Former Australian international umpire Rex Whitehead, aged 65, passed away earlier this day after suffering a heavy stroke. He has umpired in 15 first-class matches, 14 One Day Internationals and 4 Test matches, but the Victorian is more known for being the prime reason behind the infamous Gavaskar walk-out.
The year was 1981, the venue was the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and it was the 3rd Test between Australia and India. Whitehead adjudged the then Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar out leg before wicket off a Dennis Lillee delivery that was hitting the middle stump.
That decision, however, infuriated Gavaskar, who decided to take Chetan Chauhan, his opening partner, along with him while walking off the field in a sign of a protest at the decision.
“Gavaskar reckoned he’d hit it, but I was at square-leg and knew that he hadn’t,” Mel Johnson, the other umpire on duty on that day, told cricket.com.au.
“But Gavaskar hadn’t scored a run in the series thus far so he took them off the field.
“I remember Greg Chappell asked us, ‘What happens now?’ and I said, ‘Well, there’s a set of laws that we’ve got to follow and if he doesn’t want to play by them then the match is forfeited.’
“But Rex said, ‘I’m not standing out here in a Test match to see the game forfeited. Let’s get them back out on the field one way or another’.
“Fortunately, the manager (Shahid Durrani) pushed Chauhan back out and Dilip Vengsarkar (India’s number three) came with him.”
What happened then was something to cherish for all Indian players and fans combined. All-rounder Kapil Dev’s heroics with the ball in the last innings of the match led to a historic 59-run victory. Had they not decided to come back, the match would have been abandoned, with Australia declared as winners.
“You can always say they were good after they’ve died,” said Johnson.
“But he (Whitehead) really was a class umpire that took it very, very seriously. He hated making mistakes, as we all do, but he was just a beaut to work with.”
When asked about Whitehead the person, “He was great,” said Johnson. “Loved a beer. Never wanted any of that half-strength stuff though – that was Rex’s attitude on most things.”