For the uninitiated, I’ll let you in on a well-kept secret: umpiring cricket games is really good fun.
On the surface of it, standing in the hot sun for hours at a time, making so many not-out calls to hopeful bowlers and fieldsmen, not being able to actually play, mentally draining – all this for a few bucks or free – means most would say ‘not for me’.
Some of my fondest cricket memories were umpiring finals matches, which are tense affairs to say the least. Both sides are really wound up, so any decisions umpires make are going to be under intense scrutiny.
On more than one occasion, I’ve walked off after a match and had both skippers come up, shake my hand and say how much they appreciated the decision making. That’s a great feeling.
Which brings me to the point of this piece – umpire bashing. All too often, the media, including this website, feel this overwhelming need to give the umpire a serve.
The ridicule that’s dished up is both substantial and often ill-directed. For example, Usman Khawaja receives a gift courtesy of an absolute howler by the umpire.
I’ve looked at this decision several times and can see nothing wrong with it because it was a reasonable decision for the umpire to make. It was certainly not a howler, let alone an absolute howler.
Shane Warne, perhaps in an attempt to be relevant, made the comment that “umpires can end careers”.
This was during a huge dump on Bruce Oxenford after the second day of the Adelaide Test last year. Some other comments included, “He is having an absolute stinker, Bruce Oxenford” and, “He just continually makes errors like this”.
Warne’s not alone in giving umpires a serve. Most ex-players these days think it’s almost a rite of passage when commentating, to get stuck into umpires.
For more examples, Google ‘BBL umpiring’ and see what comes up? Players and commentators are featured having a real go at umpires.
It’s also not confined to cricket. Followers of the NRL or AFL receive a steady stream of abusive or derisive comments from so-called experts about referees or umpires in their respective seasons – but that’s getting off topic.
I get that umpires can make mistakes. I also get that the outcome of an umpiring mistake can have an enormous impact on a match and/or a series. Remember this from the 2019 Ashes? The relevant part is 14.30 minutes in.
Umpires are no different than players. Just as a batsman needs time to get their eye in, so do umpires.
One of the toughest calls an umpire has to make is a front-foot LBW decision, early in an innings, when the umpire has no idea how high the bounce is, or how much a delivery can move off the pitch – but they’re still expected to get it right, 100 per cent of the time.
Just like players, they might be a first-class umpire who loses form, or starts to doubt themselves. They will still try their best, but might not be at the top of their game – but all still expect them to be perfect when it comes to making tough calls.
I’m also not suggesting umpires should not be criticised, but my concern is how an umpire is criticised and the circumstance that led to the criticism.
In the Usman Khawaja example, an LBW decision is never an easy one to make. Law 36 covers five quite distinct points an umpire has to determine before making their decision.
Not only does the umpire have to assess these five factors, they have to do so relatively quickly – that is, in a few seconds – yet armchair critics can take as long as they like, look at as many replays as they choose, then decide that umpire has not only made a mistake, they’ve not made an honest mistake, but an “absolute howler”.
There’s an expression ‘walk a mile in my shoes’, or more fully, ‘before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes’.
Cricket supporters don’t have to have umpired at first-class or Test level to appreciate the difficulties an umpire faces. Umpiring even park cricket can be a serious challenge, bearing in mind both teams expect the umpire to get every decision correct, 100 per cent of the time.
If you have umpired, you’ll appreciate how tough this job is and if you haven’t, stop and consider just how difficult this job is, especailly when the pressure’s on, the ball’s moving around and the game is close. Criticise by all means but words need to be chosen carefully.
I’d also suggest far more people need to be willing to call out those who use all sorts of adjectives when describing decisions umpires make.
I don’t recall the last time I read about umpires making ‘impossibly good calls’, but on almost a daily basis, I see expressions like ‘woeful, inadequate, sub-standard, horrendous’. The list goes on, yet when you look at these decisions, in many cases they’re not close to being as bad as is made out or, heaven forbid, they’re correct.
As the great West Indian umpire Steve Bucknor once said, “to err is human”. Give credit where it’s due for the decision makers, criticise when they err, but criticise fairly and demand better from those who criticise unfairly.