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Cricket Umpires: Bye, Bye Bucknor - you deserved better

Profiles RSS / / 02 March 2009 /

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As the world's most famous cricket umpire Steve Bucknor prepares to bow out of cricket, Andrew Hughes looks back at a career that wasn't quite perfect, but was pretty damn good.

The Third Test in Cape Town will be Steve Bucknor's swansong in the white coat. The man who has officiated in five World Cup finals and more Test matches than any other umpire has bowed to the inexorable force of age and a sustained campaign of hostility from certain corners of the globe. Even a man as thick-skinned as the phlegmatic Jamaican can only withstand the slings and arrows for so long before the scars begin to take their toll. And at the age of sixty-two, he can be forgiven if some of the enthusiasm for a role he first took on all those years ago in Montego Bay has drained away.

That a man as dedicated and long-serving as Bucknor deserved better, from cricket boards, from the media and above all from his employers, the ICC, is beyond dispute. How will he be remembered? Undoubtedly he will be forever associated with the unpleasant Sydney Test match, just as Daryl Hair will be forever pictured in people's minds removing the bails at the Oval amidst a storm of recrimination. Both men did what they felt was right at the time. Neither has been proven to have acted with malice, or out of bias.

Whilst the ICC fiddle about with referral systems, the umpires have been left trying to reconcile two mutually exclusive principles. On the one hand is the idea that the umpire's decision is final. On the other, the modern belief that accuracy of decision making is everything. A combination of intensive television analysis and the lack of restraint shown by people in positions of power, both in the media and various cricket boards, all of whom should know better, has brought us to the present situation where it is deemed unacceptable for any umpire to make any mistake.

It is also Bucknor's misfortune that his mistakes have been high-profile ones. He was the senior on-field umpire at the 2007 World Cup Final when the rules on bad light were incorrectly interpreted. For that, he was suspended after a review. The ICC got that one correct. But a few months later, after the Sydney debacle, they got it wrong. A series of errors, including his failure to detect a big edge from Andrew Symonds outraged the Indians. Old grievances were wheeled out and once more it was alleged, without foundation, that Bucknor was biased against India. Rather than reviewing his performance at the end of that series, after the dust had settled, the ICC buckled under pressure and removed him from the next Test in Perth.

Bucknor has borne much during his long career. His effigy has been burnt so many times on the sub-continent that they must be on sale at street stalls. He has been called biased, racist, incompetent and worse. He has weathered all this with the same insouciance with which he has met every hysterical appeal and disbelieving glare, a calmness of manner no doubt honed during his time as a football referee - of some distinction - and as a teacher of mathematics. The long pause that accompanied his decision making was once regarded as an example for all umpires to follow. The pause was a menacing one for batsmen, as it was often followed by a gentle nod of the head and the slow raising of the Bucknor finger.

Bucknor is one of my favourite umpires. I think he is up there with David Shepherd and the Indian Srinivasaraghavan Venkataraghathan as the best of the modern era. Though it is possible that age has caught up with him, that he is no longer quite as sharp as he was, he deserved better than to be hounded out of the game by people who are unable to accept that sometimes decisions go against them and that when human beings are in charge of events, they sometimes make mistakes.

In a few years time, when all decisions are made by a man in a booth in the pavilion, people might look back on the current crop of umpires and wonder how they ever coped. Maybe then, Steve Bucknor will finally get the credit he deserves. He wasn't perfect, but he was one of the best.

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