This weekend brings the curtain down on the career of, for mine, the best umpire of my generation Simon Taufel. The statistics do not lie: he won five consecutive ICC Umpire of the Year awards. Since making his international debut in 1999, Taufel has stood in 74 tests, 174 one day internationals and 29 T20 internationals. Simply, he retires as one of the best in the game.
Why then has Simon Taufel’s retirement led me to put fingers to keyboard to write on the topic of umpiring and, more specifically, the issue of “neutral umpires”?
Well the answer is simple, because of the ICC’s slavish focus on the “neutrality” of umpires, Taufel has umpired only 2 of his 74 tests in his home country and, despite being the best umpire in the game in 2003 and 2007, was only able to stand in a World Cup final in 2011 when Australia did not make the final.
I, for one, think this situation is a travesty. The fact that the best umpire in the game has been restrained from umpiring in his home country and could not stand in a fixture that, aside from test match cricket, represents the pinnacle of the game of itself shows the silliness of the present approach to umpiring from the ICC.
For those who don’t follow the great game, since 2001 the ICC has decreed that for test matches and the matches in key tournaments such World Cups only umpires not from the countries of the combatants may stand. This situation arose out of a series of “controversies” relating to allegedly biased umpiring from “home” umpires.
Everyone who follows cricket will remember an example of umpiring that did not quite seem right. I recollect some of the umpiring of the Australian umpires of the 80s that at times was questionable at best. The Rana v Gatting incident brought to light systematically questionable umpiring in the subcontinent. I have read the story of Australia’s first prime minister, Sir Edmund Barton, and his umpiring in a New South Wales v MCC game in the late 1880s (he was the good umpire of two). One could come up with an example to suit any team that you follow.
In the face of ongoing questioning of umpires by the visiting teams, the press and fans of the game first the ICC moved to a system of having one home and one neutral umpire (hence Simon Taufel being able to stand in two home test matches at the start of his career) and then finally ruled that the only way to avoid controversy was to have two neutral umpires.
I have a deep seated dislike for the term “neutral” umpire: the fact is, and I paraphrase the great Harold Bird here, all umpires are neutral. If they are not neutral why are they umpires? I concede that this view means that I have never been a fan of “neutral” umpires being appointed for all test matches. I never saw the need and have always thought that players and press should simply just accept the decisions of the umpires on the field.
Equally I am a realist and thus have ultimately accepted that the appointment of neutral umpires is the way the game is going to be played. My acceptance of this position has changed on reflection since Simon Taufel’s early retirement for one very simple reason: technology.
Cricket today has available to it technology, except in Sri Lanka it is conceded, like it has never had before. The referral system has been put in place in most test matches (except where India plays) and all international tournaments of note to protect against the wrong decisions being allowed to be made.
With the referral system and, indeed, the minute level of scrutiny of each and every decision made by the umpires is it now the case that the ICC can be comfortable that “neutral” umpires are no longer necessary? Surely given the scrutiny of the decisions of our elite umpires the time is now to let those elite umpires stand in their home countries and to make it possible for umpires like Simon Taufel to stand in the finals of World Cups.
Forget that umpires by definition are not biased (naive as that view obviously is), any prospect of an umpire being openly biased (if it were to occur) has to be diminished to basically nil because the result of acting in a biased manner would now be the end of that umpires career.
Now some of you may suggest that my view here does not accord with my previously published views about the need for a DRS system in cricket and respecting the umpire’s decision. My views there are not changed. I still believe that DRS is unnecessary and the umpire is always right. Rather, what I see now is an opportunity to at least allow the best umpires in the world to stand at home by using the very technology that I dislike. That way someone like Simon Taufel would be able to spend his summers at home with his family and, one assumes, umpire for longer.
Of course all of the foregoing is never likely to happen, because the block of countries that run the game are led by a country that does not trust the referral system so I expect the imposition of “neutral” umpires to continue for some time to come. The real risk with that approach is that sooner or later the elite of cricket umpires will decline to stand in tests (example: Peter Willey) because of the time spent away from home: that is a scenario that can not be let happen.
To finish were I started: the international career of Simon Taufel comes to an end this weekend as he takes on the role of Umpire Performance and Training Manager. Our future umpiring stocks, no matter where they come from, are in very good hands.