The lonely coatherd
In 1997, a 24-year-old Chennaiite was keen on making a mark on umpiring, and dreamt of officiating in Tests. The desire, however, was not fulfilled because of many loopholes in the system.
In a chance meeting with S Venkataraghavan, who was then an established international umpire, the enthusiast approached him for guidance. Venkataraghavan retorted: “Don’t call me for such silly things. The Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) is there to guide and train umpires.”
The youngster’s confidence took a beating, but he did not give up. He religiously attended the umpiring classes at TNCA, passed the written test, the viva voce and the practical examinations and finally the physical fitness test, which was just a formality once the other tests had been cleared.
He umpired in local leagues, enhanced his knowledge by talking to senior umpires including informal chats with New Zealand umpire, Steve Dunne and Englishman George Sharp. Venkataraghavan was not approachable, and still isn’t. Senior umpires at the TNCA felt that Venkataraghavan, given his knowledge and experience, could have contributed more for the betterment of umpiring standards in the State and the country.
Umpiring in India is being done for the love of the game, and the allowances given for a full day’s work was pittance.
After two years of going through the grind, the youngster finally understood why people said, “umpiring was a thankless job”, and gave up, looking for greener avenues.
Such is the system in India that one cannot make a living out of umpiring. With umpires still being amateurs, the standards remain poor in India.
“It has to be professional,” said AV Jayaprakash, the Bangalore umpire who officiated in 13 Tests between 1997 and 2002. He was in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) international panel until last year.
The BCCI mooted the idea of having an academy for umpires along the lines of the National Cricket Academy about five years ago. And the idea has not made further progress.
“We want something to happen for the umpires. The academy is still at the discussion stage,” said Jayaprakash. “The board is thinking of appointing an umpires’ coach. We have not heard anything. If it comes up, it will be good,” said Jayaprakash.
How will the academy help? “The umpires need to be mentally strong when it comes to pre-match preparations, being consistent in making decisions, handling various situations and the players. The academy can help in these ways,” said Jayaprakash.
With the way things function in the Indian system, an umpire is only jealous about another who gets an important assignment or is promoted. “We seem to be going nowhere,” felt Jayaprakash. “The umpires and the BCCI should go hand-in-hand.”
There are far too many umpires in India (at the BCCI level) that each one on an average gets about 30-35 days of umpiring Board games (from the junior to the senior level) in a year.
An umpire just goes through the grind of fulfilling his assignments but is not given the feedback of how well (or bad) he has done. Said Jayaprakash: “If I am going wrong somewhere, I should know. Without feedback, I will end up repeating mistakes, which is not good for the game,” he said.
In the present system, umpires are judged based on the captains’ and the match referee’s report. It often happens that the losing captain gives poor marks to the umpire while the winning skipper is generous in giving an extra mark or two.
Efforts were taken in the past to bring to the umpiring fraternity the common mistakes that occurred on the field of play. “We tried conducting a couple of seminars but it was done in a haphazard manner. We tried showing video clippings.
It was well received by the umpires but it was not really a big success,” said Jayaprakash.
‘Grade the umpires’
Jayaprakash felt that the way to go forward is to grade umpires on the basis of their performance rather than classify them as Ranji Panel umpire and all-India panel based on seniority. “You should have about 60 professional umpires, classify them under grade A, B or C. If you perform well, you go up the ladder. If not, you learn from your mistakes and rectify them. You don’t deny a good youngster the chance to climb up the ladder. If you do, people interested in umpiring may eventually fade away,” he said.
The BCCI, a couple of weeks ago, planned to introduce a software whereby which the video recording of domestic matches would help in assessing the performance of Indian umpires. “The software will enable us to assess the performance of the umpires in tournaments like the Ranji Trophy and the Duleep Trophy so that we can grade the umpires,” said BCCI Joint Secretary MP Pandove, who is also the convenor of the umpires sub-committee.
The BCCI has also decided to introduce a new concept — an umpires’ coach, from the 2007-08 season for all senior tournaments with an aim to improve the quality of umpiring.
The Chief Administrative Officer of the BCCI, Ratnakar Shetty, told The Hindu a couple of weeks ago: “We did not have a system or yardstick and the performance of an umpire could not be evaluated properly.
"There is no system to pinpoint mistakes. We are hopeful the umpires’ coach will find a solution and enhance the quality of umpiring in India’s domestic tournaments.”
Shetty added that there have been instances of umpires requesting captains to be lenient while assessing them.
"From the forthcoming season, the umpires’ coach has been given the responsibility of awarding marks to the umpires. The idea is to develop a reliable and effective system to ascertain the quality of an umpire and ensure that matches are officiated capably and efficiently, leaving no room for doubt."
Amish Saheba and Suresh Shastri, the Indian arbiters in the International Panel of Umpires, have impressed the International Cricket Council with their on-field performance.
The ICC Umpires and Referees Manager, Doug Cowie (former New Zealand umpire) has informed the BCCI that the duo has done well in the limited chances that they have got.
Since being included in the ICC panel last October, Mumbai-based Shastri has stood in two Tests (Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh in Lanka recently) besides doing the Pakistan-Sri Lanka ODI series in Abu Dhabi in May, and the One-day series between Lanka and Bangladesh in Bangladesh in November 2006.
Saheba, from Ahmedabad, has travelled to Zimbabwe for the Zimbabwe-Bangladesh ODI series in February this year, and to Dublin for the quadrangular series involving the West Indies,Scotland, Holland and Ireland early this month. Besides, by turns, they have stood in India’s home ODIs against the West Indies and Sri Lanka with a neutral umpire early this year.