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Who shall guard the guardians?

By Prem Panicker
Last updated on: January 24, 2004 11:01 IST
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Way back when Latin was still a language in common currency, someone – exasperated, perhaps, by the illogical workings of authority – asked 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?'

Today – just as exasperated by the workings of an authority figure on the cricket field – it is time to pose the same question, in translated form: Who shall guard the guardians themselves?

The exasperation relates to Steve Bucknor, one of the ICC umpires for the ongoing VB Series in Australia.

Not so long ago, Bucknor was, along with S Venkataraghavan of India and David Shepherd of England, part of the troika of international umpires who were seen as the standard bearers of quality officiating.

They earned that reputation not merely because they got the hard decisions right 99 per cent of the time – giving the right decision is, after all, what they are paid to do.

The real reason why players around the world respected these three was their handling of the game. They could be firm when they needed to be, without ever being in your face. They judged to a nicety the little on-field niggles that are a part of the game; if a friendly word to the transgressor would do, they used it instinctively, but if they needed to get tough, they could do that too, without ever being obnoxious about it.

In a word, they treated players as adults; at no point did they try to be bigger than the game they were an intrinsic part of.

All three umpires mentioned are getting on in years; over the last couple of years, that aging has shown in an increasing number of wrong decisions given by each of those officials. This, in turn, raises the question – Does the ICC need to review the whole question of retirement age for umpires?

The on-field umpire is arguably the only one of the 25 individuals taking active part in a cricket match, who has to concentrate for every ball of the 90 overs that a Test lasts (100 for ODIs). Cricketers, who have the opportunity to momentarily switch off (a batsman at the non-striker's end, waiting for his partner to mark his guard, survey the field, do his gardening, settle down to face the ball; the fielder at fine leg while the fast bowler is making his way to the top of a very long bowling run-up…), still find it difficult to maintain their concentration over long spells – how much more difficult is it likely to be for an umpire who is, more often than not, twice the age of most of the players he is supervising?

Consider the respective tasks of a batsman and an umpire. The batsman settles, sharpens his focus as the bowler runs in, reaches a peak of concentration as he sees the bowler approach his delivery stride. He fixes his eyes on the bowling hand, and at the point of release, judges seam position, possibility of swing, and line, estimates length, and selects his response.

Now consider the umpire. He stands with his back to the bowler. The first sign that the action is about to get frenetic is when he sees, through peripheral vision, the bowler come abreast of him. From that point, he has to focus his eyes on the popping crease to judge whether the front foot has landed right; he then has, an instant later, to switch his attention to the other end and consider whether the ball pitched on line of the stumps or no, whether the ball took the faintest of edges before going through to the keeper or slips, whether the bat got the tiniest of nicks on ball before the ball hit the pads…

At the end of the over, he then has to go to square leg, and keep his eye on an equal number of variables, starting with the legitimacy of the bowler's action, to the positioning of the fielders, to the height the ball makes as it passes the batsman, to hairline decisions on run-outs…

It's the heck of an ask for a 50-year-old man.

Steve Bucknor is 57+ (May 31, 1946), S Venkatraghavan is 58+ (April 21, 1945), David Shepherd is 63+ December 27, 1949).

All of them would have been superannuated if they were government employees in India, and how demanding is it to work in a government office? In fact, soccer umpires retire from international duty at 45 -- pertinent, given that Bucknor was also a qualified umpire in that game, and has stood at the World Cup level.

Yet, he, and his peers, are supposedly fit enough, young enough, mentally and physically alert enough, to officiate at the highest levels of cricket in this day and high pressure age.

Time for a review, ICC?

Actually, valid though this question is, it is not the reason for this comment piece. Bucknor, through the four-Test series between India and Australia, and now in the VB Series triangular, has handed down shockers. But the real problem with him is that the pressure he is quite likely under, both from his mistakes and from the media scrutiny, is translating into a pettiness of behavior that will turn players off him, cause him to lose any lingering respect they have for him.

During this tour, he has time and again been needless brusque, abrupt; he has interfered without reason, become heavy-handed where, in earlier and better days, he would have achieved better results with a smile and a word.

One instance from the Test series suffices – the Indians went up in appeal off the last ball of an over, Bucknor shook his head no, then marched down to the middle of the pitch, pointed a finger at Parthiv Patel, and harangued him much to the teenager's obvious bewilderment.

