Saturday, July 02, 2022

The Thankless Job of Umpiring

For many of us, when we were being taught cricket, it was batting, bowling and fielding in that order. The coaches would usually stand in as umpire/facilitator and members of the batting side would take turns to man the scorebook or scoreboard. This was “the law”, and together with the tagline “the Umpire’s decision is final”, the game never felt more complete.

Fast forward all these years later and the role of the umpire, while not at the same level as the willow wielding and leather slinging superstars, has become more specialized and important to everyone as the stakes have become higher at the highest levels of international cricket. 

One could argue, however, that this level of respect or at least importance has not filtered down to our umpires or the work of umpiring in general in Nigeria.

It is often said that the smoothest of games have the most anonymous of officials. For you to remember vividly an official for a game, it is either he put up an outstandingly great performance or an outstandingly poor performance...and I'm not sure you would if it was the former. 

The 2007 World Cup final could have gone differently if the decision to continue play despite bad light had not been reached. This decision was reached by a group of officials who were at the top of their game, and on the ICC Elite Panel. The result of the last World Cup final (in 2019) rested on one key moment. Umpire had innocently given 6 runs to England instead of 5 as a result of an overthrow. No one would blame him. The sequence of events preceding his decision was one of the most bizarre anyone had ever seen in a cricket game. 

Even with all the advances in technology that we have today in the Decision Review System, decisions have not become easier. With the replays, slow motions, angle changes, Hawkeye, Snicko, Ultra-Edge, HotSpot...and many more powerful tools that the TV umpire has at his disposal for proper review and decision making, making a call is oftentimes never straightforward. And the TV umpire is never under time pressure. He can take as many replays as he wants, and change the angles as much as he likes. He still may not arrive at the "absolutely correct" decision. 

The batter or the fielding captain has 15 seconds to decide whether or not to review an umpire's decision. To put it in perspective, Usain Bolt would have taken off at his block, dashed down the tracks, breasted the tape at the finish, and the 15-second DRS timer would still be ticking. And even with 15 long seconds to decide, many of the decisions leave a lot to be desired. Many times, captains lose DRS reviews even after they must have consulted with more than half of the team.

Meanwhile, our poor umpire has a fraction of that to give a decision on events that have just played out in front of his eyes, in real-time, with plenty of factors to consider, and plenty of distractions to ignore. 

Many may think that the DRS is a friend of the on-field umpires. It actually is not. For every decision that the DRS overturns, that takes a little chip off the umpire's ego and self-confidence...even if for that match. It is never a good feeling to know you would have ruined someone's game. But these umpires keep going. They never seem afraid to make their decisions under the huge pressure they usually are under. 

If at that level, with all the assistance and all the "motivation" available, it can be so hard, how much harder can it be for our own umpires who do not have all the help and the "motivation" at the disposal of the ones we see on the big screen? Incidentally, our umpires officiate in one of the most active cricket-playing countries on the globe...without a shred of doubt the fastest growing nation in West Africa, and they still do their best to deliver. Yet, people do not truly appreciate the dedication required to stand for a game. Many people think anyone can stand during a game but those very people cannot even interpret the most basic of laws.

At the last international Umpiring Course and Facilitator Training Workshop in 2019 anchored by Cricket South Africa, seven Nigerian umpires emerged as Level 1 certificate holders (with a female included). Somehow, these distinguished officials still do not get the regards that they deserve. Maybe because associations and tournament organizers are still struggling to fully grasp the importance of their status; and without the recognition from higher levels, the larger cricket community will not appreciate them either. 

With the remuneration not as encouraging (and in some places, non-existent), passion and determination have kept these dedicated individuals going; giving as much back to the game as they possibly can. Keeping abreast of the laws, arriving at games as is required, looking sharp and ready for the role, taking up mentees under their wings… and so much more than they get little recognition or appreciation for.

It is true that the position of an umpire in a game is a noble one. Officiating a game does not just require a good knowledge of the laws. Physical fitness and mental alertness are also essential to being a good umpire. For anyone who currently is one, or anyone aspiring to take up the mantle, the place of dogged discipline and profound professionalism must be at the utmost levels and must be clear for the whole community to see.

- A Groundsman and The Analyst


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