Steve Bucknor gestures
Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

Steve Bucknor is still raising the finger

The Jamican umpire who retired 15-odd years ago is still doing what he knows best - this time, in New York

Sidharth Monga  |  

You want to know where the real heart of cricket in New York beats? It's not on Long Island. Not in Manhattan. Nor in Brooklyn or Central Park. You need to get on the 1 train on the subway and go uptown towards the Bronx. People will warn you to be careful about your bags. Ignore people. Ride the train all the way to the last stop: Van Cortlandt Park-242 St. Exit on the right, the south-east corner.

At over 1100 acres, Van Cortlandt Park is New York's third-largest park. On a weekend afternoon, especially at the start of the summer, you will see tens of cookouts, families picnicking, bluetooth speakers - basically hundreds of living rooms out in the sun. Ask anyone for the cricket fields. This is the rare place in America they won't look at you funny at the mention of cricket.

On any given Sunday in summer, you will see eight cricket matches being played simultaneously on matting pitches. Times two for the day; when one match finishes, the next starts. Six of these pitches belong to the large Caribbean community in New York. Two pitches are green, a sophisticated all-weather matting. Asians - mainly Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani - play on them. These are the leagues of New York.

It is easy to miss that one of these games is being officiated by someone who stood in five men's ODI World Cup finals and 128 Tests. If you get closer, though, and particularly if you are looking for him, the tall figure with the front brim of his hat slightly raised becomes apparent. It is at once an odd place and a natural one in which to find Steve Bucknor.

Odd because who retires from the highest of highs and then, at the age of 78, goes on to umpire league games in a place that is not even a cricketing outpost? Natural because Bucknor has done practically nothing but sport all his life. He was a football goalkeeper, a FIFA referee, a football coach, a cricket umpire, then football coach again, and now a cricket umpire in New York.

Hold 'em: Bucknor's umpiring cards

Hold 'em: Bucknor's umpiring cards Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

For eight years after retiring from international umpiring, he lived in his native Montego Bay in Jamaica, coached teenagers at football, and set national sprinting records for over-65s: around 29 seconds for 200m; the world record for the category is 24.65. Then he went past retirement age and his family urged him to move to the US.

Most people from the Caribbean who move to the US prefer Florida because of similar weather and the relatively short distance to their homelands, but Florida doesn't have any public transport to speak of and Bucknor didn't want to drive. So New York it was.

The idea was to try to coach football, but it didn't work out. The system is such that you have to be on a school's permanent rolls to coach. "I made applications for a few jobs," Bucknor says. "And when I was asked to show my resumé , my resumé was so much better than the person in charge. Said, no, we cannot appoint, we cannot afford to give you a job because you are better than us already."

So Bucknor dusted off the old hat, took out his counting cards and went back to umpiring. "In April, I umpire high-school cricket," he says. "Three or four days per week. In May, when senior cricket starts, on the weekend, I do senior cricket as well. Right here [in the Bronx]. And in Queens. In Queens on a Saturday, here on a Sunday. So that is my routine.

"Until mid-June, when it is the final for the high-school cricket. When that ends, I'll be doing weekend cricket, mainly here. In September. I start refereeing soccer Monday to Friday. And cricket on the weekend here."

Bucknor, of course, was a FIFA referee too, but to do soccer matches at 78 can be taxing. You have to keep up with young, sprinting footballers. "There are times you sprint 20, 25 yards to get to the goal," he says. "And as old as I am, I do more on the line than in the middle. Because they think that I'm a very good linesman or assistant. So the younger referees, when they come in, they say, Bucknor, now you going to the line, you can help him more than he can help you if you're in the middle.

Summertime and the living is easy in the Bronx

Summertime and the living is easy in the Bronx Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"I still referee in the middle. While we have a two-referee system [one in each half of the field], I still have to referee and I still have to do a bit of sprinting. But I'm happy doing that."

Bucknor's wife followed him to New York, but the rest of the family hasn't. Even after decades of this life he is still away for long hours almost every day, which can't quite be agreeable to a spouse. Earlier in the day, when I called, trying to locate him, it turned out he had forgotten his phone at home and Mrs Bucknor was fending his calls.

"When she came, that is what she saw," Bucknor says when I ask him if his wife doesn't give him grief for being away so much. "She knew what I was about. Therefore, how can she stop that? I was very active. Extremely active. I refereed a lot of soccer. I umpired a lot of cricket. She knew that long ago."

In fact, as with other things Bucknor, the couple's story too started on a sporting field. "I went there in her region to do a soccer game," he says. "And I was speaking to my friend, but she was there with the same friend. A few weeks later I met her in Montego Bay. I say, 'Hold on there, were you not the same person?' She say, yes. It was in the bank and she needed a pen. I said, 'Here's a good pen.' I had got that pen from [the US]. A pen with gel ink."

