I feel sorry for Steve Bucknor. In 2004, he had a horrid Test at Sydney, making a series of errors that prevented India from winning the series. A few months ago, he had a lousy World Cup final, displaying a shocking ignorance of the rules. And now, after another Sydney Test full of blunders, his career is close to winding up. It’s been tough, but my pity isn’t based on the brickbats flung his way being undeserved – he has long been an incompetent and arrogant umpire. I feel sorry for him because all this is really the ICC’s fault.
In 1988, Bucknor was a FIFA referee at a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles. Why isn’t he still a FIFA referee today? Well, FIFA has a compulsory retirement age of 45 for its umpires. They feel that a referee’s job imposes physical demands that make it hard for someone above that age to do the job effectively. So they say, “Thank you, you were good, but run along now.”
The physical demands on a cricket umpire don’t seem to be so great. He may be on the field of play longer, but has no running around to do. Nevertheless, it is my contention that umpiring requires an extensive use of physical faculties that decline with age. And for a man is his 60s to be doing the job is ludicrous.
Consider what an umpire has to go through. He has to stand on the field and concentrate hard for six hours of play – this sometimes for five days in a row. His eyesight has to be perfect. He has to be quick – the shift in focus from the bowling crease, which he needs to watch for a no-ball, to the batsman isn’t easy. He has to evaluate what he sees within split seconds, factoring in all the optical illusions that typically come into play, such as the parallax error. (Because the umpire stands at a height above the stumps, balls that would go over the stumps appear to be hitting.) His depth perception has to be perfect, and his brain has to process all these multiple inputs to come up with a correct decision.
The faculties required for all this diminish with age. You wouldn’t put a 60-year-old man in a Formula One race, because he could kill others, and himself. (Besides, he would be no good.) A 60-year-old man umpiring a cricket game can end careers, or decide matches, and series. (Besides, he would be no good.)
What is happening to Bucknor is not new. We saw this happen to David Shepherd as well. Shepherd, one of the great umpires of the game, declined rapidly towards the start of this century, making a series of infamous howlers in the 2001 England-Pakistan series. It was all downhill from there – and what a pity it was.
Should the ICC have a mandatory retirement age, like FIFA does? While it would act as a safeguard, I will be perfectly happy if they don’t. While Bucknor and Shepherd felt the ravages of age, some remarkably well-preserved umpire might not. But what ICC does need to do is recognise that a good umpire isn’t good forever, and have regular tests and evaluations carried out. The ones it has in place are obviously not good enough.
And it should also pay attention to the feedback that captains are required to give on umpires at the end of every series. Sourav Ganguly, India’s captain in the 2003-2004 series against Australia, gave Bucknor an extremely negative report. The ICC should have paid attention to it then. I wonder why they didn’t.
Let us consider the role of umpires in cricket. Are they participants in the game of cricket? Do the crowds come to see them at work?
My answers are no and no.
Umpires are nothing more than facilitators. Eleven men take on 11 other men, and the sport is about them. Umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game, so that the result is fair, and the team that plays better wins.
So when the attention of the commentators or the crowds is on the umpires, something is wrong. It means they made a mistake. It is an aberration, something that should not happen. The ICC should do everything within its power to prevent it.
The ICC should recognise that umpires are just the means to an end. They are not the point of the game. It should also recognise that they need help. And the technology exists to help them.
How do we know when umpires make mistakes? Some mistakes are visible to the naked eye. But for others, we go to technology. We see a ball hitting middle-stump on Hawk-Eye and exclaim, “That’s plumb, how could he not give that?” We see a snick via the Snickometer, or notice via the tram lines on the screen that the ball pitched outside leg, and we go, “What lousy umpiring.”
We judge the umpires using technology. Would it not be fair, then, to make that same technology available to them?
Critics have created a false dichotomy between umpires and technology. Using technology does not mean doing away with umpires or having androids on the field. It simply means giving umpires the tools to do his job better. We make his life easier, and ensure more accurate decisions. Isn’t that the whole purpose of umpiring to begin with?
But is some of the technology out there accurate enough? Some of it – using TV replays for line calls, for example – is non-controversial. Some isn’t. Hawk-Eye has been at the center of much controversy, and is mocked by many who then, ironically, use it to point out umpiring errors. Many of the objections against it, though, are based on misconceptions. I think Hawk-Eye would be a fantastic tool for umpires, and would make contentious lbw decisions a thing of the past.
(Disclosure: I used to work for Cricinfo, which was owned by Wisden, who acquired Hawk-Eye in 2006. I’m no longer associated with Cricinfo, which was sold to ESPN last year and is no longer associated with Hawk-Eye.)
The predictive technology behind Hawk-Eye is similar to that used in missile-guidance systems and instrument guidance for brain surgeons – it’s designed for extreme accuracy. To answer the objections against it in detail would require a full piece, but suffice it to say that whatever the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do with greater accuracy. Experts of the game implicitly acknowledge this by turning to Hawk-Eye whenever lbw decisions need to be evaluated.
The most popular misconception about Hawk-Eye is that it would take time to get a decision, as one goes to the third umpire for a replay, and so on. This is not true. What we see on television is a just a graphical representation of Hawk-Eye, and Hawk-Eye’s decision would actually be delivered within a second or two to the umpire, via a handheld device: out or not out, pitching outside leg or on line, and so on. At the click of a button, umpires would save themselves much embarrassment.
And contrary to an old canard, technology does not take “the human touch” out of anything. People like “maa ke haath ka khana” even when she uses a microwave. Umpires who use technology will remain human – but they will get more decisions right. We should give them the tools to make that happen.
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I wrote a piece on exactly the same subject four years ago after the last Sydney Test: “On age and technology.” Such hopes of change I had…
You can read more essays and Op-Eds by me here.