Here’s a quiz question: Name the only Indian currently on ICC’s Test umpiring panel? The correct answer is S Ravi but chances are that a large chunk of our cricket-loving junta and most BCCI/COA members will be clueless! Ignorance and apathy about umpires is hardly a surprise. In Indian cricket’s ecosystem umpires are ‘extras’, who are given zero priority in a multi-starrer featuring megastars.
This neglect is baffling because the umpire is central to cricket, tasked by laws to ‘control’ the game. But ground reality is different: Forget respect, the men in white are abused, insulted and sledged viciously on the field. The era when players gracefully accepted umpiring decisions is history.
A common thread in conversations with umpires is the stress they have to handle. Fielding sides ‘work’ on umpires to extract favourable decisions and apart from the usual chatter over leg-before decisions, caught behind edges and bat/pad catches, Indian umpires face additional tests.
The laws of cricket grant batsmen the benefit of the doubt but in domestic cricket, star players get the benefit even when there is NO doubt. The power structure of Indian cricket is such that only a very brave (or silly) umpire will raise his finger to rule a top player LBW.
Challenged by players and technology, umpires are under further scrutiny now that BCCI match referees sit on judgment to review their performance. Not many survive the heat, which is one reason the experiment of fast-tracking ex-players into umpiring mainstream hasn’t produced results.
Strangely, umpires are on the backfoot from the beginning, not given training or tools to carry out their duties. The BCCI created the Nagpur National Umpiring Academy as a coaching institute but the academy is sadly defunct, a sick unit in lockdown.
BCCI chooses umpires through an examination and the 120-strong panel is slotted into four grades. Based on the number of days employed (approximately 50-60) the annual ‘take home’ of umpires ranges between Rs 20-25 lakhs. For those who make the IPL cut, the figure is considerably higher: match fees for a league game is Rs 2.5 lakhs!
The money is good but the process of entry and exit is bad as it allows wrong persons get in and forces good ones to leave. The written exam is cracked by smart candidates with theoretical knowledge but no practical experience. And BCCI’s retirement policy pushes out experienced umpires even when fit. As a result, Indian cricket is handicapped by poor umpiring and there are horror stories of umpires overlooking no balls and some who can’t hear or see properly. In the absence of a rigorous system of judging technical competence or medical fitness, some umpires are literally playing with the careers of players.
ASSURE A FUTURE
To change things around, BCCI must invest in the HR potential, training and education of umpires. Also offer them annual contracts as part of a transparent system of performance review, fitness tests and a clear career progression plan.
Much more critical is the need is to give umpires respect instead of treating them like petty employees. Umpires ought to be liberated from the tyranny of players and indifferent officials.
The BCCI top brass meets the Indian team in full media glare and issues — contracts, for example — are immediately resolved. The annual Ranji captain/coaches conclave is another high profile event but umpires/umpiring gets little attention.
Till that happens, S Ravi and other senior umpires will remain unknown and anonymous.