Cricket is a much publicized and loved game in many countries of the world. It has undergone many changes since the days when two teams played patiently over days, before they actually decided who had won the game. Most of the games were marked by acts of generosity and fairness that made it what it is known as today, ‘a Gentleman’s game’.
Over the years, cricket has evolved. From the five days of uninterrupted and leisurely play, which was akin to a five-course meal to the eat-while-you-run game of 20-20 cricket, cricketing fans have shaped the rise of the new cricket culture all over the world. This has been especially apparent in India, where people treat cricketers like God .
It is natural that a game which captures the maximum eyeballs and keeps sending people on an emotional roller coaster ride, would be marked by controversies. And cricket has had more than its share. And guess who gives the sports columns the maximum number of delectable fights? That’s right! It’s the two umpires, our men in the middle, the center of attraction, the bearers of tremendous responsibilities.
These two odd looking figures perpetually dressed in white, work harder than any player on the field does. Players may come and go or get substitutes to replace them, but our two men have no respite. They peel their eyes following the course of every ball, every fielder and every bowler. Their hats provide no protection from the furious looks of a bowler refused a wicket. They maintain a deadpan expression in the face of a tide of appeals and shouts from the fielding team. Instant decisions are expected from them. They act as arbitrators between the teams, in case the situation gets ugly. They also face the audience’s wrath in case they make a mistake.
There are two of these brave men on the field, one umpire standing behind the stumps at the bowler’s end of the pitch (for making decisions on lbw appeals, no balls, wides and leg byes), and the other umpire standing at the square leg (judging stumpings and run outs). To make it fair, the umpires change position at the end of each over. At the international level, with the high stakes it becomes necessary to break up any ungentlemanly activities that players get into, so there is third umpire on the sidelines and a match referee.
With the advent of technology, the life of the umpires has also been made easy. In case of confusion or lack of clarity, the third umpire can be called in by the umpires on field. The third umpire uses TV replays to judge. Technically speaking, in the past, the third umpire could only make a decision if he had been asked to do so by the umpires out on the pitch. These days, both players and fans alike demand the presence of a third umpire decision for every debatable appeal, and their influence is growing.
This can be judged by the fact that this year, the International Cricket Council (ICC) trialed a referral system in which players can challenge the on-field umpires and have their decision referred to the third umpire.
This was tried out successfully during the test series between Sri Lanka and India, where the Sri Lankan batsman, Tillakaratne Dilshan, made history when he became the first player to successfully appeal against an umpiring decision. This kind of freedom of appeal has its good points; after all, our umpires on the scene are too human to be perfect. Nor do they have eagle eyes or a record and replay function inbuilt in their minds.
However, this leads us to the question; is the presence of an on-field umpire become redundant? While we might be tempted to say yes, we should consider the color and spice that umpires bring to the game of cricket. Imagine the players turning and shouting “Howzzat!” to a screen for an appeal. Or even the lack of the quirky umpires who used to provide a relief from the monotony of long matches. (Remember David Shepherd with his one-legged hop whenever the score came to 111?). It is hard to imagine the cricket field without these appealing ex-cricketers, who, more often than not, have made their decisions promptly and justly.
At the end of the day, it is a bat-ball game, which is played by humans, for humans. So it is only fair that it should be judged by humans. After all, as in life, where is the charm in cricket if everything is too perfect to be true?