Nitin Menon received a pleasant surprise on Monday (June 29) when he became only the third Indian to be named in the International Cricket Council’s Elite Panel of umpires.
At the age of only 36, Nitin follows former India captain S Venkataraghavan and S Ravi, who was dropped from the panel in 2019, in the list. He becomes the youngest to make it to the Elite Panel, and by his own admission, he wasn’t expecting the elevation this early.
“I was super-happy. It was a surprise as well because I was not expecting this year. I thought it would take maybe one more year, so I was very happy," Nitin tells Cricketnext.
Menon’s rise to the top is an interesting story of a cricketer who gave up playing the sport early, on the suggestion of his father Narendra Menon who was an international umpire. Cricket has seen many father-son duos playing for their countries, but here is a rare story of a father-son pair making it as international umpires.
Narendra played 51 first-class and one List A match for Madhya Pradesh before turning an umpire. Narendra served as an international umpire between 1993 and 1998, but couldn’t fulfill his dream of officiating in a Test match. His son Nitin ticked that box last year in the Test between Afghanistan and West Indies, and has taken an even bigger step on Monday.
“He was very happy when he heard the news yesterday, because his dream was to be a Test match umpire," says Nitin. “In his times, there was no Elite Panel or something like that, but he always wanted to officiate a Test match which he couldn’t do. So he was thrilled that at least I can do more Test matches now.
“Since even he was a first-class player, it was in our family that cricket has to be there. That’s why I took up playing cricket. When he quit and became an umpire, I could see him stand in international matches on TV. That definitely influenced my decision to become an umpire. He has always been helpful with his guidance through my career."
Nitin began his career as a player but couldn’t make it big. While he managed two List A games, he says his performances was not enough to make him a Ranji player.
“I tried, but my performances were not good enough and I lost motivation as I thought my career was going nowhere as a player," he says. “Luckily in 2006, BCCI conducted all-India umpiring exams. My father said just give it a try. If you clear and feel that you’re comfortable with umpiring then do it as a profession."
Nitin cleared the exam and there was no looking back. He began with officiating in age-group matches for the first two years, and when he was only 26, did what he couldn’t as a player: made his Ranji debut in the game between Vidarbha and Goa.
Menon was only in his 20s when he was officiating teams with players his age or older, which led to ‘awkward’ situations. He says there were even times when some players tried to dominate him.
“In the first couple of seasons, I got age-group games and it wasn’t much of a problem as I was 23-24," he recalls. “In 2009, I got my first Ranji game - between Vidarbha and Goa. There were a lot of players in Vidarbha who used to play against me because it is also a central zone team like Madhya Pradesh. Players like Akshay Wakhare, Faiz Fazal have played with me in Under-19 cricket, so it was quite awkward to officiate them. But ultimately I got used to it and started enjoying it.
“Of course, I’ve felt that (players trying to dominate). Players can easily make out that I’m a young man, might not be experienced. So they try to put pressure, but ultimately if we’re strong on the field as an umpire. If I feel I’m doing something right and stand for myself, then the players respect that. And then when they see you over four days, they understand that although he’s young, he’s doing his job professionally so they respect you for that."
Nitin says it’s an advantage in many ways to be a young umpire.
“Since the players are also young, you can be a friend for them rather than a strict teacher in a school who advises students to do this and that. Sometimes I feel young umpires who are friendly and talk to them rather than being strict headmasters makes it easier to manage a game," he says.
“Physically we’re much fitter than someone in their late 40s or 50s. Another advantage is that, if you start umpiring very early, you get more experience as you grow so it is around 30s that you peak as an umpire. If you start in your 20s, you’re experienced by that time. As a mature umpire, you can come up and with experience, it’s easier to conduct games especially first-class games in India."
Another umpire who made it big as a relative youngster was Simon Taufel. Nitin, though, says he never wants to be a ‘clone’ of someone and wants to chart his own path. His elevation is also a big boost for Indian umpires, who have often been criticised in recent years. Nitin doesn’t agree with the criticism and says puts it down to increased exposure.
“Why our umpires are criticised around the world is because of the exposure they get," he explains. “The more exposure they get, the more mistakes are noted. Since India’s domestic system is so strong, a lot of matches are on TV, including the IPL. So Indian umpires are in the limelight all the time. Hardly any people see other countries’ domestic matches on TV in India. The foreign umpires are also doing same amount of mistakes as Indian umpires. Only thing is that our umpires are exposed more to the camera so more mistakes are highlighted. Every umpire in the world is doing the same number of mistakes as Indian umpires."
Till now Nitin has officiated in three Tests, 24 ODIs, and 16 T20Is. As he begins his new chapter in the Elite Panel, he has set his goals higher.
“I definitely would like to do Ashes. It’s the best Test series happening in the world. I would like to do a men’s world cup in the near future, I’ve not experienced that before. The T20 World Cup in India (2021) will be a very good experience if I can get a chance."