At lunch on the first day of the second Ashes Test, at Lords, Sky Sports had an interview with the ICC chief executive, Dave Richardson. Admittedly I didn’t hear all of the conversation but I did catch snippets of talk about technology, dealing with corruption and the problem with umpires in this series. Now, like I said, I didn’t hear all of the conversation so I don’t know if this idea got considered however I would like to explain to you why I think it is a good one.
In 2002, the ICC changed the way umpiring was done in the game. Before this, the system had been that one umpire in a test was neutral, and that both the umpires in ODIs were from the home nation. It got changed to both umpires being neutral in tests and only one umpire in ODIs being independent of the playing nations. I have no issue with the ruling in ODIs as usually it allows young umpires from the home nation officiate at the top level. However, the test system has been shown to have flaws in this series between England and Australia. The ICC like to have two umpires from the Elite Panel, also set up in 2002, umpiring every Test match (although they do allow umpires from the International Panel during hectic scheduling times). The problem with the system is that 8 out of the 12 umpires sitting on the Elite Panel are English or Australian. This means that the inevitable situation has arrived where the ICC have a choice of only four umpires for this series: Tony Hill, Aleem Dar, Marias Erasmus and Kumar Dharmasena. Those 4 are wonderful umpires, but as Aleem Dar showed in the first test, even umpires can have a poor run of form. Aleem Dar has been dropped from the second test and I don’t know if he will return for the rest of the series, however I do know that there is now no margin for error from the remaining 3 umpires. This has exposed a massive flaw in the ICC system.
Why can’t we trust Australian and English umpires to stand in the matches between them? Yes, there is a massive rivalry between the two teams but we are living through an age of technology, the upshot of that being every decision any umpire makes is immediately put under immense scrutiny. My solution is that England and Australia both nominate 2 umpires from their country to officiate in the series (for example England could nominate Nigel Llong and Richard Illingworth while Australia could nominate Steve Davis and Rod Tucker). Then, sometime before each test match, the ICC should decide who the two on-field umpires are going to be from the list. That way, the ECB and Cricket Australia will feel that they have had a say in the umpiring but the ICC will still get their way. There should be back-up umpires, selected by the ICC and neutral, to step in should any of the umpires are accused of being biased. This could lead to a situation where you have an Australian umpire standing with a Sri Lankan one which wouldn’t paint either the ECB or the English umpire in a good light, a situation that both would want to avoid. If the ICC feels that mistakes are being made, but not on purpose, then they can replace the umpire in question with the other nominated by the respective organisation. The most important part of my solution is that the third and fourth umpires have to be neutral, although the ICC shouldn’t feel they are restricted to the Elite Panel. This is important, as should one country feel that one umpire is being biased or unnecessarily harsh then they will review the decision, and it is imperative that the captains can trust the umpire who has the deciding factor in referrals, the third umpire.
Where the idea falls apart is within the Elite Panel itself, of the 12 – none are from India. India are an important test nation, who play big test series and therefore it is necessary that umpires from Elite Panel umpire test series involving India. One solution to this would be that for series involving two countries with no Elite Panel umpires shouldn’t have to follow the system I’ve outlined. It follows then that, any test series involving India and England, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand or Pakistan are ones in which the ICC need to produce a list of 3-4 umpires from both countries who they would be happy with officiating (with as many from the Elite Panel as possible), and the respective cricketing boards decide which 2 they would like to nominate. Another possible solution is to extend the Elite Panel to include more than one umpire from the test nations represented, with the selection of those completely down to the ICC’s discretion. I’m reluctant to suggest we should scrap the ICC Elite Panel. I like it as I believe it gives umpires something to aim for and gives them incentive to carry on improving as umpires will always be challenging to get into it.
Another issue that could be raised by this process is the continued effect of poor form. That being said, the beauty of it is that there are more options to cover this then the ones that are available to the ICC under the current system.
What are the benefits of my proposed idea? Well, the main benefit of it is that there won’t be a situation we have here where most of the Elite Panel can’t officiate in the biggest test series simply because of a selection process. One of the biggest criticisms from umpires about the ICC Elite Panel is that there is a lot of travelling and therefore time spent with families is down at a minimum. Under my system, this won’t be such an issue. I also think that having home umpires standing in test series allows for a greater knowledge of how pitches play. Everyone knows that the bounce at Perth is strange and yet it surprises touring sides time and time again. An Australian umpire will have a very clear idea about this and will therefore be in a better position to give certain LBW decisions.
We live in the 21st century. Within seconds of a ball being bowled, hawk-eye and hot spot technologies have already been formulated for that delivery and with every day the technology, and use of it, are getting better. Such technology means that the necessity of neutral umpires is lessened, to the point where I say the age of neutrality can realistically end. The other point is that we have to trust umpires. Umpires want careers, and therefore shouldn’t be prepared to throw away careers by being biased to their home country. Such officiating, in my system, would paint the umpire in a bad light, the country in a bad light and the board members who selected them in a bad light. That is a situation which, I reckon, will be avoided at all costs. So, to sum everything up, I think my system will help the ICC, help the actual umpires and we could return to an era where trust is more prominent then suspicion. Obviously, the idea I’ve suggested here isn’t perfect and will need to be tweaked before it is able to be put in use but I believe I’ve laid the foundations of a system that could reap benefits for all concerned.