Who is a cricket umpire and what is umpiring

They are the men who never win the toss. While most of the players in a five-day Test match will be hoping the coin comes down in their favour so they can sit with their feet up for the best part of two days, the umpires know that they will be making their way out to the middle ready for the first ball and, five days later, will be the ones who take off the bails for the last time in the match. Apart from good eyesight and hearing, an unsurpassed knowledge of the Laws of Cricket and their interpretation and the judgement of Solomon, great physical stamina and concentration are required before anyone can contemplate donning the white coat.

The thickest of skins is no bad thing either, for the umpires’ decisions usually elicit praise and scorn in equal measure. For every batsman who thinks it was slipping down the leg side, there is a bowler convinced it was knocking over all three stumps. The umpire’s job is to sum up the evidence and give the decision that he believes to be right in the twinkling of an eye. Furthermore, in a Test match he will do so knowing that everyone else, with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight and a multitude of cameras trained on the action from every angle, will be instantly aware of any mistakes. One of the great surprises of cricket is that, more often than not, all the modern technology proves that the umpire was right.

Naturally, the odd howler makes the headlines, but the overall balance is vastly in favour of the umpire. If the players who complain made as few mistakes as the umpires, they would be rewriting the record books. Players are meant only to appeal if they think the batsman is out but, if that is the case, there are some very poor judges playing the game, or they are trying to claim wickets that they know are not out. It would be interesting to know if they consider themselves to be incompetent or cheats.

At the lower levels of the game, the umpire can never be proved wrong. Others might have different opinions, but the Laws of Cricket will back him up in that the outcome of any appeal depends on the umpire’s opinion. Once we start considering what happens in the international arena, a new dimension is introduced, that of technology.

Whether umpires like it or not, they have to accept that, in some instances, their opinion is no longer final. There is a third umpire to which some decisions can be referred in order to consider the evidence provided by slow motion television replays. The result is that umpires on the field rarely trust their judgement in the case of run outs or stumpings. As soon as an appeal is voiced, they describe a square with their forefingers towards the third umpire’s eyrie to seek the help of technology.

It has become one of the most theatrical moments in a cricket match. Players huddle together, the batsman looks at the lights that will decide his fate, while the crowd anticipates the moment of judgement as the audience might have awaited the thumbs up or thumbs down in the Coliseum. The same type of sentiments are expressed when the red or green light appears to signify that the batsman must trudge towards the pavilion or stay to fight on.

There are those who dislike third umpire interventions, yet the argument in favour is overwhelming. Why should the umpires in the middle be forced to give an instantaneous decision that might be seen to be wrong by the rest of the world on television? Would those same critics of the system be happy to leave the outcome of a substantial wager in a horse race to the judges on the line, or would they prefer to see the evidence of the photo finish? By using replays, justice is seen to be done, and if the technology cannot determine whether a batsman is in or out, he receives the benefit of the doubt, from the umpire who is still the final arbiter.

Once Pandora’s box of technological tricks is opened, however, it is difficult to put the lid back on. If television replays can determine line decisions, why not call them into play to adjudicate on whether a fielder’s foot touches the boundary while he has the ball, whether a catch has carried, or even whether the batsman hit it in the first place? And, with the advent of the Hawkeye system, what about LBW?

Hawkeye does not employ the same technology as used to track missiles by the military, as was first reported. It was, however, developed from the same sort of system which, by tracking the path of the ball from different angles, can predict its future destination with a high degree of accuracy. It is whether that accuracy is acceptable or not that leads to debate.

If it were to be accepted, the system could be refined to offer umpires a graphical representation of the ball, showing where it had pitched, where it made contact with the pad and whether it would have gone on to hit the stumps. This could be relayed to a hand-held receiver, so the man in the middle could have all the relevant information in a matter of seconds.

In general, umpires do not like the idea because they fear it would render them as no more than movable hat stands who count the six balls of an over. They also claim that the technology has not been proven and that there is a possibility of error. That as opposed to the human umpire who, w en it lbw, has a proven record of fallibility.

When cricket was first played, there were no umpires as such. If there were disputes, venerated former players were called upon to arbitrate. It is worth noting that even today, the players have to ask the umpires to intervene in response to an appeal rather than the match being run, for example, as by a referee in football.

As betting on cricket became prevalent, umpires became vital to ensure that the gamblers, interests were protected. They were being used by 1727 and were mentioned in the first Code of Laws in 1744. In those days, they carried bats or sticks, possibly as symbols of authority or even as a means of protecting themselves should the stakes have had a detrimental effect on the spirit of the game.

It is a feature of cricket that however much the players might disagree with a decision, any dissent is likely to be confined to a disbelieving stare or a shake of the head. Mercifully, the game has been spared the unedifying sight of officials being harangued and abused as is so common in football, baseball and other sports. If the cricket umpire no longer needs a bat or stick for self-protection, perhaps he could instead carry that monitor to help him get those tricky decisions right every time.