The umpiring in the recent Test match between India and Australia at Sydney was truly appalling. These keepers of the game wantonly destroyed all notions of fair play.
There is more at stake here than the mere outcome of a single game. The situation faced by the Indian team is the product of these neglected aspects of the game. There is no doubt that belligerent attitudes can undo any sporting event, but the abysmal lack of umpiring standards can inflame the situation even further. This is what has happened in Australia.
After the ruckus created by Steve Bucknor and his ilk, old questions about umpiring will need to be addressed afresh. Should teams be allowed to have umpires of their choosing? What’s the objectivity and value of neutral umpires? By what measures can their objectivity be scored? What’s the right role for technology in all this? Will such technology-aided decisions take away the motives to cheat? There are other questions as well, but more on them later.
Technology and sport have to go hand in hand if heartburn produced by human error is to be eliminated from the game. But that depends on what the umpires want to do. In the instant case, the umpires chose not to use the available tools to arrive at fair decisions.
Equally, excessive reliance on technology will destroy the flavour of the game. Cricket cannot be turned into another motor sporting event (although the Australians follow that model). The rub is that in the end, it’s humans who are to decide on the appropriate mix.
At this point it’s tempting to conclude that everyone—the umpires, the match referee and, above all, the Australian team—colluded against India. Maybe not, but one can safely conclude that the behaviour of all concerned, save Kumble’s men, was boorish to the extreme. What leads to such attitudes? Here, some speculation is in order.
The Australian team is the antithesis of classical virtues of the game, one that prized, above all, fair play over victory. At the moment, the Australian side is little more than a mean, game-winning machine. It’s victory or bust. Perhaps that’s the zeitgeist: it certainly is not cricket. The 16th continuous win was all that mattered, nothing else. They got their win, but it was devoid of any meaning.
That brings us back to the limits of what umpiring can do. If it has to be victory at any cost, no system of umpiring can hold fort. In an earlier era, local umpires played havoc whenever India toured Pakistan. That brought the so-called neutral umpires in vogue. But neutrality has a different meaning for people such as Bucknor and Mike Procter, the match referee. The latter blatantly sided with the Australian side by disregarding contrary evidence.
The present episode points to an ameliorative direction. One, the International Cricket Council and national cricketing bodies must evolve a system of umpiring performance. It’s not enough to create a “panel” of experienced umpires. If the game is to prosper, this must be done. The Bucknor and Proctor decisions show how the bad apples can pass the present system of grading.
Two, use of technology must be encouraged and must be evolved in tandem with a system of appeals by players on the ground. If, for example, players feel very strongly about a decision, its systematic resolution is essential. In fact, giving primacy to technology in such situations would not be unwarranted.
A “warm” welcome awaited the Men in Blue Down Under. That was clear at the end of Australia’s tour of India last year. However, the level of “warmth” received by Kumble’s men and the behaviour exhibited by “elite” umpires surpasses all known measures of reasonable conduct. In fact, it’s pretty simian.
(Should the Indians continue to play in Australia in the face of current controversies? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org)