Were umpires the villains of 2019 ICC World Cup?

Umpiring howlers denied New Zealand the cup it deserved

CRICKET-WC-2019-ENG-NZL-FINAL Leap for the cup: England’s Ben Stokes dives to make his ground. The ball deflected off his bat and went to the boundary | AFP

Long after the English euphoria over “the greatest World Cup final ever” subsided, rage and anguish kept bubbling up over the raw deal New Zealand got.

As Taufel said, umpires are under tremendous pressure. But, if top players are expected to perform under pressure, so too should top umpires.

The reason for the rage wasn’t any Hand of God or Bat of God, but the Finger of Man. New Zealand fielder Martin Guptill threw the ball to the wicketkeeper; it accidentally hit Ben Stokes’s extended bat as he dived to complete a second run and raced to the boundary. Even though the third umpire—Rodney Tucker of Australia—was consulted, the decision to award six runs was taken in haste. It was evident, no doubt, that Stokes had not blocked the throw intentionally. But the umpires forgot a basic cricketing law and failed to check whether the batsmen had crossed each other when Guptill released the ball. Surely, a couple of replays were warranted before awarding six runs.

The umpires mucked it up, the International Cricket Council buried its head in the sand saying it would not comment on umpiring decisions as a policy, but the legendary umpire Simon Taufel stood up. It was a mistake, he said. Yet Taufel praised the umpiring team as “the best of the best”.

Sri Lankan umpire Kumar Dharmasena is, on paper, the best in the world. He won ICC Umpire of the Year, for the second time, in 2018. His South African colleague Marais Erasmus was Umpire of the Year in 2016 and 2017. On the fifth ball of the second over of the New Zealand innings, eagle-eyed Erasmas could spot that the ball had hit Guptill’s trouser pocket and not his bat or glove, before the wicketkeeper Jos Buttler caught it. But on the third ball of the next over, Dharmasena gave Henry Nicholls out LBW to a ball that was clearly bouncing over. The decision review system (DRS)—twitterati call it ‘Dharmasena Review System’—showed just how wrong the umpire was.

In the fourth ball of the 23rd over, Dharmasena decided that Kane Williamson was not out when he had nicked it to Buttler. England called for review and got the Kiwi captain out.

Dharmasena had made a howler in the semifinal, too. He ruled that English opener Jason Roy, batting on 85, was caught behind. The replays showed a big gap between bat and ball, but England had already used up their review and Dharmasena did not deem it necessary to consult the third umpire on his own. Roy walked, reluctantly, and protesting. He was fined for protesting, but the blundering Dharmasena was rewarded with the final, his second on the trot.

Dharmasena holds the unenviable record for the most reversed decisions in a Test. During the first Test in England’s tour of Bangladesh in 2016-17, half his decisions were overturned by DRS. Why such an error-prone umpire was entrusted with the World Cup final, especially after a big blunder in the semifinal, is perplexing. A more experienced umpire like Aleem Dar would have made it a just and fair final. Dar was three times ICC Umpire of the Year.

The normally dependable Erasmus, too, made a mistake that cost the Kiwis a crucial wicket in the final. In the first ball of the 34th over, he gave Ross Taylor out LBW to a ball that hit him above the knee roll. The ball tracking showed that it would have missed the top of leg stump, but Guptill had already wasted New Zealand’s review.

There were umpiring mistakes galore in the World Cup. In the West Indies match against Australia on June 6, Erasmus as third umpire reversed four decisions by the on-field umpires Chris Gaffaney (New Zealand) and Ruchira Palliyaguruge (Sri Lanka). Gaffaney even missed a clear no-ball by Mitchell Starc, and Chris Gayle was dismissed off the next ball, which should have been a free hit.

India’s Rohit Sharma was declared caught behind by third umpire Michael Gough (England) upon review sought by the West Indies on June 27. He surely did not have enough visual evidence to overturn the on-field umpire’s decision.

As Taufel said, umpires are under tremendous pressure while officiating a World Cup match. But then, if top players are expected to perform under pressure, so too should top umpires. And can’t they use humility? It doesn’t hurt to double-check whether the decision you have made is accurate. Why can’t the third umpire voluntarily inform the on-field umpires about a wrong decision, just as the Video Assistant Referee does in football?

It is strange that boundaries, and not wickets, were counted to decide the winner. Are not runs and wickets the two basic variables on which the outcome of a cricket match depends? Former Kiwi all-rounder Dion Nash said it was probably indicative of where “the game’s mindset is at”. In the T20 era, it is boundaries that keep the viewers engaged. As counting wickets was the way ties have been decided for so long, it may make batsmen more cautious, whereas boundaries as the criterion would help ensure entertainment.

But as Nash said, “You also have to look at it from the point of view of the people setting the rules. Who thinks it is going to be a draw, and then a draw in the Super Over? What are the chances?” The chances are slim. But the whole point of having a tie-breaker is to ensure that the result is fair. And, on that count, boundaries just do not work. It could be said that you need skill to score boundaries, but putting the same number of runs on the board with fewer boundaries arguably requires greater batsmanship.

Should England and New Zealand have shared the World Cup? After all, they performed equally well. But sharing isn’t as good as a win. Perhaps the ICC could consider bowl-outs for breaking ties in a Super Over.

What won hearts is the dignity with which New Zealand accepted the ‘technical’ defeat. All-rounder Jimmy Neesham’s tweets reflected the team’s feelings. “That hurts. Hopefully there’s a day or two over the next decade where I don’t think about that last half hour,” he tweeted. A few hours later, he tweeted: “Kids, don’t take up sport. Take up baking or something. Die at 60 really fat and happy.”

It is remarkable that a country of less than 50 lakh people has reached World Cup semifinals eight times. The only other eight-time semifinalist is Australia. India made it to seven semifinals. Anybody who thinks luck is not a factor in cricket should remember New Zealand at England 2019.