Umpire Asad Rauf stands with th Spidercam hovering above
© Getty Images


The white coat's burden

Beset by technological tumult, intense media scrutiny, and a gruelling calendar, the modern-day umpire has a heavy load to bear

Tim Wigmore  |  

To err is human, a dictum coined, it could be argued, specifically with cricket's umpires in mind. Humdrum anonymity - the mark of a perfect day's work - descends into notoriety at the ill-judged raising of a crooked index finger. Daryl Harper, an international umpire for 13 years, has been there: "Umpires only seem to get noticed when they err."

The increasing demands that cricket places on players are often remarked upon. But these pressures may be even more onerous for umpires. Take this physical metric: members of the Elite Panel of ICC umpires typically spend around 200 days a year on the road. That equates to more time away from home than many international cricketers. And umpires' lives are lonelier, and they are less well-remunerated.

Far greater, and more difficult to measure, are the off-field pressures. "Inevitably a sad reality is that some personal relationships are strained by the distance and time apart, with some lives being in limbo," observes Harper. It is why, for example, one of the most revered umpires of all time, Dickie Bird, never got married. He knew it wouldn't have been fair on a partner.

Simon Taufel resigned from the Elite Panel two years ago. Taufel can rightly claim a place among the game's very best umpires, and was a trailblazer in the professionalism he brought to the role: he was named ICC Umpire of the Year for five consecutive years.

"Inevitably a sad reality is that some personal relationships are strained by the distance and time apart, with some lives being in limbo" Daryl Harper

He began unusually young, umpiring his first Test at 29. But Taufel was just 41 when he stepped down, citing the need to spend more time with his young family. He "cannot count how many birthdays, weddings, funerals, anniversaries, Christmases and special events" he missed at home.

That was besides the onerous requirements of the job. "Stamina, focus, fitness, decision-making, match- and man-management, technique, team work, mental strength, concentration, attitude and relationships are all tested," he says. "You are only one ball away from disaster and you don't get a chance to recharge in the dressing room - or recover from a mistake - like a member of the batting side."

The Elite Panel was created in 2002, and it radically changed the lives of top umpires. Earlier they worked primarily in home Tests, only umpiring a couple of overseas Tests a year. Now Elite Panel umpires can expect to be involved in nearly ten Tests - all overseas - as well as in ODIs and T20s.

Simon Taufel in the TV umpire's room:

Simon Taufel in the TV umpire's room: "The modern-day umpire is not just officiating a game of cricket, he is managing an entertainment event" © AFP

In an international career spanning 23 years, Bird umpired 66 Test matches. He stood in a scheduled 399 days of international cricket - an average of 17 per year. Taufel worked (either on the field or as a third umpire) in a scheduled 602 days from the start of 2003, the year of his elevation to the Elite Panel, until his retirement in 2012 - over 60 days a year. That has necessitated the promotion, as Taufel points out, of "younger and fitter umpires".

The average age of the Elite Panel has fallen from 53 in 2003 to 49 (in 2014) but career spans are getting shorter and shorter. "I don't think we'll see the longevity of a Steve Bucknor or David Shepherd again," says Taufel.

Tests continue to provide a true and unique gauge of an umpire's worth, as they did in Bucknor's and Bird's day. "A five-day Test in gruelling conditions can see an umpire answer at least 40 appeals as the match ebbs and flows," Taufel says.

Richard Kettleborough signals a six, Pakistan v West Indies, World T20, Group 2, Mirpur, April 1, 2014 © ICC And you thought the players had it bad

A snapshot of Richard Kettleborough's schedule in 2013 and 2014

January 11-23, 2013

Australia v Sri Lanka ODIs: 5 ODIs (on-field 3, TV 2) (Total: 5 days)

March 14-24, 2013

India v Australia Tests: 2 Tests (Total: 8 days)

April 17-September 26, 2013

English domestic season: 7 first-class matches, 8 List A, 2 T20s (Total: 38 days)

May 17-19, 2013

Scotland v Pakistan ODIs: 2 ODIs (Total: 2 days)

June 7-20, 2013

Champions Trophy: 5 ODIs (on-field 3, TV 1, reserve 1) (Total: 5 days)

