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Umpires the victims of failure in the system

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins

10 August 1998

BEFORE the deciding Test at Headingley began, the referee, a Zimbabwean High Court judge, made an eloquent plea for reason on the difficult position of Test umpires in the age of slow-motion replays and a generous personal defence of Mervyn Kitchen after his less than perfect performance in the fourth Test.

In this game it is Javed Akhtar from Pakistan, born in Delhi before the partition of India, who has failed to measure up to close scrutiny. At least five of the batsmen he has condemned should not have been given out.

But whose fault is that? Not, on this occasion the players', whose appealing has generally been far more responsible, from both sides, than it was earlier in the series. Nor, up to a point, Akhtar's, an all-rounder whose only Test was played at Leeds in 1962. It is the system, and the way it is now being administered by the International Cricket Council, which has failed.

The international panel of umpires, dating officially from 1994 and run by the ICC from London, has removed the stigma of home-town bias, an improvement not to be underestimated. Nothing was more pernicious than the constant suspicion of Test cricketers that they were up against the umpires as well as the opposing team whenever they went on tour and there was hardly a beaten side in any overseas series who did not believe they had got the rough end of the majority of the decisions made.

That said, the ICC claim that umpiring standards have improved under the system now sponsored by National Grid is daily disproved by the no less pernicious slow-motion replays. These technological wonders make fools of everyone: batsmen never seem to move their feet, bowlers spray it all over the place and umpires get it wrong far too often.

The replays won't go away and nor, so long as it can be afforded, will the international panel. What must be looked at, however, is the policy of appointing so many different umpires for

a particular series and also the format of the panel itself. From the start it has been political in the sense that each of the Test countries has been allowed to nominate at least two members.

It was not Akhtar's fault that the match turned out to be the one which decided the series, though, being the fifth, that was always possible. But he was given little chance of performing infallibly. He should have been asked to play himself in by standing in a couple of County Championship games. Equally, if he was to stand in the series at all, he should have done so for more than one Test. It should, at least, be immediately determined by the ICC that any overseas umpire in any series should stand in at least two games, after proper acclimatisation, to give himself a chance of feeling part of the series rather than merely a fleeting visitor to it.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 10 Aug1998 - 10:54