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Neutral umpires and the Spirit of Cricket

The days before neutral umpires - Syd Buller and Dusty Rhodes at Lord's in 1965
The days before neutral umpires - Syd Buller and Dusty Rhodes at Lord's in 1965

I went to listen to former international umpire Simon Taufel at the MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture last week.

He had some pretty interesting things to say about umpiring; it really made me think about how difficult it must be, especially with all those cameras on you looking for your next mistake!  

Taufel talked a bit about neutral umpiring, quite a recent development in the international game (it was brought in in 1994).  Of course at club level, where finding a volunteer to umpire at all can be difficult, neutral umpiring rarely happens.  

Most of the clubs I’ve visited haven’t had much trouble with umpire bias, although I did come across one story where an umpire gave his son-in-law seven successful LBW appeals in an innings. Perhaps he was just bowling particularly well that day? Who knows.

The point Taufel, who stood in 282 international matches, made wasn’t that umpires would be biased towards their own countries, but that neutral umpiring was important as it took away any suspicion that they might be.

Mike Gatting and Eoin Morgan joined Simon Taufel on stage for a panel discussion - chaired by cricket broadcaster Alison Mitchel - after his Lecture.

Gatting was a particularly interesting choice on the panel as he was involved in a major controversy involving umpiring a few years before neutral umpiring was made compulsory.

The incident occurred in December 1987 when England were playing the second Test of a series against Pakistan in Faisalabad.  

There had been tension during the day when Pakistani umpire Shakoor Rana had rejected a bat-pad appeal, but things did not escalate until the last over of the day.  Shakoor accused the England captain of moving a fielder after the bowler had begun his run up in order to distract the batsman.  

Gatting disagreed and an angry exchange of swearwords and aggressive gestures from both parties was the result.

Both men retreated to their 'camps' and overnight it was established that Shakoor would refuse to stand the next day without an apology.  Gatting would not apologise unless Shakoor apologised too for his part in the incident.  

Neither would budge and so the third day of play was abandoned.

On the evening of what would have been the third day Gatting received instruction from the Test and County Cricket Board in London that he should apologise, which he duly did reluctantly in the form of a short hand-written note.

It read: "Dear Shakoor Rana, I apologise for the bad language used during the second day of the Test match at Faisalabad.  Mike Gatting."

And so the match was able to continue and ended in a draw, which was perhaps the best outcome in the circumstances.

In most other sports an argument between a player and official on the pitch would not be so much of a big deal, but respect for the umpire has always been seen as vital to the Spirit of Cricket.  

The event had a big impact on the cricketing world and renewed pleas for neutral umpires.

The idea of total respect for umpires is an interesting concept and one many cricketers were raised with as children.   

Yet umpires are only human and do make mistakes, and where does the ideal leave the Decision Review System? A process that involves players challenging the umpires decision.

Taufel's lecture didn’t really answer the questions surrounding DRS, as it is still very much a system finding its way, but the role of the umpire will go on being discussed for as long as cricket is played.

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