The Sydney crisis is crawling towards a face-saving resolution, and the first steps were taken today: against the standard rules and procedures, the ICC has replaced Steve Bucknor for the remainder of the series with Billy Bowden (one of the umpires, incidentally, who received a suspension after the World Cup final disaster).
Here’s why I think this is a bad move. There are two main reasons we disallow changes in umpires mid-stream: first, it’s a question of perceptions. If an umpire knows that he can be removed for the (inevitable) occassional wrong decision, he will bend over backwards to try and even things out. So, he’ll let batsmen off the hook on both sides, so that everybody is satisfied, or he will try and ingratiate himself with the team captains. It takes away the perceived neutrality upon which the umpire’s authority solely rests; it reduces him instead to a politicking player, eager for everyone’s vote.
And speaking of perceptions, imagine what a difficult role Billy Bowden must play: knowing that he has been chosen largely thanks to Indian pressure, he faces extreme pressure to go the Indian way. Now, I don’t think Bowden would actually base any of his decisions on anything but the merit of each appeal, but Australians and other fans can accuse him — with much justification — of impropriety if he turns down a good appeal against an Indian. Before, we would say that an umpire just got it wrong; end of subject. With Bowden, however, it will be different: if he gets a decision wrong, and it goes in favor of the Indians, the line will be simple. Oh, don’t you see, he’s the BCCI man.
Secondly, the change in umpire sets a very bad precedent: we keep umpires through an entire series to prevent teams from playing spoil-sport. If any umpire makes a bad decision, a team can now demand his removal, and blame him for their loss.
This is not to say that the umpiring in the Sydney Test was “up to standards.” But still, I do not understand all the irrational Bucknor analysis that has come out of late, and which hugely benefits from hindsight. If all these people thought that Bucknor was past his prime before the Test series, why did they allow him to stand? The answer is, of course, that no one thought that Bucknor was all that different from the other ICC Elite Panel members. That is, he had gone through the same rigorous tests that all those umpires regularly pass. So, drop all this nonsense that “you knew it all along” about Bucknor.
Ultimately, this umpiring dispute hinges on the paradoxical position that the cricket umpire holds, and which is quickly dissolving in the face of technology. For some of us, the fact that umpires make mistakes contains a huge part of cricket’s charm. Oh, it’s frustrating and infuriating when a wrong decision is made, but so what? It’s just as frustrating to find a pitch deteriorating, or for the weather to intervene, or for a ball to swing more because of its make. Unlike in other sports, cricketers must contend with many external forces beyond their control and individual skill, and the umpire is another part of that.
But here’s the paradox: precisely because we know that umpires are fallible, we protect them and their authority to a huge degree. No dissent is tolerated; no players can speak of an umpire’s decision; no umpires can be removed during a series. We do this because, otherwise, the umpire’s authority would fall apart, and become just another schoolyard fight. In other words, because we know that an umpire might get it wrong, we give them God-like status onfield, so that the consensus will hold. Steve Bucknor is human, but Umpire Bucknor is not: he decides life and death.
And for many years, this center did hold. That is, until Snick-o, Hot Spot, Hawkeye, Slow Motion, etc., came to town. Now, people act as if they’ve been duped all along; these umpires really have been taking us for a ride! Well, of course they have, but we knew it all along, or we wouldn’t have given them so much power (strange as that sounds).
So, go ahead and replace them with technological projections and gadgets if you want, but at the end of the day, that won’t solve a thing. With so many cricketing decisions — small edges or leg before wicket — judgment calls need to be made, and computers can’t always do that. You can either work yourself into a rage about how a wrong decision can decide a game, or you can see the subtle beauty that a little unseen edge can determine the outcome of five long days of play. There’s something marvelous about that; the notion that small chance happenings can influence a huge epic battle. It’s life, it’s fate…it’s cricket.