He had her at the pen. They got married one Saturday in the middle of a regional final. They had the ceremony early in the morning, and Umpire Bucknor was back in time to stand on day two of the final. This life is nothing new to her.

When it gets cold, the Bucknors go back to Montego Bay for a ten-week break. Except it is hardly a break. He coaches kids at his club. Not only that, he brings footballs and gear from the US for them. "I got about 20 balls in January of this year," Bucknor says. "Gave it to my club. I take back gear for them, whatever is necessary. The financing is not there. And because I am here, I get a lot of things from those who I coached 40 years ago. I say, 'I'm going back, I need some soccer balls.' They ask me how many.

Bucknor gives thanks to the almighty during his last Test, in Cape Town in 2009

Bucknor gives thanks to the almighty during his last Test, in Cape Town in 2009 Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

"In other words, it is not me saying I need six soccer balls. When I say I need soccer balls, they're asking me, 'You want 20, you want ten, you want 30?' So those youngsters who I coached many years ago, who were triple champions in high school in Jamaica. Whatever I say to them, they say, 'Coach, anything you want, ask and you will get it.'"

Bucknor has coached some good players in his time. "I have coached at every level," he says. "Under-11, 12-year-olds, 14, 16, high-school, adults. And I have won or been to the final of all national league competitions in Jamaica, with whichever team I coach. And I produce a lot of national players. I've had three academies, and out of each academy came national senior players, national junior players. And these guys started from scratch."

Needless to say, Bucknor is still fit enough for these jobs. He doesn't even need glasses to umpire. He only wears his reading glasses in artificial light. Which makes me wonder: why couldn't the ICC or CWI use a man of such experience and expertise to train umpires? "No, no, no, no," he says when asked if he has ever been approached to come back to cricket. "I was hoping that I would've been made the trainer in West Indies - that is, the umpire coordinator. Nobody said anything to me."

I tell him I find it strange. "Me too," he says.

Does it hurt? "I don't feel well," Bucknor says, ever so economical with the words he chooses. "I am here to help in whatever situation. For example, when I go back to Jamaica, I'm there to help my club. I am there. And sometimes I do seminars, pre-season seminars. So I'm here to help. That's the whole point. And if I have something, I give. Giving equipment away, giving my time, knowledge. I can't take it with me. And that is a family trait: give freely."

As we talk, Bucknor starts packing his bag. Among other things, it contains the counting cards on which he writes who has bowled how many overs and which over, to make sure nobody overshoots their allotment. He has a mallet. Measuring tape to make sure the pitch is the right length. Cones to mark the 30-yard circle. It is almost like going back to the basics of umpiring after having done it at the highest level and having dealt with the most competitive players and kept them in check.

Now they just see him, half-recognise him, then google him and come back respectful the next match.

The man in pink: Bucknor on the sidelines of a game in Van Cortlandt Park

The man in pink: Bucknor on the sidelines of a game in Van Cortlandt Park Sidharth Monga / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

It was at Test level that he saw a tampered ball for the first time. He had to learn it all on the job. "I said, 'Hold on, what is this?'" Bucknor says. "You see marks. You say, 'No, this is not the pitch. It must be something else.' But then what do you do about it? You didn't know about it in the beginning. So sometimes you let it be. Because if I say this ball is tampered here, who did the tampering? You? What mark did I see you make?"

Umpiring is part sport in itself. The umpires need to be as competitive as the practitioners, or the players will run roughshod over them. "You have to start at persons putting saliva on the ball without polishing," Bucknor says. And what follows doesn't do justice to his stern voice. "I say, 'Sorry, you have to polish [if you put saliva on].' There's no argument in that. 'Sorry, skipper, that ball must be polished otherwise…' And I'm looking. He didn't like it. But I don't care. I am right and you are wrong.

"Because I was a soccer referee, and I go into what you call volatile areas, you cannot afford at all for the players to do what they want. I am in charge. Sorry. Whatever you do with me at the end of the game, fine. But I am in charge out here."

Bucknor won't tell you about naughty captains and bowlers, but he does show me various tricks used to scratch the ball while pretending to shine it. He does mention what a gentleman Mark Taylor was. If his players misbehaved and Bucknor as much as looked at him, Taylor would deal with it right then and there.

The sun is setting, it is time to leave. Me to Brooklyn, him to Mount Vernon, which for him is three bus rides and a walk away. He loves to walk. That helps him stay fit. Brisk walks to the bank. Lazy ones to the supermarket.

I ask him when he plans to retire. "Sorry, I don't understand that word, 'retire'. I don't know. Is it in a dictionary? If I can walk and I see well, I continue doing whatever I'm doing."

Sidharth Monga is a senior writer at ESPNcricinfo