WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?

“When I look at all of the good umpires of my time, and I take key attributes from them, it is the ability to build relationships, to have professional dealings with the people that matter within the game, to be able to manage a game of cricket, and manage a professional entertainment package, realising it is not just bat and ball.” – Simon Taufel, an umpiring role model that needs more following across sports.

As Chris Gayle and gang lit up the night with Gangnam style celebrations after winning the World T20 in style, and the cricketing world rejoiced at a West Indian resurgence of sorts, one fact got underplayed. The match was the last that Simon Taufel, easily the best to have officiated cricket games in the 21st Century (the multiple ICC Umpire of the Year awards bear ample testimony), would be standing in.

In a way, the story of Simon Taufel has been the story of the modern umpire, or for that matter an official/referee/judge in any sport. In a world hell bent on microanalysis and given to fits of unfair and almost toxic rage about anything on social/online platforms sports officials have a tough life where they are much like the FC Barcelona defence nowadays – talked about (and that too, not too kindly) only when they goof up. Umpires or officials obviously play a critical role in not only making sure the sport is played by the rules and the spirit but also making the outcome palatable for the millions of passionate fans watching. Recently, the referees in the NFL (the National Football League, the American Football elite event) went on strike over a payment dispute. The franchise owners refused to negotiate and brought in replacement referees for the first three weeks. Underprepared for the big time, the replacement refs bungled big calls much to the consternation of fans as calls grew louder for a solution. A ridiculous call ruling a touchdown (that too, after multiple video reviews which showed the ball hadn’t been properly caught) that handed the Seattle Seahawks a last second victory against the Green Bay Packers on the league’s biggest stage – MOnday Night Football – finally was the tipping point that forced the NFL and franchise owners to sit in discussions to bring back the original referees. Within a week, they were back and normal services resumed. There hasn’t been an outrage about a blown call since.

The point is, the quality officials lend credibility to the all out battle that is modern professional sport and we need to choose and nurture them carefully. Much is made of farm systems and youth academies for baseball prospects or soccer hopefuls but most sports still struggle to consistently produce exemplary officials – the one hallmark every contest needs. Taufel in that sense was a whiff of fresh air at the ICC Elite Panel of umpires, where through his meticulous application of the knowledge of cricket laws and the sheer force of his personality he earned the respect of players and peers alike.

In an interview to Cricinfo he had said “[T]he difference between a good umpire and a great umpire really comes down to people skills and life skills. We can all know laws, we can all know playing conditions, we can all enforce them like a policeman. But the difference lies in being a good person and being able to communicate, to be able to resolve conflict and deal with issues as they come up.” The fact that he’ll now move on to a role that will involve grooming future umpires augurs very well.

To experience a bit of a slice of life of how tough it is to be an umpire (or official in any sport, really) I decided to take up the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s State Panel Umpires exam held at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on 30th September. Firstly, it’s a great move from the association which used to recruit umpires without much of a filtration mechanism earlier. You go through a 100 marks 2 and a half hour written exam that tests your basic knowledge of the laws of cricket. On the Sunday morning of the exam, the hall ticket had asked us to show up at the venue at 9:00AM for the exam beginning at 10. By the time ICC Umpire S K Tarapore came in to the hall to announce the basic rules of the exam at 9:45, there were candidates still trickling in. He was clearly irritated as he said, ‘The hall ticket clearly mentioned the reporting time as 9AM! These are the umpires of tomorrow, it seems!’ Tarapore’s sentiment sent across a very important message – respect for the rules was more important than just knowing them and an umpire had to be someone who set an example. I did miserably on the test. I hadn’t read the rules book that had been given and mostly winged it. In fact by the end I had answered everything I knew (or could use some common sense and TV watching experience to figure out) and out of sheer boredom twisted around an answer or two (‘Who has to be present on the field for the toss?’ ‘The captains, Match Referee and Ravi Shahstri’ ‘How do you signal a dead ball?’ ‘Open Gangnam Style’) but truth be told, I wasn’t exactly expecting to qualify. The exam has a cutoff at 80% and those shortlisted undergo another battery of video based simulation tests and oral exams before they perhaps get a shot a real officiating. (A friend, Sudip, was the one who registered me for the exam and he gave a pretty good test; fingers crossed)

The initiative brings into focus the whole point that it is not child’s play to officiate a sport. And I am glad the KSCA has taken an initiative like this. If we are to produce more Simon Taufels or more specifically fill the shoes he’s vacated we need to drive home the value and importance of discipline and diligence – the two most critical attributes an umpire needs. Such an exercise creates a setting where this can be tested before hand. In a lovely tribute piece on Cricinfo, Daryl Harper said about Taufel that “Between games, he was studying the Laws, attending nets sessions, and working in the gym on his fitness.” That’s right. He went to the gym too and attended net sessions as well! Because an official today needs to be the consummate professional – truly immersed in the game he’s involved with and has to be an all rounder. NFL replacement refs, baseball umpires, Premier League referees, hockey umpires and tennis judges would all do very well to pay heed.

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