Rudi Koertzen

'If you have to use technology, use it fully'

His 100th Test turned out less than auspicious when he found himself at the centre of several claimed catch controversies. Rudi Koertzen reflects on the issues confronting umpiring, his time in the game, and what keeps him going

Interview by Alex Brown  |  

"I'm happy to carry the blame if I make a wrong decision. I'll put my hand up and say, 'I'm sorry, I cocked it up" © AFP

Listen to the interview here

They didn't make your 100th Test easy.
All Test cricket is intense. There's nothing better than Ashes cricket. I expected that when I heard I was coming to Lord's. I said, 'That will be another tough one in my career.' But you can't have it all easy. The more pressure that is on you, I actually think makes you better. It makes you concentrate harder. I survived it. There are probably a few more to come.

Have you been satisfied with the spirit in which this series has been played?
I'm one of the umpires who does allow them [the players] a little bit of banter. You should talk to the batsman as a bowler. In this [Lord's] Test match they were all friendly chirps. Not once did they say anything bad to each other. The spirit in this Test match was absolutely amazing.

The Australians have been accused in the past of applying pressure to umpires, particularly when appealing. How have you found them?
It doesn't really bother me. The more pressure they put on you, the better you are. It makes you tougher out there in the middle. It's not only them, it's all spheres of cricket. Whether it's club level or whatever, if they know they can get hold of you and break you down, they will do it. That's why the appeals are of that quality. You might think, 'It must be out.' And once you make that decision and it's a wrong one, they know they've got hold of you and they're going to break you down slowly but surely over the day, the next day and the day after that. It doesn't really bother me. It's tough.

It sounds like you enjoy the combative moments.
That's what we strive for. I couldn't see myself without this game because the pressure gets to me and actually makes me strong. I feel, 'Yes, I'm there, I'm part of the game.' It's much better to have that pressure on you than stand there for five days and relax and nothing happens, because then you don't enjoy the game.

Would you rate the Lord's Test among your favourites to have stood in?
It definitely is amongst the top few. Of all the Ashes Test matches I've done, I would say the last one, at The Oval in 2005, was actually the hardest one for me. When a guy like Shane Warne is on you for 40 overs non-stop, and he appeals and puts pressure on you, that's when the game is very tough to handle.

Although the weather was also a bit dicey in that series, the fact that England batted so well, especially Kevin [Pietersen] when he scored that 158, and then when Warney came in and put all sorts of pressure on you… he said, 'I have to bowl England out' and he couldn't manage to do that. That was really tough.

Do you keep a mental glossary of your favourite individual performances?
You know, sometimes I walk off the field and don't even know what the final score was because I concentrate more on the decision-making than performances. Freddie's [Flintoff] performance yesterday was something special again. You can see the man struggling. He walked past me and said, 'Rudi, I'm getting old now. I'm battling.' I told him, 'Just hang in, keep going, you're still all right, you know.' Those are things you just pick up through the game. For me, decision-making is probably the more important thing. It's not about me, it's about the game. If I get it right, things go smoothly with the game as well.

On to the video side of things. We have the Umpire Decision Review System to be introduced to Test cricket in October. Are you in favour?
I'm not against any television assistance. In 1992, when we started the television replays in South Africa, I was the first umpire to do a Test match with replays. It was only line decisions at the time. You were thinking, 'How many guys were given out that were not out, and not out which were out [before] the television was there?' It's proven within a millimetre. You can now make the right decision. I've been involved in three of the video-review series - the first was in Sri Lanka against India, then New Zealand against West Indies, and England against West Indies. It's definitely helpful. But I would say the technology should be spot-on there. [The third umpire] can't sit there and guess, then 10 or 15 minutes later they probably find another view of another angle, and then prove that the third umpire has made the wrong decision.

"The appeals are of such quality, you might think, 'It must be out.' And once you make that decision and it's a wrong one, the players know they've got hold of you and they're going to break you down slowly but surely over the day, the next day and the day after that"

So you're for it if they've got irrefutable video proof to assist in the decision making?
One hundred percent, yes.

