Friday, May 24, 2024

Stealing the soul of umpires

Musings by Shekhar Nambiar

The 2023 IPL season offers an opportunity to review cricket umpiring and the future.

India has produced some great umpires, both for Test and one-day matches. Former Test skipper S Venkataraghavan, Madhav Gothoskar, SN Hanumantha Rao, Mohammad Ghouse, Ram Babu Gupta and Nitin Menon are but a few top names.

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The familiar figures at Test matches with white coat and black trousers were the first to enter the ground ever so ready to conduct the match to the best of their ability.

Two wsemen in the middle who are reduced to dummies

TV umpire 

With the pace at which technology is coming into play in first-class cricket umpiring, the day is not far when umpires would be reduced to mere linesmen, if not altogether banished as a tribe.

Look at the ongoing IPL matches. Even as innocuous a decision as a ‘no ball’ or whether the ball has crossed the boundary or not are being referred to the DRS or third umpire, increasingly called the TV umpire.

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Whatever be the name of the man above, the key role of the umpire is, or has, undergone quite a change. Umpiring has become a media spectacle just as the other departments of the game. The whole thing clearly signals the stranglehold of media on the game. 

Third umpire keeps the players, umpires and the spectators waiting

The changes will most certainly have a telling negative impact on the umpires, shattering their self-confidence and decision- making capabilities.

The introduction in IPL of a ‘substitute’ player – a la football -during the game is a totally new thing. There’s nothing wrong with this. After all, any form of evolution of a game or in any other aspect of life is a welcome step. ODIs and T20s in themselves are new inventions or evolved forms from the conventional five-day Test cricket and three-day formats.

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Media rights big money

Disney+Hotstar are not streaming the IPL matches live this season, with the rights going to Viacom 18 who got the rights to live stream by paying a whopping INR 20,500 crores to BCCI. 

Star Sports network continues to show IPL matches live on TV

The Star Sports network will continue to broadcast the matches live on TV in India. Disney Star has the TV rights of IPL 2023, paying an equally mind-boggling INR 23,575 crore.

The on-field umpires have their roles literally relegated to that of bystanders. With too much supervision or minding by interfering cricket officials from the top, umpires simply don’t want to take unnecessary risks or be seen to enter into any controversies.

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Too much tech

Technology is good but too much of it is bad for the game. The point is why have two umpires standing in the middle as mere dummies. 

Sure, the third umpire can and must review controversial or disputed decisions. Today, however, whether the bat has nicked the ball or even hit the stumps – yes it has almost come to that – go for review. Making a mockery of the two wise men is no sensible thing. The ‘ultra edge’ review is even more bewildering.

Ultraedge review is even more bewildering

Excitement gone

The excitement or the zing has gone out of the game of cricket. I don’t know if you feel so or not.

The raison d’être of the shorter forms of cricket is to keep audience interest high and alive. Now, with these new disruptions in IPL, won’t the crowds become restive and impatient?

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At the Eden Gardens, the home ground of KKR, the fall of wickets of the RCB did not give rise to the expected roar from the stands. Was it that their fans outnumbered that of KKR? Doubtful. The time taken for each decision (i.e.the review) has robbed the game of its excitement. 

Third umpire reviewing the match

The quiet disinterest is evident to be ignored.The Howzzat call has not been heard much. Maybe it’s my imagination. But then in Kolkata or in the other matches, the players didn’t seem to look in the direction of the umpire expectantly. Instead, their hand gestures indicated their choice to go for the TV umpire’s review straight away.

The whole thing seemed comical and oft-repeated. There can be no greater ignominy when the umpire is overlooked and the man up there either agrees to the decision made or calls to reverse it.

In all this saga, umpires will probably have the last laugh. They have the luxury of breathing easy and, alert yes, but not on tenterhooks. Will TV umpires sound the death knell for the game as we know it? At the end of the day, sadly, it’s cricket’s loss.

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Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar Nambiar
Shekhar is a communications professional who has spent a good deal of time in international organizations and in the development sector. As he puts it, it's been an "exciting journey" for him, beginning his working life as a journalist, with some of the best editors and professionals, before venturing into public affairs and then forays in the private sector. He believes "every day brings new challenges, achievements and success, and the key is to play a small part in whatever it is that you're doing". He tries to keep pace with new tech, and learn a new word a day, of course, "Gen Z lingo!"
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