Middle management: growing scrutiny adds to umpires’ insecurities

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Umpiring, that is. And it doesn’t come much dirtier than the Ashes. But hey, get on the ICC’S Elite Panel and you could be laughing all the way to the bank to deposit upwards of $100k a year, along with much international travel. Nigel Henderson considers how officials’ differing temperaments help or hinder them.

Billy Bowden just wanted everyone to love him

Their demeanour may suggest otherwise but when push comes to shove, many umpires are as insecure about their abilities as the average batsmen facing his first Test ball, the average bowler marking his run-up for his first delivery.

What most of them want is acceptance and respect, if not from the public at large, at least from their peers – and in this case that doesn’t just mean their fellow officials, but also the players whose careers can sometimes depend on their judgement.

Billy Bowden was always one who seemed more desperate than most for approval – while the trademark crooked finger with which he would send batsmen back to the pavilion was enchanting at first, its appeal palled as his decision-making got more erratic, proof if it was needed that, like the football referee, an umpire that goes unnoticed is usually doing a good job.

Bowden officiated in seven Ashes Tests, including that magnificent climax at the Oval in 2005 and it was there that his need for validation was perhaps most cruelly exposed. Ashley Giles rolled into bowl to Ricky Ponting, on 13, and when the Australian captain pushed forward and the ball rebounded into the hands of Ian Bell at silly mid-off, there was a huge appeal.

Bowden shook his head and while formal adoption of the decision review system was still more than four years away in Test cricket, the commentator manning the Cricinfo live feed that September afternoon formed his own judgement from the technology available: “We need to have a closer look at that appeal … just waiting for the replay,” he wrote. “Yes, there seems to be an inside edge there, Ponting lucky to get away with that.”

Yet, as soon as Ponting got up to his end, the New Zealander seemed desperate to receive some positive feedback from the batsman he had just erroneously let off the hook.

“Good decision that, wasn’t it?” Bowden said.

“Actually, I hit it,” Ponting, a confirmed non-walker, replied.

“It must have been a very thin edge, then,” the umpire countered.

“Yes,” said Ponting, “but I did hit it.”

Forced off for a rain break, Bowden refused to let the matter rest, jollying along to the Australian dressing-room to impart the news that the slow-motion replays indicated that Ponting had not hit the ball – and that match referee Ranjan Madugalle agreed. “You hit your pad with your bat,” Bowden informed him.

Ricky Ponting tells it straight

Ricky Ponting tells it to you straight whether you’re a pundit or umpire

“Sorry, Billy, I did hit it,” was Ponting’s final word – and if Bowden had been seeking favour with the Tasmanian, it backfired spectacularly. A month later, he was voted the worst Test umpire by the Australian Cricketers’ Association.

It would not be a surprise if umpires’ natural insecurities had grown in the modern era. While they may no longer be subject to accusations of cheating – home nation umpires having been phased out over ten years – they are now under the media microscope more than ever and that can only intensify as the technology develops. And although howlers can be largely eliminated, they are still held up for scrutiny and comment.

It makes you wonder how Tom Brooks, a Sydney native who stood in three Ashes series and the 1977 Centenary Test at the MCG, would have got on under such a spotlight. He was officiating in his 13th Test between the old rivals at Perth in 1978 when the pressure got too much for him.

Brooks had been considered for some years as Australia’s best umpire, to the extent that he had been invited to stand in county cricket, then seen as the bastion of fine officiating. But he was having a wretched game as an Australia ripped apart by Packer defections, and 1-0 down, tried to force their way back into the series. Vehement leg-before appeals against Geoff Boycott and Mike Brearley had been turned down and he came under further pressure when he gave Rodney Hogg out, caught off his hip.

Such was the sniping that he announced his retirement from all forms of cricket at lunch on the final day.

Not that all umpires who have stood in the heat of an Ashes firefight have lacked belief in themselves. Lou Rowan infuriated England with a number of decisions on the 1970-71 tour – no Australian was given out leg-before during the series – but perhaps you need the kind of utter certainty and stubbornness that he possessed if you’re doubling as a drugs squad detective in your day-to-day working life. When flak flew his way, he brushed it aside with impressive soundbites such as: “Many a good decision is ruined by a bad explanation” and “It will not be my fault if 22 players and 40,000 spectators are wrong”.

So what of those who will take their place in the cauldrons of Brisbane, Melbourne and the like this Australian summer? The hosts will probably not be over-impressed to see Aleem Dar on the roster for the Gabba and Adelaide, although Stuart Broad probably will. Dar was at the centre of the controversy when Broad was given not out when he clearly edged to slip at a crucial moment in Nottingham in 2013, but the Pakistani will no doubt view any gamesmanship or intimidation with detached amusement when you consider that among all the other pressure to which umpires are subjected, he once had to hot-foot it from India halfway through a one-day series after threats to his well-being from extremists.

He is joined by South Africa’s Marais Erasmus in Brisbane, and New Zealander Chris Gaffaney for the day/nighter. Erasmus then combines with Gaffaney for Perth before Kumar Dharmasena, named for the final two Tests, is joined by Sundaram Ravi in Melbourne and Trinidadian Joel Wilson in Sydney.

Their levels of experience at this level differ greatly, with Dar having stood in 114 Tests and Wilson only five but these two – and Dharmasena – were involved in one of the more shambolic collective performances of recent times, one that sounds more like the prelude to a joke – how many umpires does it take to cause an almighty cock-up? The answer’s four. They – and our old friend Bowden – were responsible for the 2015 World Cup match between Australia and England ending in complete farce, a leg-before appeal, a leg-bye, an apparent run out and the narrow failure of James Taylor to complete a maiden ODI hundred all vying for the officials’ attention.

It was inconsequential ultimately but those with good memories will probably not countenance anything similar when Dharmasena returns for the Boxing Day Test without making their feelings known. And now, of course, there’s an ever-expanding social media universe waiting to pronounce on mistakes in public life. And umpiring has become a very public life.

With all this pressure then, it’s a wonder we don’t see more succumbing to psychological difficulties – shades, perhaps, of the men in white coats needing to be carried away by other men in white coats.

Records of the the Ashes umpires

Age Tests Ashes Tests ENG Tests AUS Tests
Aleem Dar 49 114 19 54 53
Marais Erasmus 53 45 9 22 21
Chris Gaffaney 41 16 1 8 6
Kumar Dharmasena 46 49 9 24 17
Sundaram Ravi 51 23 1 9 6
Joel Wilson 50 5 0 3 0