Have they got that now?
Hotspot is a very good machine that they're using in cricket at the moment. Whether Hawk-Eye is accurate I don't really know. They all say it is. They're the suppliers, so they will back their product, but how accurate it is I don't know. I would say if we go that route, the third umpire should have access to everything. [But] the predictive path shouldn't be there. If you give a batsman not out, and the opposition see the replay on TV and the ball is just clipping the bails or clipping the edge of the stumps, they will think, 'That was out.'

Are there decisions you would not like to see go to the third umpire?
Why shouldn't you go all the way? Why should you just have 50%? They're going to prove us wrong anyhow. If you give a caught-behind not out, and the Snicko shows he did hit it, what's the use of using technology? I'm still going to make the wrong decision. [Technology is] going to improve the decision-making from where we stand at the moment, at 96%, to about 98 or 99%. But we want 100%, to make everybody happy. If we have to go, go all the way. It's not going to lower the dignity of the umpire, definitely not, because the umpire has still got to make decisions. It's the crucial ones that we get wrong at the wrong time - those are the ones we want to get out of the game.

Do you not feel it erodes your authority when batsmen or fielding sides are challenging your decisions?
I don't mind. At the end of the day I don't read newspapers and I don't look at replays. I know when I make a mistake. As soon as the batsman walks off the field, you can look at his body language and you will know if you probably got it wrong. I would say, let's get it right. If he wants to challenge me, if you want to put it that way, and I made a mistake, I would be happy to change it and the right decision will be made. Tomorrow morning you won't see Rudi's name in the newspaper.

Were there times at Lord's when you knew straight away, judging from the body language of some of the batsmen, that you had made a mistake?
No. I was happy with my performance inside myself. When you walk off the field you speak to the referee and he'll tell you, 'You got that one wrong'. Then you say, 'Shucks, what happened? Why did I get it wrong?'

I can use the Ponting example. The sounds were perfect. There were definitely two sounds and I gave it. If I didn't give him caught-behind, if I didn't consider the fact that he hit the ball, I would've given him out lbw anyhow. But the fact is, the caught comes first, and that was the reason I went upstairs, to see whether it carried, because I couldn't tell. But the noises were perfect and I gave him out because I thought he hit it. I haven't seen [the replays]. They've said when they had the magnifying thing on the ball that it missed the bat.

That's not an excuse. I will not make excuses to cover myself and say, 'That's the reason I made the wrong decision.' I'm happy to carry the blame if I make a wrong decision. I'll put my hand up and say, 'I'm sorry, I cocked it up.'

How do you practise? I have noticed you standing in the nets before matches on occasion.
That's the only way we can do it. We keep ourselves fit, first of all. I go to the gym for an hour and a half on the days I'm off. The only other practice we get is to stand in the nets a day or two before the game starts, just to get focused on the ball, see what the bowlers do. Sometimes you get a new lad in the squad who you have never seen, and you don't know what he does with the ball. It's good to go out there and see what he bowls: does he swing it? If he's a spinner, how he turns the ball. And if he's a batsman, what kind of shots he plays. When you get used to batsmen, you know he's not going to flip the ball from off to leg; he's going to play straight. That's one of the ways I prepare - to know at least when I go out there what I can expect from the bowler and some of the batters.

Do you like to engage with the players on the field?
I like to be on my own on the field most of the time. When you get a chance, when you speak to the guys and they want to talk to you, you have a bit of fun with them. You can't just stand there in your own little sphere for six hours. You're going to go mad. You sometimes have to relax a little bit. I will only speak to players when they approach me. There are quite a lot of the guys who come. I get on with the players pretty well, and they will come and talk to you and ask you where you have just come from, where are you going after the Test match and what series you have coming up. We do have a chat.

Are you proud to have reached 100 Tests and 200 ODIs?
For anybody to achieve what I have achieved, it must be a special moment. I remember when I started I didn't think I would get that far. I started as a club umpire and 10 weeks later I did my first first-class game. They pushed me through the ranks. It's just the way things happened. I was available and they used me.

