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Umpires: Silent guardians of the Gentleman's Game

Umpiring is one of the most difficult jobs in the world of sport.

Feature 28 Oct 2017, 00:30 IST

Umpiring is a thankless job indeed

Cricket is a very popular game in our country. It garners a lot of attention from the masses. The cricketers are treated like superstars, flanked by the fans wherever they go. The performances of the players are such that they deserve all the adulation that they get. But, the game of cricket also has two individuals on the field and one off it who take care of proceedings - the umpires.

They carry out their responsibilities commendably, yet are always neglected. The article highlights the complex and tough nature of the job of an umpire, different roles and responsibilities that are associated with it and their need for recognition.

Limited Opportunities

The International Cricket Council (ICC), the governing body for the game, has set up an Elite Panel of umpires which comprises the 12 best umpires across the world. The panel was first introduced in April 2002 to ensure a high degree of performance and impartial judgment. The ICC policy regarding allocating the officials is that as far as possible, the Elite Panel umpires stand during Test matches, one Elite Panel umpire and one local umpire from the International Panel of ICC Umpires stand during ODIs and both local umpires stand during T20Is. Ever since the introduction of DRS, the TV umpires have also been appointed by the ICC. While appointing the umpires for a series, the ICC takes into consideration the following factors:

·       Independent of the countries involved in the match/series

·       The best available umpires for the match/series

·       Better performing umpires used more often

·       Frequency of individuals appointed to same teams

·       Workload considerations

During the packed international calendar, umpires who are not a part of the Elite Panel are also appointed by the ICC. The number of cricket-playing nations (Full Members) is relatively fewer when compared to other sports. Therefore, the Elite Panel of Umpires is restricted to just 12 umpires, meaning that competition for places is very intense. However good the emerging umpires are, they get a chance to displace the umpires in the Elite Panel only if they fare poorly or retire. Thus, the opportunities for umpires other than those in the Elite Panel for officiating at the highest level are scarce.

Umpire Duties

Coming to the on-field duties, the umpires have to keep a track of a lot of things during the course of play. Cricket is a game which involves a large number of rules, laws and regulations. The rules are pretty complex in nature. Some rules differ from format to format. The enforcement of such rules involves a lot of judgment and decision-making ability on the part of an umpire.

To cite a few examples, the umpires have to decide whether the ground conditions are fit to play, whether the light is good enough, whether the ball being used is in good condition, whether the batsman or a bowler is running on the pitch, etc. According to the recent update in the playing conditions, umpires will also have to keep an eye on the width of the bats being used. The umpires have to make sure that they are consistent with the laws and not biased towards a particular team or a player.

The primary duty of the umpires being decision making, they have to be alert all the time, for the entire duration of the game without any lapses in concentration. They need to have good judgment regarding the amount of swing, turn and bounce on the pitch while giving their decisions. They also need to be aware of the sound of the edges of the bat.

Umpiring involves a lot of multi-tasking and concentrating on many things at once. Take an example of a delivery being bowled. The umpire has to indicate the side from which the bowler is going to bowl, keep an eye on his front foot, the side crease, number of fielders inside the ring, the action of the bowler (for chucking), his follow through, the action at the other end of the pitch etc. before making his decision.

In addition to this, the on-field umpires have to keep a record of the number of deliveries bowled in the over, the number of overs delivered by the bowler, the ends after each session/ innings, drinks intervals, the batsman on strike etc. They may consult the TV umpire for close decisions, but, their soft signal is still an important part of the process. To reduce the load on the on-field umpire, the third umpire can be asked to judge the No-balls, a process which has been trialled previously. 

The umpires have to make sure that the game is being played in the right spirit, the rules are being followed by the players, and that the behaviour of the players is within acceptable limits. They have to rate the pitches and players impose sanctions. The introduction of red cards in cricket will further increase the responsibility of the umpires. 

Umpiring - A Tough Job

Being a cricket umpire is very tough. With the amount of cricket being played, the umpires have to travel a lot and they do not enjoy big breaks between tours. The environmental conditions in different parts of the world vary and to cope with these conditions, they have to be at peak fitness all the time. Considering their age - most umpires are over the age of 40 - standing in the scorching sun or chilling cold for five days in a row is extremely difficult. It gets even tougher if they have to switch from a Test in conditions like Chennai to Auckland with very less time in between.

The workload of Elite Panel umpires is such, that on average, each umpire of the panel stands in 8-10 Test matches, 10-15 ODIs plus any ICC World events in a particular year, which means an annual on-field workload of around 75 days. Aside from the hectic international calendar, the different T20 leagues all over the world have increased the workload on the umpires. 

Another difficult part of umpiring is that they are not provided with any PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), despite them being so close to the action. The umpires have to be very alert and take evasive action to avoid being hit. Recently, umpires John Ward and Paul Reiffel suffered head injuries while officiating in a Ranji Trophy match and a Test between India and England respectively. To ensure the safety of the umpires, wearing helmets should be made mandatory by the ICC.

Also, the introduction of the DRS has led to increased scrutiny of the umpires. The umpires are always under immense pressure and a wrong decision is seen as a dark spot on their record. Umpires are rarely acknowledged for good decisions they make, but, often criticised for their errors.

Bottom line

The umpires, despite being very, very important entities in the game, are never given due importance. They are not the superstars that the players are. A ranking system for the umpires may be a way to encourage them to improve and give them more recognition. The umpire exchange programme between different boards needs to be marketed further to give the lower level umpires added exposure.

The safety of the umpires must be a topic of discussion and appropriate equipment must be designed and used. It is about time that the umpires are recognised, glorified and rewarded for the dedicated service they render to our favourite game.

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