The pressures of cricket umpiring

The International Cricket Council (ICC) is correct in its pronouncement that the bellyaching by the Indian cricket Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni over what he felt were flawed decisions made by Umpire Daryl Harper in the first Test of the current three-Test West Indies vs India series has deprived Mr Harper “of the opportunity to sign off as a Test umpire in a manner befitting someone who has served the game so well since making his debut back in 1994.” Up until now, however, we are yet to learn whether the pronouncement will be attended by some form of sanction against the ‘golden boy’ of Indian cricket.

Despite the ICC’s recent restatement of its faith in Mr Harper’s umpiring competence – which vote of confidence is buttressed by a 96 per cent correct decision rating in all Tests against India  and its own regulations regarding players’ placing umpiring controversies in the public domain – we are not aware that a single word of official admonition has been uttered in the direction of the Indian captain whose public remark that if Daryl Harper had “made the correct decisions” the Indian team “would have been back at the hotel by now” not only smacked of disrespect for Mr Harper but also came across as being more than a trifle arrogant.

Indian cricket teams, perhaps more than most others, tend to have umpiring ‘issues.’ In fact, controversies over umpiring have seen the ICC move to place umpires under a greater measure of scrutiny. It is a good thing for the game if measures are taken to ensure, as far as possible, that the men who must make the critical judgments are competent to do so, though it has to be said that when a point is reached where umpires have to be singled out and sanctioned for being below par it does have an important effect on the way in which we see the game. Critically, what it does is to create leeway for unbearable pressures to be placed on umpires by the players and there is evidence that such pressures are unfairly applied from time, both on and off the field.

In an era when, more than ever before, the performances of international teams on the field have come to be associated as much with national prestige as with the stature of the players, winning has become everything. In that context there is a great deal at stake for the Indian team currently touring the Caribbean. Rated as the best Test team in the world, the Indians are only too well aware  that anything less than a thorough humiliation of the lowly West Indians could injure their reputation even if not their rating. Understandably, therefore, Mr Dhoni would want to ensure that flawed umpiring decisions do not prejudice the outcome of the series, to say nothing about his own current superstar image which has become even more enhanced since he led his country to victory in this year’s Limited Overs Cricket World Cup.

Here, the point must be made too that Indian cricket fans are often not inclined to be forgiving of their team’s losses. There have been occasions when Indian supporters have employed disturbing excesses to give vent to their feelings. Today’s heroes can become tomorrow’s villans. It is therefore not inconceivable that Mr Dhoni and company might feel that the consequences of what they perceive to be flawed umpiring decisions might be entirely different for them than they would be for the West Indies. Quite apart from the fact that the betting favours India to win the current series, Caribbean fans are likely to respond to such an eventuality with little more than the administering of a good ‘cussin out’ after which they will immediately throw their weight behind ‘our boys’ more out of hope than expectation that next time things would be different. Indian fans invariably see things a whole lot differently.

There are those too who might be inclined to see Mr Dhoni’s flouting of the ICC’s regulations with regard to taking umpiring issues into the public domain as an exercise in muscle-flexing. After all, the balance of power in international cricket has, particularly over the past three years, shifted decisively towards India. During this period India was not only crowned the number one Test team in the world and World Cup champion, but has also consolidated its position as international cricket’s financial strongman by initiating the Indian Players’ League, cricket’s equivalent of the Football World Cup.

All these considerations, of course, would not be lost on the Indian captain and one has to wonder about the extent to which these factors may or may not have influenced his deliberate flouting of the ICC’s regulation by making public his feelings about Mr Harper’s umpiring.

The changes that have been visited upon modern cricket make strategic muscle-flexing designed to send signals as to who’s running the show altogether possible, and the decision by Umpire Harper to deny himself what ought to have been a fitting swan song to what, by all accounts, has been an outstanding career in the face of Mr Dhoni’s public protestation illustrates the extent to which off-the-field clout can impact on the game itself.

Cricket umpiring requires a quality of judgment that is perhaps more demanding than that required in the adjudication of most other sports. Decisions, frequently, are based on informed personal judgments rather than precise and foolproof calculations, and one of the effects that replays and reviews and challenges to umpiring decisions have had on the game is to expose the accuracy or otherwise of those judgments. Since, however, umpiring was never intended to be informed by perfect judgment, the replays often do more to provoke controversy and debate than to challenge the competence of umpires. Cricket umpiring, by its very nature, will sometimes throw up flawed decisions and if it is inherent in human nature that the team or individual discommoded by those decisions will feel aggrieved or disadvantaged, the game itself remains subject to laws which make clear the finality of umpiring decisions, flawed or otherwise, and imposes upon the recipient of such decisions an obligation to abide by them. To dwell on such occurrences either on or off the field and in defiance of the laws and regulations is to cause the game itself to descend into a condition of chaos.

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