Grow up, Mr Umpire

These are exciting times to be a professional umpire – provided you’re an umpire with a sufficient degree of emotional intelligence, personal development and self confidence.
I’m only talking about the professional side of umpiring, obviously, but can anyone think of another profession in which there is so much resentment of progress – where there is so much mistrust of anything designed to HELP and make the job easier?

In case anyone hasn’t heard of ‘Luddites’ – or doesn’t know what they were/are, allow me to explain. Back in the days of the European Industrial Revolution, most prominently in the United Kingdom, labourers resented the mechanisation of their professions – mostly in the metal and cotton industries.So, rising up behind their leader, a man called Ned Lud, they set about destroying the new machines that made their trade so much more efficient.

The only difference I can see between the Luddites of 250 years ago and the protesting, techno-sceptical umpires of today is that at least the Luddites had a good reason for their vandalism. Their jobs were under threat! If a machine could spin cotton ten times faster than a man, that was, potentially, nine families without food on the table.

But with the introduction of further technology to the business of cricket umpiring, there may be an increase in jobs! Or at the very least an increase in opportunities to travel the world and ply the trade outside your own country.

Suggestions that the overall standard of international umpiring will increase if the men in white coats can spend a bit more time at home sharpening their skills in domestic cricket and a bit less time in transit at Dubai airport are, finally, being taken seriously. There are also suggestions now that the third umpire – because of the introduction of the ‘three appeals’ system – should also be neutral.

Perhaps the likes of Billy Bowden and Steve Bucknor are simply trying to protect their lucrative patch? Perhaps they feel vulnerable by the potential exposure of their mistakes? In fact, I’m absolutely certain they feel vulnerable. Many international cricketers and coaches have spoken about their fragile egos and wobbly temperaments.

But remember Stephen Fleming’s 100th Test match? Darryl Harper gave him out when he missed the ball by six inches. Everybody who saw it on television knew he’d made a hideous mistake. Is that the kind of thing that Bowden and Bucknor want to preserve in the game? Which is more embarrassing, to ruin Fleming’s landmark Test and seriously influence the course of the match – which New Zealand lost – or to have the decision reversed?

Rudi Koertzen is also a techno-sceptic but not because he is scared of being embarrassed. He is simply ‘old-school’ having started umpiring 25 years ago. He works harder than almost anyone has ever worked at the job and has a natural tendency to believe he can carry on doing a good job. But at least he showed himself willing – albeit through clenched teeth – to adapt to the ICC’s experiments when a few were tried at last year’s Super Series in Australia. But if anyone else from Rudi’s generation doesn’t like the way the future looks, they will not last long. In fact, they will not last at all.

South Africa’s Umpire of the Year was Marais Erasmus – and he is very much the future. “Umpiring is not about the umpires,” Erasmus told me, “it is about the players. We must do everything we can to help get the right decision for the players. Cricket is about the players and these days it is their careers, their livelihoods at stake.”

When Marais Erasmus – a school teacher by profession – played for Boland from the late 80s to the mid 90s he did so for the love of it. The cash, ‘though not great, was useful. And he was a useful cricketer. Now, he has the potential to be a great umpire if his teaching job permits it.

The ‘new’ attitude required by umpires today was best illustrated by a wonderful moment in a Supersport Series match between the Cobras and the Eagles at Erasmus’ old stamping ground in Stellenbosch a month or two ago.

Eagles batsman Jonathan Beukes hooked at a delivery and deflected it to Cobras ‘keeper Thami Tsolekile. Big deflection. Erasmus gave him out.
Beukes hesitated and walked slowly past the umpire on his way to the pavilion, biting his bottom lip. As he did so, Erasmus saw a large, fresh, red bruise welling up on his forearm. He was biting his lip because he was desperate to rub at the pain but knew that to do so could be construed as a show of dissent.

Erasmus stopped him, told him to rub the bruise if he wanted to, and sent him back to the crease. He turned to the scorers and reversed his decision.

“I got it wrong – what’s wrong with that? We all make mistakes. I’ll take whatever help I can get to make make the right decision and if that means being over-ruled by the third umpire then I’m perfectly happy and comfortable with that. I was the third umpire when Darrel gave Fleming out and I’m sure he would have wanted me to help him out.”
Sure, there will be teething problems with the appeals system and the use of technology, and the Luddites will say “told you so”, but with more men of the attitude and calibre of Marais Erasmus, the future will be bright.

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