A full implementation of neutral umpires in international cricket would require a doubling in size of the current panel to around forty. This elite crew would need to be trained to a consistent, highly-professional standard. There would need to be a developmental path for umpires to cover the gap between standing in domestic cricket and standing in their first Test match in a foreign country.

All of this will cost lots of money and will need a injection of additional personnel into umpiring ranks worldwide. And as long as uninformed, negative, unsporting and even abusive remarks about umpires continue unabated, then the attraction for people to become umpires will be sadly absent.

(This article originally appeared in Cricinfo’s daily email newsletter, CricInfo365, on 14 December 1999. I received more hate mail as a result of this article than probably the rest of my combined output for Cricinfo.)

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