Kumar Dharmasena's woes tell us umpiring is a thankless job, especially in the age of DRS - Firstpost
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Kumar Dharmasena's woes tell us umpiring is a thankless job, especially in the age of DRS


Being a cricket umpire is in many respects a fairly genteel affair. Players may sometimes snarl appeals in a manner which would emasculate Thor, but compared to what officials in football deal with, cricket is a quaint parlour game. Instances of umpires being overtly disrespected are really quite rare, regardless of how often Mike Gatting's famous wagging finger or Colin Croft's barging of Fred Goodall pop up on YouTube.

Where cricket's on-field officials do have it tough, however, is that their decisions can be shown as hopeless immediately, dissected as rotten and rejected in an instant by technology. It's a different form of pressure to having obscenities dripping with superstar spittle stab your ears at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, but one which must undoubtedly play on the minds when they get it wrong.

Football referees can view their roasting on Twitter post-match and in the next day's papers. They can be relentlessly abused from the stands, but at least they never have to deal with the immediate certainty of having made balls up mid-game. But cricket umpires have theirs projected up on the big screen to, at times, tens of thousands of people in the stadium and millions at home. Nobody enjoys being caught with their trousers down in public, and few professionals can be so comprehensively debagged as an umpire by DRS.

Umpire Kumar Dharmasena got

Out of 27 decisions by Kumar Dharmasena that went upstairs in the two Tests, 13 were reversed by DRS. AFP file image

Kumar Dharmasena has got it very wrong in his last couple of games, his decisions in the magnificent Bangladesh-England Test series being overturned more often than a table in a mafia speakeasy. The irony here is that the player most frequently on the wrong end of Dharmasena's wrongness has been Moeen Ali, someone who credits the Sri Lankan ex-spinner for giving his career a technical boost.

Back in 2014, Dharmasena, standing in a net session, told Ali to hold his pocket while bowling to improve his flight. Now the England all-rounder is more likely to be holding his breath any time he encounters his one-time guru, such was the litany of decisions which went against him. Given out incorrectly three times in one over in Mirpur, Ali later remarked of his umpiring nemesis, "We are normally pretty tight. But we didn't speak for a session."

Yet there were many other victims of the official's scattergun judgments. Throughout the two Tests, Dharmasena seemed to be on some sort of subconscious mission to reinvigorate the tired man-versus-machine movie genre, with him as Sarah Connor and DRS as 'The Terminator'. And for those given out by the Sri Lankan, it was normally a case of "I'll be back" rather than "Hasta la vista"!

It became toe curling embarrassment, as decision after decision was reversed. These poor umpiring displays inevitably give rise to much mockery — and why not? — but there are a couple of relatively serious issues which could, like Dharmasena's lottery finger, be tentatively raised.

Firstly, was his effort really so poor or just made to appear so by its merciless skewering on social media? Well, sadly for the Sri Lankan, the stats are not kind: A University of Chicago paper published in 2015 found that around 26 percent of all decisions referred between 2009 and 2014 were overturned. In the two Bangladesh-England Tests, 13 out of 27 of Dharmasena's decisions that went upstairs were reversed, nearly double the norm identified in the research, although the prodigious spin and uneven bounce on display in Chittagong and Dhaka could be offered in mitigation.

So if it's accepted that Dharmasena had a bit of a shocker, the next question is why? The most obvious reason, beyond the conditions, would be that umpires are just flesh and blood. Form is forever reported on in sport. Players losing it and finding it in a mystifying cycle. It is, however, hardly ever mentioned in relation to officials and their jobs, which seems a bit weird given they are as human as the cricketers themselves. Batsmen forever talk of "seeing it like a football", at times when their own form peaks.

Standing there trying to predict the trajectory of Mehedi Hasan is obviously easier than trying to bat against Mehedi Hasan, but umpires' eyes and minds must regardless go through similar periods of optical and neurological sharpness.

Dharmasena is a former ICC Umpire of the Year and has stood in a World Cup final. Accepting that people may quibble with this assessment, he is not a poor umpire. Well, heaven help cricket if his recent efforts can be termed normal rather than a blip.

While not suggesting in any way this was the case for Dharmasena, another theory for poor performance could be that an umpire is simply not as mentally and physically prepared as he could have been. Although possibly nonsense to more old school observers of the game, Simon Taufel, the Australian umpire considered one of the world's finest, once spoke of his extensive preparatory regime: "I review laws in a working week — probably do six laws in a day, and keep up-to-date with my retention of what the law was all about, its interpretation etc. I would also do a physical fitness routine, which I might build for three weeks and be off for a week. Every second day I would do an eye vision coaching session."

It's rather hard to envisage David Shepherd or Marais Erasmus ever partaking fully in the physical side of things, but it would be interesting to know if Dharmasena and others have upped their preparatory regime in these days of DRS scrutiny. It's probable that umpires mirror players in terms of how intense or otherwise their training is. There will doubtless be obsessive Boycotts and lassez-faire Gowers and plenty in between. Is being mentally and physically "match fit" something the ICC insist for their elite officials, and if so, how is it monitored?

The final point about DRS nightmares is how the umpire himself or herself deals with it, whether it becomes a spur or an albatross. Taufel, who is now coaching umpires in India, has spoken of the difficulties of moving on from a poor decision, something which must be hard to do while on the field and perhaps even harder when the mind dwells overnight or even in between matches.

Dharmasena is not a man who looks unduly burdened by self-doubt, but the Sri Lankan did seem progressively rattled as the series wore on, a state of mind which is surely not conducive to good decision-making. In truth, who wouldn't be rattled, with your every mistake laid bare for the world to see? This is not to give credence to archaic anti-DRS claims that the system undermines the integrity of umpires to the extent it should be scrapped. This is silly. It would be naive, though, to think it impossible some umpires may occasionally become too fraught to do their job well or even simply decide to quit after a bad series, however mentally fireproof supporters think they should be.

Take the 2013 Ashes, for example. Tony Hill was then consistently made to look foolish by a mixture of his own poor judgment and DRS. At one low point, he was left out in the middle alone to signal an overturned decision. It heralded the end of Australia's innings and the England players, so convinced were they of the Kiwi's error in turning down a plumb LBW, had long walked off. Hill was rumoured to be contemplating international retirement and a few months later, did indeed quit his post.

You might reasonably — but rather harshly — say good riddance to bad rubbish but it's probably not desirable that one poor series should lead to a career ending. It may sound a little like suggesting making patients better isn't the most important thing about being a good doctor, but getting dismissals correct is only one part of being a good umpire. Genteel it may be in terms of player respect and lack of abuse, but it also requires diplomacy, man-management, staying intensely focused for many hours, coping with long periods away from the family, and dealing with security threats.

Elite umpires are of course very well remunerated for all this, but it isn't a job anyone can just waltz into. Things are unlikely to get easier for Dharmasena in the near future. He has been called up to umpire in the forthcoming Tests between India and England — Aleem Dar adjudged to be facing a security threat — where the hosts have finally agreed to use DRS. On likely turning, spitting pitches where Ashwin and Jadeja will be swarming, politely, all over him as much as they will over the English batsmen.

With the "umpire's call" margin of error recently being further reduced, umpires have to brace themselves for looking sillier than ever. The ICC, alongside the match referee and team feedback they use to assess their officials' performance, need also to perhaps consider this increased potential for public humiliation and enhance how they support demoralised umpires pre and post-match. In the age of DRS, it's not just out of form players who might need some TLC.

First Published On : Nov 1, 2016 15:27 IST

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