Cricket umpires, like players, have been legends in their own right. With increased use of technology and increasing television coverage, the umpires are under continuous scrutiny during matches. Their decisions are dissected immediately on air by commentators and fans on social media. With more formats and more matches, their job has only become more challenging by the day.
Simon Taufel, one of the most respected umpires in world cricket, has been involved in workshops for creating training modules for umpires in Australia, India. ICC has now come out with a book for the umpires, by the umpire. It details Taufel's own experiences as a member of the Elite Panel of ICC Umpires, and explains how to handle the daily challenges in the fast-evolving game.
Taufel retired as international umpire in 2012.
Speaking at the launch of the book—Finding The Gaps—in New Delhi, in the company of India off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, the Australian described himself as "just a cricket umpire from Sydney”, and that he “did not think he would be sitting in the Australian High Commission with a legend beside me."
Taufel, as a neutral umpire on the Elite Panel, has stood in many historic, memorable matches featuring India. Be it the Indi-England match in the 2007 T20 World Cup in South Africa where Yuvraj Singh hit Stuart Broad for six sixes; or the semifinal and final of the same tournament; or the 2011 World Cup semifinal and final, Taufel has been an integral part of India's cricketing history.
Taufel, who became a full-time umpire at 19, recalled how he made his international umpiring debut in the Boxing Day Test between Australia and West Indies in Melbourne in 2000, with spin bowling legend S. Venkataraghavan for company.
He recounted the 2009 terror attack in Karachi when the Sri Lankan team bus was attacked. The match officials' van was the second vehicle in the entourage. “I remember speaking to the Australian High Commission, to my colleague Peter Mandel. I was holding his hand in the van. Our driver got shot, and died on the spot. The fourth umpire got shot in the stomach. I usually sit in same seat in the vehicle but had changed my seat that day. The takeaway from this was that that we are all different people with different thoughts, but at the end of the day, it's just a game of cricket."
Taufel also gave some insights into what the umpires have to manage on the field and off it, especially as a third official. "We are the third team in the middle. The third umpire has to double count the balls, calculate stoppages, watch player conduct, work with the producer or director of the broadcaster, go through commercial breaks....”
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On standing in high-pressure matches between India and Pakistan, Taufel said there was no special brief for the match officials ever. “Indian players are quite a relaxed lot. They are genuinely good people who respond to pressure well. While we had no brief as such, the only thing was while in Karachi, we had to leave the hotel for the ground from a different door at the back of the hotel and the whole city was shut off to let us reach the ground. It was quite embarrassing."
Asked which was the toughest palace to officiate, Taufel, to everybody's surprise, named Sri Lanka. "Ball swings, seams, spins. Food, temperature, weather... everything is happening there." He termed Karachi and Wankhede stadium as the noisiest.
Taufel spoke to THE WEEK before the book launch. Excerpts:
What spurred you to write the book?
I thought I had more to offer in terms of coaching, training and mentoring. I worked with ICC performance and training manager, and worked with Cricket Australia, managing and assessing referee and umpire selection. This is one way of having a conversation with people and sharing my experiences. What worked, what did not work... showed them lot of stats, showed them downfalls, pitfalls. Being a father, I also look at young people today and challenges involved. For me, it's all about soft skills. Things we don't often talk about is fundamental to change. A lot of issues today with integrity in business, politics, society, sports, community... there is a real need to connect with our values.
Have you seen a visible shift in the player behaviour on umpiring decisions. Are they getting more aggressive?
I think it's important not to get sidetracked by extremes. But, one of the great things in cricket is that we have a lot of respect and good relationship between players and officials compared to other sports. In Australia, umpires now feel they cop a lot of criticism from spectators. More and more things are shown on social media. They do get to see the extremes a lot quicker and more often, and that's unfortunate. But, we need to keep it in perspective. Generally, we do enjoy a professionally good relationship based on trust and respect between the umpire and players. Sports, too, is a reflection of society.
But what about cricketers at grassroots level?
Yeah, there are more instances where the younger generation thinks that it is okay to challenge authority. We need to respect decision. We need to respect some level of authority of people looking after your best interests. See that the standards of behaviour are applied more consistently.
When an umpire's decision is overturned using DRS, what's the effect on him?
I have been there, and yes, it hurts. Umpires, match-officials, too, are human. We have feelings, good days, bad days. When they have to put arms across their chest and nullify their original decision, there is an element of hurt to the pride. In this book, I talk of resilience and how to recover from setbacks. I have tried to give some tips on how they can handle it.
That's one of the things people will connect with. They are gonna be judged anyway, so let's be ourselves. Under the leadership chapter, I talk about being genuine, being themselves.
Have you met umpires who found it difficult to forget the decision that went against them and found it difficult to focus on the next ball?
It's one of the skills you have to learn to adapt. Not get emotionally hijacked. It's about emotional toughness. To tell yourself, I am not thinking about it right now, I am going to focus on the next delivery and not think what commentators are saying about me. That's hard and takes a lot of practice. I talk about coachability where I encourage everybody to have a coach.
After my worst Test match, I thought whether, at the end of the day, I had given it away. Is it this way I want to feel again. I thought of not continuing at the elite level. And then I read a book by Brad Gilbert called Winning Ugly while going home and I realised where I was going wrong. You need to be kinder to yourselves.
You have conducted workshops with the IPL and the BCCI. There are concerns regarding umpiring standards in India and that not many Indians are graduating to the ICC Elite Panel. Where do you think lies the problem?
I haven't been involved in last three years, so it's hard for me to comment on what is happening right now. I do know that it does take 10 years to become world class. We need a system which has transparency, meritocracy, accountability, and from what I heard, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly is focusing on domestic cricket. If he's looking to make it stronger, then umpiring needs to be considered equally. It's about looking at structures and people inside it.
ICC and member boards, including the BCCI, are actively promoting gender neutrality, and looking at getting more women umpires involved.
In Australia, they are making the environment safer and encouraging. I spoke to a lot of women umpires and they say, at the end of the day, it's about meritocracy. They don't want to make it because of their gender. You don't want to push them if they are not ready just because of their gender.
When I was playing 30 years ago, I had a woman umpiring my matches. So, there is no problem with that. It's not about age or gender but can you do the job. We just need to be more accommodating and make the environment more encouraging.