July 20-31, 2013

Sri Lanka v South Africa ODIs: 5 ODIs (on-field 3, TV 2) (Total: 5 days)

August 21-25, 2013

England v Australia Tests: 1 Test (reserve umpire) (Total: 5 days)

September 8, 2013

England v Australia ODIs: 1 ODI (Total: 1 day)

October 13-23, 2013

India v Australia ODIs: 4 ODIs (Total: 4 days)

November 6-16, 2013

India v West Indies Tests: 2 Tests (Total: 6 days)

December 31, 2013-January 20, 2014

Pakistan v Sri Lanka Tests: 3 Tests (on-field 10, TV 5) (Total: 15 days)

February 6-18, 2014

New Zealand v India Tests: 2 Tests (Total: 9 days)

March 16-April 6, 2014

World T20: 14 T20Is (on-field 8, TV 1, reserve 5) (Total: 14 days)

April 13-July 10, 2014

English domestic season: 9 first-class matches, 4 T20s (Total: 40 days)

May 6-8, 2014

Ireland v Sri Lanka ODIs: 2 ODIs (Total: 2 days)

May 16, 2014

Kent v Sri Lankans, tour match (Total: 1 day)

July 16-28, 2014

Sri Lanka v South Africa Tests: 2 Tests (Total: 10 days)

2013 total: 80 days; 2014 total: 90 (until end July)

All matches officiated as on-field umpire unless specified

Now there is a third format to contend with and more limited-overs cricket than ever before. Despite the arduous schedule, the ICC refuses to let umpires choose formats of the game, as an increasing number of players do. Had their approach been less rigid, Taufel might have umpired in next year's World Cup.

If fundamental skills are transferable between formats, the umpiring challenge is most intense in T20 cricket. "All the 'lesser' decisions carry more weight," Taufel explains. "The no-ball judgements for front foot, back foot, height, and bouncers and wides and fielding restrictions are often as important as a wicket. The pace of the game is faster, so you have to adjust and manage the playing conditions - Powerplays, overs per bowler, ball counts, field restrictions - along with the decisions, without hesitation. There is less think-time and your routines have to be stronger so that you can default to doing the right thing without thinking too much." As the formats diverge further, the case for specialist limited-overs umpires will only become greater.

T20 is not the only new challenge for umpires. Their role has never been in a state of such flux: the ICC Playing Handbook doubled in size during Taufel's stint as an international umpire. "Security dynamics, anti-corruption and commercialism have all put more importance on today's modern-day umpire being a full-rounded professional match manager and not just a great decision-maker," he says. "The modern-day international umpire is not just officiating a game of cricket but he is managing an entertainment event." The Decision Review System has further complicated the role of the umpire (see box), though one positive has emerged.

"What DRS has done is actually show that umpires get the vast majority of decisions correct, and that takes a lot of heat out of decisions on the field," says Richard Kettleborough, who was named the ICC Umpire of the Year in 2013. Only 23.6% of player reviews since April 2013 have been successful. According to the ICC's official records, the DRS has led to a rise in correct umpiring decisions from 93.6% to 97.9%.

Technology's inexorable rise has, however, doubly burdened umpires: it has further intensified scrutiny on their decision-making. "We now have three commentators dissecting each decision with the use of Hot Spot, stump audio, Snicko, ultra motion, and up to 32 different camera angles," Taufel says. This means, whether or not DRS is being used, umpires immediately know that they have got it wrong. "Players ask their support staff very quickly and that filters back to us," says Kettleborough. What Taufel calls "bouncebackability" - recovering in real time from getting a decision wrong - is critical.

The scrutiny means that former cricketers seeking a cushy job-for-life in the game should look elsewhere. The Elite Panel is a pretty ruthless place to be; the contracts of umpires are reviewed every year. Fourteen umpires have left the Elite Panel to date; only two, Taufel and the late Shepherd, have actually retired. The others have not had their contracts extended - "so in effect we have been sacked," Harper says. Not that he is complaining: "If players fail to perform, their contracts are curtailed. It seems only fair that umpires should also be required to achieve acceptable standards, or fall on their stumps."