I just thought that I've got the opportunity to put something back into the game that I loved. In 1992, when I was picked to be on our Test panel when we returned to international cricket in South Africa, I thought that was a bonus. I was doing a Test match when there were a lot of umpires who have never had that opportunity. I'm standing at 201 [ODIs] and 100 [Tests] at the moment and it's just amazing.

Your Test debut came during South Africa's first home series after readmission, didn't it?
South Africa's first series was against India in 1992, the friendship series. I did the first Test with David Shepherd. I can't remember much of that game. All I know is that we had an exchange system where there were three umpires appointed to the game. We were rotating. That was South Africa's first Test and my first Test. To think... South Africa was back in international cricket and I was a part of if it was just a great feeling.

"I would say at the end of the day, the best way of doing it now is to go upstairs for all of them" © Getty Images

How long do you intend to continue umpiring for?
I'll carry on as long as I enjoy the game. I still get up in the morning and say, 'Yes, I'm going to umpire today.' A day like today, I know I'm free, but what do I do with myself? I hang around, I go and play golf if I get the chance. But for me, I would rather be out in the middle every day of the week. I'm still fit and healthy. I'm going to try and go as far as the next World Cup in the subcontinent and then make a decision after that whether I'll still carry on.

For me, the most important thing in my career is the respect the players have given me, and I do respect them the same way. I would like to know that when... the guys see me in the nets when they're training two or three days before the game and they say, 'Look who's here. Rudi is back. He's doing the Test. I'm happy to see him.' So long as it's going that route, I will probably carry on for another two years, or maybe three. I won't overstay. If I think it's time to go, I will just call it a day. It's going to be hard to do that. It's part of your lifestyle. You live, eat, drink cricket. That's all we do. But if the time comes, I will go.

What are the greatest challenges facing umpires?
I feel sorry for some countries where the guys struggle to get through the system. You can get on to the panel one year and the next year you're off, doing maybe two or three ODIs. In our country we've got a system that's in place and you have to go through the ranks to get to the top. Once you get to the top, your country will leave you alone and say, 'It's your baby now. We've got you to where you are. Now you've got to look after yourself.' It is challenging for you to stay at the top.

It's good that the [Elite] panel has increased a little bit. It's going to make us do fewer games, but you will have more quality time spent with your family at home. Not that my family is really concerned about it; I've been doing it for so many years. I think sometimes I'm just a burden when I get home. As a joke they will ask, 'When do you leave again?'

The hardest thing for us is the travelling and the dead time you spend in places doing nothing. It is a challenge to get used to it. The young guys coming through the system, it's good to see them. They're less than 40 and it's good they can get into the system and can feel what it's like. The only thing I feel sorry for is that they've all got young kids.

I've been doing this now for 17 years. My oldest son is 28 and the other one is 25. I've never had special time with them. That's what breaks you, if you sit back and you think, 'I could have had some good time with the family…' But if you love this game, you don't get it out of your blood. It's there and it's going to stay there.

Any other challenges?
Probably the big challenge is getting used to this new system. How are we going to handle it? Are you just going to stand out there and say, 'I'm just going to use television wherever I can?' Or go out there and still do what you used to do? We have to accept the fact that if we make mistakes it's going to be rectified and be man enough to accept it and don't feel bad about it. At the end of the day the right decision will be made, and that's what we want.

Would it bother you if the next generation of umpires became completely video-dependent and took away old-fashioned instinct?
At the end of the day I would like to see the right decision made. An umpire will always be an umpire and have to work on those skills to become a good umpire. You're not always going to have that video advantage. You're only going to use this in Test cricket. Everybody is not going to get to that level. At first-class level you will not have that opportunity. The only thing is, at the level we are now, with the professionalism and so much money involved in the sport, it's a good thing we can use it [technology].

