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The intricacies of on-field umpiring

Hrishikesh Kanitkar @hrishikanitkar

Updated: August 1, 2012, 9:15 AM IST
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Umpiring is an art. But in the eyes of the spectator it is the most underrated aspect of the game. No matter what the level of cricket is, our attention is always drawn to the action on the field. We are engrossed with the batting, bowling and fielding aspects of the game. After all, cricket is about batsmen scoring runs and the bowlers and fielders trying to get them out. What most of us fail to notice is the way in which the two on-field umpires quietly go about their job.
We all know that it's the job of the umpires to ensure that the game proceeds smoothly; that the spirit of cricket is upheld by the players and that the code of conduct is followed on the field of play. What we don't realize is what skill sets the umpires need to possess to make sure that the cricket we watch is enjoyable and competitive.
To begin with, let's start with the amount of time they spend on their feet. In a Test match a minimum of 90 overs have to be bowled per day. This takes six hours. For the umpires it doesn't matter who is batting or bowling, they have to be alert for the whole duration of play. The team batting first may get all out and come and field. The bowling side will get to rest when it's their turn to bat but the umpires have no such luxuries.
Being alert for such a great amount of time each day is humanly impossible. So the umpire needs to switch on as the bowler begins his run up and then switch off his focus once the ball is bowled. This process is repeated 540 times at least in a single day. To be able to physically stand on the field for so long and also be able to focus at the optimum level for the duration of play, it is a must for the umpires to be physically fit and also mentally tuned in. It's easy to let the mind wander and when this happens you make mistakes. A single umpiring error can change the result of the game and with the stakes as high as they are in modern cricket this is not an option.
Umpires face different challenges depending on the nature of the pitch. On the bouncy and consistently-paced tracks of Australia, the umpires require to adjudicate on a lot of caught behind decisions. On lbw calls it's mostly the height that the ball hits the pad that needs to be judged. As it's the faster bowlers that operate longer on such tracks, the wicketkeepers stand a fair distance back and catches carry well to him or the slip cordon. Most times the umpire just needs to hear the snick or see the deviation off the bat to make the right decision.
On the other hand, umpiring on subcontinental pitches is a completely different preposition. The pitches in the sub continent offer lower bounce, less pace and a lot of spin. As the game progresses the bounce can be quite variable. On tracks such as these the close-in fielders come into play. The 'keeper stands up to the stumps as the spinners operate more. The difficulty level for umpires raises a few notches.
In these circumstances it's not only crucial to hear the edge and see the deviation but also to make sure the ball has carried to the catcher. The most difficult decisions to adjudicate on these pitches are the bat-pad close-in catches. Most times when defending against the spinning ball the batsmen have the bat, gloves and pads in very close proximity to the ball and it's possible for the ball to have brushed against any of these. What's more, the sound made by the ball hitting the pads is very similar to the sound it makes when it hits the batsman's gloves. So to be sure of what the ball has made contact with, the umpires need to be watching the proceedings like hawks. Any slip in concentration can leave the umpire looking very silly especially with technology like Snicko and Hot Spot now available to the broadcasters.
Apart from these challenges, the on-field umpires are also entrusted to make sure that they don't let any ugly incidents take place on the field. There have been a few of these in recent times, like Harbhajan and Andrew Symonds having a go at each other at the SCG. While this type of mental warfare is a necessary part of Test cricket the really good umpires look to diffuse the situation even before it escalates into something detrimental to the spirit of the game.
Recently it's been seen that a good percentage of cricketers who have played the game at the first-class or international level take up umpiring as a profession upon their retirement from playing the game. This is a welcome sign because having had played the game at a high level they are well aware of all the tricks of the trade. They can read the body language of the players better and so can officiate professionally under pressure.
A case in point would be someone like Simon Taufel of Australia. He was a promising fast bowler who played alongside players like Adam Gilchrist and Michael Slater at the junior level. He had to give up playing cricket due to a back injury. Then he took up umpiring. And it's been a stellar career he's had since then.
He officiated in his first ODI at the age of 27 and made his debut as a Test umpire at 29 years of age in the Boxing Day test match in 2000 at the MCG. Taufel worked on his physical fitness and mental conditioning like any pro athlete would - with total dedication and commitment. Respected by players for his calm demeanor and his ability to make accurate decisions consistently under pressure Taufel set a high standard for modern day umpires to follow. In a way he has brought glamour to the role of an umpire. He has been an epitome of what a professional umpire needs to be.
As the game has progressed so have the umpires found themselves in the spotlight more often than ever before. The TV cameras zoom in on their faces just as much as the do on players. With the pace of cricket getting faster by the day the umpires have had to keep up. With someone like Taufel to show them the way, we can safely assume that the umpiring levels will only get better. The umpires who officiate at the highest level nowadays also earn very good remuneration similar to what players get for a game. This means there is no excuse to slack. It's not a thankless job anymore!
First Published: August 1, 2012, 9:15 AM IST

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