The paradox of the Elite Panel is that it was designed to mitigate the stress umpires face, but they now fear the career-changing consequences of being dropped from it. And those aspiring to join the Elite Panel may have even greater pressure to contend with.

The International Panel - the level below the Elite Panel - comprises 34 umpires seeking elevation. "This group has the most challenges to deal with and they are the most time-poor when it comes to their personal lives," Taufel believes. "These umpires may or may not have contracts with their boards, but they umpire a significant amount of domestic and international cricket. But all hold down jobs on top of their umpiring career."

Aleem Dar is one of two umpires from the subcontinent on the Elite Panel

Aleem Dar is one of two umpires from the subcontinent on the Elite Panel © AFP

Those who progress to the Elite Panel face "a big jump", akin to that between playing first-class cricket and Tests. "Having your decisions challenged is something people have to get used to. But the only way to get used to that is being out in the middle and doing your job," says Kettleborough.

The ICC is not oblivious to the leap. Led by Taufel in his newly created role of Umpire Performance and Training Manager, the ICC this year will start to implement an International Accreditation Programme. This will contain six modules of core competencies that umpires will need to demonstrate before they are eligible to officiate in international cricket. It may sound jargon-heavy, but a basic recognition of the multifarious challenges umpires face is to be welcomed. There is already a pack of umpire coaches assisting on the international circuit.

In theory, the upshot of more transparent career paths for umpires is that no international official should ever feel underprepared. "Achieving a Test umpiring debut is now a greater achievement than in the previous century, when many umpires were discarded after one opportunity," Harper believes. "New Test umpires should bed in slowly because they've worked their way to the top by ticking all the right boxes along their journey. This makes it highly unlikely that an umpire will fail to perform when he reaches the ultimate goal."

Despite the arduous schedule, the ICC refuses to let umpires choose formats of the game, as an increasing number of players do. Had their approach been less rigid, Taufel might have umpired in next year's World Cup

Whether the ICC does enough to protect established umpires is rather more contentious. Cricket has had to confront the inconvenient truth that the unremitting demands it places upon its best players can contribute to debilitating stress and even depression. In the uber-professional era, the same is true of umpires. Yet Harper, who is a particularly good example of the toll umpiring takes, told ESPNcricinfo during an interview in 2012, before he joined Cricket Australia, he "can't recall anyone being interested in my emotional welfare when I was traipsing around the cricket world at the whim of the ICC".

He was particularly aghast at the ICC's implementation of the DRS. Harper worked as third umpire during England's tour of the Caribbean in 2009 and he said in that interview, "I was responsible for deciding if the field umpire's decision needed to be reversed - before the predicted path of the ball was shown to me or to the world." At the time, ball-predicting technology was not yet deemed reliable enough to be used by the third umpire. Thus, he often lacked the necessary evidence to reverse the on-field umpire's lbw decision, but television would show the predicted trajectory - often contradicting his verdict - as the batsman walked off. "The batsman's view, and that of his supporters, was that he had received a shocker of a decision," Harper said.

It was not an isolated incident. After a number of dubious decisions, including upholding the on-field umpire's not-out verdict for a catch against Graeme Smith, England demanded an inquiry into Harper's performance in Johannesburg in 2010. After a wait of seven months, an independent inquiry exonerated Harper from charges of incompetence, finding that the host broadcaster's failed sound feed was to blame.

"I dared to hope for support from the ICC," Harper said at the time. "Four years on and David Richardson [then general manager (cricket) at the ICC and now its chief executive] has still not spoken to me about the inquiry, its outcome or the implications of its findings." As they have illustrated on other occasions - overturning the umpires' awarding of the 2006 Oval Test to England, and then reversing their decision - the ICC has an unfortunate tendency towards obfuscation. It has not always been the friend that Elite umpires need.

Umpire Billy Bowden signals a decision reversed, England v Sri Lanka, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 2nd day, June 21, 2014 © Getty Images Umpires review the DRS

Daryl Harper

Technology has provided fascinating entertainment for television viewers. Commentators thrive on analysing decisions in slow motion. Umpiring errors are being reviewed and overturned. Incorrect calls are being eliminated from the game.