Umpires are forever under the microscope. Has the good outweighed the bad in your career?
I'm a lucky man to be involved in the greatest sport. It's not the easiest job in the world. I always say I think it's the hardest job in the world: to stand there for six hours, have about 20 or 30 cameras watching you the whole time, millions of people viewing you at home, 10 people commentating on you and saying how bad you are, and the press who sit there and write about the mistakes you make. You have to accept those things. I am so fortunate to be part of it. I will not change my profession for anything in the world.

It used to be that the word of the fielder was good enough. Now, it seems, no one is walking, and you have awkward situations like at Lord's. What are your thoughts on the matter?
It's supposed to be a gentleman's game, but I can't say it always is. Guys know they can cheat and get away with things. I don't mean that with both those catches [Hauritz and Strauss] they were trying to cheat; they probably believed they caught it.

"At the end of the day I don't read newspapers and I don't look at replays. I know when I make a mistake. As soon as the batsman walks off the field you can look at his body language and you will know if you probably got it wrong"

The catch-referral system is so straightforward. There are two ways of doing it. The first one - [like] with Hauritz - you stand there in the middle and you see the batsman play the shot, and for a few seconds you lose the ball because you don't always know where the ball goes. The next moment all I saw were his hands going down. I just thought, 'I'm not sure whether he caught it.' That's when I had to go to my colleague. I spoke to him and he said to me, 'Rudi, I'm not sure either. I missed the flight of the ball as well.' Then we have to go upstairs. That's a protocol. As the third umpire indicated, it was inconclusive - because it's not three-dimensional, it was inconclusive to him as to whether the catch was taken or not. We had to give the benefit to the batsman. It's as simple as that.

The one the day before yesterday [Ponting], I couldn't see where the catch was taken because I had the bowler running down the wicket. I didn't have a clue. I didn't even know who was catching the ball at that stage. I went straight to my partner and asked, 'Was it a fair catch?' and he said, 'Yes, it went straight in.' That's it. So long as one of the on-field umpires is sure that the ball has carried, the decision will stay on the field. That's a protocol from the ICC. It's been in our conditions all the time. I would say at the end of the day, the best way of doing it now is to go upstairs for all of them.

Isn't it a shame that the fielder's word isn't enough?
It is a shame. As I said, the players will stand there, nick the ball and wait for the umpire to make a decision. For me, that's cheating. Why don't you get off the field and make it easy for the game? There would be more pleasure in the game. I know that Ponting would say, 'Boys, let's try [accepting the umpires' word].' I've been in those meetings when he said, 'Let's try it,' and then you get to the second day in a Test match and a guy claims a catch and 10 minutes later you hear, 'The ball didn't carry,' and then the argument starts again. Let's use the technology when it's there.

How have attitudes changed?
The days when you used to do it for the love of the game, there's no such thing anymore. You can go around the world and the first thing people talk about is money. All they want is, 'How much are we going to get?' That's actually sad, to think that everybody is looking that way, that they're not going to do it if they don't get proper money for it. We did it because we just loved it.

What were you paid in the early days?
We used to get paid for it, but you couldn't even buy a beer for the money we were getting. I can remember doing a day game for 75 rand, which in those days was probably 20 quid. You could just get the cab up and back and that's it.

I'm not one who whines about money. For me it's just an honour to be part of this sport. I've seen the world - 18 countries - and it never cost me a cent to go there. Who can sit back and say, 'I am so privileged to see the world, to do what I love' and to get up in the morning and say, 'Yes, I'm going to umpire again today'? There's not many people who can do that. I know when I was working for the railways, I would get up in the morning and say, 'Argh, I have to sit in that office again today.' You just wanted to get out, get some fresh air and be part of life. That's how fortunate I am.

This exclusive interview was made possible by Emirates, title sponsor of the Elite Panel of ICC Umpires and Referees. The Dubai-based international airline is also an Official Partner of the ICC, giving it sponsorship rights at the Cricket World Cup, Champions Trophy and the World Twenty20.

Listen to the interview here

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo