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How neutral are the neutral umpires?

Umpires Dar and Bucknor should be lauded for giving excellent decisions in the final and not for the fiasco, writes Atul Sondhi.

india Updated: May 03, 2007 15:48 IST

Remember the days when every team fresh from Pakistan and India trips came complaining about the umpiring. Their failure to come to terms with the dusty tracks and the spinning genius of the two sub-continent teams was often blamed on the 'biased' home umpiring.

There were repeated calls for neutral umpires, and they had advocates even among the traditional powerhouses of the cricket. At a time when so much was on stake, it was important to ensure their neutrality and rid the game of alleged biases.

Remember the infamous Mike Gatting-Shakoor Rana face-off at Faisalabad in 1987. The whole world was shocked to see the two gentlemen shouting and pointing fingures at each other. Could that have really happened if some neutral umpire was in place? The perception that the Pakistani umpires were biased ignited the incident which destroyed the very image of the game for some time.

Accepted that Darrell Hair's 'neutrality' could not save him from racial bias during the Oval test, but these incidents are few and far between the otherwise sanity that has prevailed since neutral umpires came into the picture.

Indian exploits

It can be called a coincidence but the home advantage has reduced considerably with the advent of neutral umpires.

India's best ever chance of a series victory in Australia came when neutral umpires held the fort in 2004. West Indies' Bucknor, South Africa's Koertzen, England's Shepherd and New Zealander Bowden had officiated in the four match series, which Australia just about managed to survive with a draw in the Sydney Test.

Three month's later, India achieved their first ever series win in Pakistan with Taufel, Bucknor, Shepherd and Koertzen officiating. Their presence was a psychological boost to the team, which had enough ammunition to take on the might of Pakistan. They knew that if they get beaten, it will be a fair defeat that spurred them to a remarkable victory.

For India, a creditable draw and a series win in a span of five months was a testimony to what neutrality can do to boost one's confidence. The presence of neutral umpires ensures that batsmen are not too much worried about padding the ball away, and bowlers are secure in the belief that even the marginal decisions will come their way.

Australia in India in 2004

It took 35 years for the Australians to win another series in India. The way their world beating side of 2001 was humiliated by the genius of Harbhajan, Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar was astonishing. Though to the credit of the Australians, they never blamed the Indian umpires for it. They simply accepted the superiority of Indians in India.

Despite their sportsman spirit, the presence of neutrals in 2004 - Bowden, Bucknor, Koertzen, Shepherd and Dar - must have given them some kind of comfort. Two-One verdict for Australia was a fair verdict. As they conquered the final frontier, the presence of neutral umpires in the series can't just be a sheer coincidence.

Why 'neutrality' matters more than 'the best'

The ICC panel has the best umpires but even they can make occasional mistakes. Even Simon Taufel has been guilty of making errors in his judgment at times, notably in 2004 in England. In fact, his three dreadful decisions in the Trent Bridge Test against New Zealand had forced the British Press to dub him Awful Taufel. He once ignored four consecutive bouncers off the bowling of Brett Lee in a match against South Africa, which Australia won by a massive margin.

Only a few days ago, his verdict giving Dilshan out to a ball going clearly outside the leg could have destroyed the title ambitions of Sri Lanka at the semifinal stage itself. So the contention that ICC should have its best umpires (Taufel at least) for important clashes goes bust in light of some past decisions.

In fact, neutral umpires Aleem Dar and Steve Bucknor should be lauded for giving excellent decisions in the final and not for the fiasco which happened in the dying moments when Sri Lanka had conceded for all practical purposes.

More than Dar and Bucknor, the think-tank inside, led by match referee Jeff Crowe is to be blamed for the mess. In an interesting development, ICC GM Dave Richardson has gone on to support Crowe's statement that the confusion had begun when South African Rudi Koertzen, the third umpire, had mistakenly begun to talk about returning on Sunday for the final three overs.

That is why, Pringle and Lehmann's attack on Bucknor and Dar is incomprehensible. Probably it is also an attempt to save Speed by diverting the attention on umpiring from total mismanagement, a trait which ICC seems to have patented.