But there is a downside. The authority of the umpire is clearly being undermined. Maybe that's a small price to pay in an impatient world that expects officials to be perfect. When Kevin Pietersen demanded a review of his dismissal in a recent Ashes Test, the disdain that he showed for the umpire was blatant. Watching at home, I winced with disappointment at how quickly the DRS had legalised dissent. It has also relegated the umpire to an insignificant bystander. Decisions are analysed, reversed, and the game continues… until a team exhausts its reviews. Only then is it game on for the umpire.

A more palatable resolution would be to allow umpires to review facts before making decisions. And if the third umpire detects an injustice, charge him with the power to overturn an incorrect call. Maybe then the umpires will be afforded the respect that the highly regarded spirit of cricket decrees.

Harper was interviewed in 2012

Dickie Bird

In my era we made our own decisions. If you did make a mistake people talked about it in the press, in the pubs, on television. That was part of the game. It made cricket.

It's a shame that electronic aids have taken over from umpiring because now the authority is being taken away from the umpire. It has taken all the pressure off umpires. Machines make all the decisions, so how can an umpire make a mistake? Ask them and nine out of ten would like to make their own decisions.

Richard Kettleborough

Hawk-Eye has shown that more balls were hitting the stumps than people originally thought, especially with the spinners bowling, so that's been a major change in the game and in our thought process as umpires.

When DRS isn't used, as is the case in India, it adds to the challenges, along with the noise, the heat and the humidity, and the nature of the pitches. They are the types of conditions that you would want DRS - where you've got men around the bat all day, bat-pad catchers, and obviously the noise of a very fanatical crowd makes hearing little nicks very difficult. The last thing you want is to get a decision wrong - especially if it was Sachin in India!

Having resisted for over a century, cricket began flirting with neutral umpires in 1986. With the Elite Panel's formation in 2002, the ICC dragged cricket into line with other sports by stipulating that all on-field officials involved in Tests should be neutral, though ODIs and international T20s each still feature one home umpire. The aim was to consign to history flare-ups like that between Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting in 1987.

Now, however, matters have moved beyond nationality into a post-neutrality world. After all, as Kettleborough says, "Purely from an umpiring perspective, once you're out on the field it doesn't matter who's playing. I would have no issue doing an Ashes Test match."

The panel's enforced limitations became apparent during the back-to-back Ashes series last year. Eight of the 12 Elite Panel officials were from England or Australia, meaning that, theoretically, only four were available for the two series. Eventually Billy Bowden was enlisted to officiate even though he had been removed from the panel. The concentration of panel umpires in Australia and England illustrates problems of developing umpires elsewhere in the cricketing world. India's decision to invest in a National Umpires Academy, in this light, feels significant: who knows, the Elite Panel may soon reflect the control of the self-proclaimed Big Three off the pitch.

But there is also a more fundamental issue: the Elite Panel's size. While it has risen from eight to 12 umpires since 2002, those aspiring to be elevated remain dependent on an umpire retiring or not having his contract renewed. A more prudent approach would be to increase the panel's size, allowing umpires to have their commitments reduced accordingly. The most obvious explanation for the limit is financial: Elite Panel umpires earn around US$342,330 a year, plus expenses. But the enlisting of Bowden to officiate in the 2013-14 Ashes series hinted that the ICC may be realising the need to become more flexible.

That would be overdue given the demands placed on the Elite Panel. In addition to their traditional on-field roles, members are also required to serve as third umpires. That third umpire "has to be broadcasting-savvy, has to be a good communicator - in English - and has to be able to manage the match while keeping time allowances, making decisions, using technology tools under pressure and supporting the on-field umpires in their work," Taufel explains. Indeed, it is the role of the TV umpire that has evolved more than the role of any other umpire in the last decade or so. Is there a case to be made for a specialist TV-umpire panel? The ICC took a tentative step when appointing Tony Hill for three Tests during the last Ashes series, all as the TV umpire. It is also developing a more specialised training for the role.

At least these developments have been paralleled by an enhancement in the powers of the match referee. Harper welcomes the development. "With referees offering more predictable sanctions, players are more likely to adhere to accepted standards. There will always be repeat offenders who react in the heat of battle, but generally umpires should be under less pressure."

