Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The farce of the face who is always right (I)

The referral system has brought into even more prominence the issue of umpiring standards, particularly as it becomes clear that it is about more than just having technology. When I was growing up, I had hammered into me a view of umpires that is probably what some mean when they talk of umpires being seen as 'godlike'. The idea we were taught was that "the umpire is always right".

There is a joke, I think originally from a baseball context, about three umpires who are also an engineer, a physicist and a mathematician respectively. After a batsman is dismissed run out, he asks the engineer umpire why he was out. He receives the response, "You are out because your bat was not grounded beyond the crease when the wicket was broken." In a similar situation, a batsman questions the physicist and the reply comes back, "I say you are out because based on my observations, it is extremely unlikely that you or your bat were grounded beyond the crease when the wicket was broken." Questioned about another run out, the mathematician replies, "You are out because I gave you out."

This is one of many similar jokes, most of which pokes fun at mathematicians, but this one says just as much about an umpire. As both a mathematician and an umpire, I have a lot of sympathy with the last response! While the physicist probably gives the fullest picture, the mathematician makes a good point. The laws themselves word things in a slightly different way - a batsman can be out by any of ten laws, but he is dismissed only when he is out and either he walks or the umpire answers an appeal. The point of the "always right" catchphrase was not that the umpires were perfect and didn't make mistakes, but that their word was final and there wasn't room to argue. This is not because they are gods, but because to not have a powerful independent arbiter is to give the players god-like status, and the game falls apart.

Of course, that didn't mean that I or my peers had any hesitation uttering the other common catchphrase oncde we stepped off the field, or perhaps even beforehand - "We wuz robbed!". Accepting the decisions of the umpire doesn't always mean being happy about the them. Cricket umpiring is not quite as subjective as officiating, say, some of the football codes, and despite or because of this we get just as upset about a dodgy decision, whether on the weekend or when watching our national team.

Having said that, I don't remember hearing people associate mistakes with particular umpires too often until relatively recently, in internet discussions. I don't know how much this is to do with cultural differences, the nature of the 'net, the establishment of a small group of umpires who are always there, or whether I just somehow managed to avoid such talk in the past, but the pastime of tracking one umpire's mistakes is a relatively new thing to me. As with all things, some people do it pretty dismally. The Tendulkar LBW on the shoulder has been attributed to Hair as part of claims of racism and to Bucknor when his efforts in Sydney were under the spotlight, before being correctly given as an example of Harper's efforts now that he is the talk of the town. However, that should not detract from the comments made fairly by those who do care for the facts.

Clearly someone should be assessing the umpires, and perhaps the fans and commentators have a part to play. There was something attractive about treating the umpire as a faceless representative of the laws, mistakes or otherwise - after all, we want to focus on the players. It would be good to have the assessment and appointment going on behind the scenes as much as possible for a transparent process, but a combination of the modern system and some glaring mistakes have put the spotlight on the umpires and the only way to take it away is to improve standards.

To be continued...


Soulberry said...

Good write Jonathan I'm waiting for the next edition.

It is a curious contradiction progress lives with - it refuses to accept mediocrity for it's own existence, even if that itself breeds banality or is frivolous in itself.

The mediocrity of the bother about a mere game must coexist with an emphasis on higher standards of play, firness, coverage, facilities and umpiring as well among so many others. We often progress to assume perfection in less important things...but that also dictates the way we are in other aspects. Everything is so want to see a qulity movie, you want a quality evening in a restaurant, you want a quality game when you take time out for it...

I'll follow your discussion.

scorpicity said...

Lovely post... will wait for part 2 for my bit.

Jonathan said...

Thanks guys. The second part might be disappointing - this was the simple part!