Understandable bewilderment, too, because at the time, Patel was standing wide down the leg side – wide enough so that in an ODI, a ball going there would be obviously called. So what was his fault? He wasn't damaging the pitch – which is what Bucknor appeared to be saying. It couldn't be that Patel was appealing – he had a perfect right to, and he was just one of four or five fielders going up for that appeal, so why would he be singled out?

The worst part of that incident was that when skipper Saurav Ganguly walked over to ask the umpire what was wrong, Bucknor turned his back and walked away. What, a captain is not allowed to ask what his player did wrong? How then is he expected to maintain discipline, if he doesn't know what the transgression is? To walk away, as Bucknor did on that occasion, was rude, gratuitously so.

Even that episode, though, paled in comparison to what Bucknor did at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in course of Thursday's game between India and Australia. As Rahul Dravid walked out to bat, Bucknor held up the ball, and very obviously ran his finger over one side of it, in an obvious, unmistakable reference to the incident from the previous game when the Indian vice-captain was fined 50 per cent of his match fees for getting a bit of a boiled sweet on the ball, in contravention of the rules.

What was that all about, Mr Umpire? A bit of fun at the batsman's expense? What next? If you were officiating when Brett Lee, or Muthiah Muralitharan, or Shoaib Akthar, to name just three, were about to bowl, would you mime a bowler chucking? Or will you, the next time Ganguly leads his men onto the field, mime an old man walking around on crutches, to send up the Indian captain who was fined last game for a slow over rate?

Could it be that you are practicing for your next career, as and when – more appropriately, if and when – this one ends? Trying your hand at stand-up comedy perhaps?

Bucknor had no business doing what he did. If Dravid was at fault, it was in a game Bucknor was not involved in. The third umpire reported the transgression, the match referee took punitive action and, in public, explained his decision. Where does Bucknor come into all this?

Bucknor's action was, to mince no words, conduct unbecoming of an umpire. But guess what – there is no such thing legislated against in the ICC's little book of rules. Players can be jumped on for even the smallest transgressions; they can be hauled before match referees, fined, suspended; the match referee can then talk to the media in detail about whatever the fault was.

A player, though, cannot question the official – not in public, because it brings the game into disrepute; not in private, because no one is listening. (At the end of the Test series, Ganguly in his official report on Bucknor's umpiring gave him the lowest grade there is. Did that lead to a review? A rethink? Oh no, Bucknor continues to stand – in five of India's games in the ongoing series).

Someone ought to engrave on a plaque words made famous by the late Dr William Gilbert Grace – who once, in exasperation at being given out (wrongly, in his opinion), stood his ground, glared at the official with the finger up and, pointing to the spectators, barked: "They've come to see me bat, not to see you umpire!"

Bucknor – and the ICC – might want to keep that thought in mind; an official who so clearly, so obviously, ruins the spirit of the game has no business officiating in it.

PostScript: I was tempted to argue, at equal length, the fines imposed on Ganguly and the rest. Wet ball, slippery outfield, crucial point of the game, left-right batting combination in the middle, and Ganguly was expected to rush his bowlers, ignore field settings? Even though his opposite number, Ricky Ponting, with none of the above pressures was, in the same game, guilty of overshooting the stipulated time by pretty much the same margin? (Ganguly was three overs shy, Ponting was 2.4 overs short – one player and his team are fined and, worse, found guilty of not playing the game in the right spirit, the other merits not even a mention?)

It's not the first time this has happened. In the Test series, Ganguly was again fined, and criticized, for being 15 minutes over time; a Test later, Steve Waugh went 45 minutes over, and no one said a word.

It won't even be the last time – unless the BCCI takes a leaf out of the Sri Lanka Cricket Board's book, and gets tough.

When Muthiah Muralitharan was called, in Australia, for chucking the second time around, the Lankan cricket board got into the act. It provided the bowler, and his captain, with a lawyer, it made an issue of the issue, it refused to take the obvious injustice (remember, at that point, the ICC itself had cleared Murali's action) lying down.

It all got impossibly ugly. I'm not suggesting the BCCI, likewise, create a public fuss – but it might be an idea for the board, officially, to ask for an explanation of all these one-sided fines being handed out.

Injustice, if not questioned, has a tendency to feed on itself, and grow.

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Prem Panicker