Elite umpires spend about 200 days a year on the road - more than most international cricketers. And the job is lonelier and less well remunerated

Elite umpires spend about 200 days a year on the road - more than most international cricketers. And the job is lonelier and less well remunerated © Getty Images

In particular, the increased use of match referees to deal with bowlers exceeding the 15-degree limit has come as a relief. "If someone's action is not quite what it should be, we go through the report process - and then it's up to the powers that be to deal with that in the correct manner," Kettleborough says. "There have been some unfortunate incidents in the past. I'm happy with the way it is now." Even this, however, may now change. In recent ICC meetings, the body's cricket committee has called for umpires to be more proactive in monitoring suspect actions. Umpires still retain no-ball powers, but reporting suspect actions after matches instead has become the norm.

For all its imposition, umpiring retains its allure. Indeed, it can amount to an addiction. "It certainly beats getting a real job," Harper says. "Most umpires are drawn to the gig by a lifelong passion for the sport. It's a role that can be addictive." He stumbled into it after a career as a "very average" batsman in Adelaide grade cricket and wanting to stay involved somehow. Sports officiating had always interested Harper; a relative, Mel McInnes, was a former Test umpire, and Harper worked as an Australian football umpire for four years in his 20s before an Achilles tendon injury forced him to give it up. "The best injury I ever sustained," he says.

Taufel's story is different. His umpiring career began as a way of earning some money while pursuing his law degree. But he soon found the challenges as addictive as Harper did. "I saw it as a test of abilities and character and I wanted to keep passing the tests that cricket umpiring could throw at me - and there were plenty," he says. "There is an enormous upside to this career, being part of a larger cricketing family and experiencing different cultures and everything that the cricketing world has to offer."

The paradox of the Elite Panel is that it was designed to mitigate the stress facing umpires but they now fear the career-changing consequences of being dropped from it

No recent umpire has enjoyed a rise as meteoric as Kettleborough's. He umpired his first first-class game at the age of 28, after a middling county career with Yorkshire and Middlesex. He "wanted to be involved in the game but have a longer career than actually playing". His international debut came at the age of 36; he was promoted to the Elite Panel at 38, becoming its current youngest member, and two years later he won the ICC's Umpire of the Year award. He recognises the intrusive, addictive nature of the job: even as he watches football matches at home, he cannot help but keep an eye on the referee.

But for now the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. He is "very fortunate doing something I enjoy doing and being involved in cricket again". And as perks go, enjoying Sachin Tendulkar's final Test innings from 22 yards ranks pretty high. "We're in a very fortunate position where you see some of the best players in the world up close."

Like with players, the demands the game places on umpires can take a toll on their emotional well-being

Like with players, the demands the game places on umpires can take a toll on their emotional well-being © AFP

Yet for too long cricket has taken its best umpires for granted, blithely assuming that involvement in the game will be a powerful enough attraction. While clumsily imposing technology in a way that marginalises the historical role of umpires, the ICC has done too little to mitigate the demands placed on their professional and personal lives.

This neglect could give way to new risks, such as of corruption. An undercover sting two years ago led to Nadir Shah, who stood in 40 ODIs, receiving a ban from umpiring for ten years. It was no coincidence that the allegations related to the Bangladesh Premier League. Or that the swift fall of Asad Rauf, also amid allegations of corruption, came about in the IPL. That pop-up T20 leagues are susceptible to corruption by players has long been apparent. The same is true for umpires, especially as the leagues don't use the DRS as a safeguard against egregious umpiring decisions. Changing that would be a modest step towards reducing the possibilities for corruption in the game, but it would be financially crippling for many leagues (and anathema to the IPL, given the BCCI's contempt for the DRS). "Umpires are vulnerable to corruption," Harper warned in 2012. "They are now handsomely paid for their services but this doesn't guarantee that a bad apple won't be tempted."

As cricket becomes more vigilant against the threat of corruption, spare a thought for the men in the white coats. They will have to be more careful in who they interact with off the pitch, even as there are no signs of their schedules becoming more palatable. The modern-day umpire, already burdened and set apart, is only going to become more so.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance cricket writer for ESPNcricinfo and the Daily Telegraph. He is currently working on a book about Associate cricket