Chennai Super Kings’ win over Rajasthan Royals — off the final ball of the over when Mitchell Santner hit a six to win the match — and Mumbai Indians’ win over Royal Challengers Bangalore earlier in the season — when Lasith Malinga and Jasprit Bumrah choked RCB in the death — had every ingredient you would expect in a spectacular T20 contest — the crests and troughs of a fun ride, the thrills and spills associated with the fast-paced game, sheer unpredictability until perhaps the final moments, and some raging individual performances at key phases.
Yet, the exhilarating finish in each case was dampened by questionable umpiring, which saw RCB being denied a crucial no-ball at the death and CSK denied an above-waist high no-ball in the final over with the required rates soaring.
Like the discomfiting bite of elaichi in a savoury biriyani, the quality of umpiring has stood out awkwardly over the last few seasons of the IPL. Over the course of the summer, we have seen an incandescent MS Dhoni and an irate Virat Kohli, contrasting personalities otherwise but united in fury over the mishappenings on the field. The behaviour in response to the officiating may be justifiably deemed as unbecoming — perhaps even against the laws of the game — but the nitty-gritty is that the umpiring has been farcical and deserving of criticism.
The 2017 season saw several howlers on the part of match officials, and technology was sought to redress human misgivings. The introduction of DRS in the IPL was expected to shore up concerns surrounding terrible decisions but it has spread like cancer in the last two years.
Rohit Sharma, MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli have publicly lashed out at the umpiring while the opposing view from an internationally acknowledged umpire is that star players often apply pressure on umpires.
“Star players try to pressurise umpires but it’s up to the umpires to withstand the pressure. They will do what they feel but it depends on the personality of the umpire,” said K. Hariharan, one of India’s well-known international umpires, after MS Dhoni casually walked into the field of play to question a decision.
“We are not playing club cricket. Umpires need to be smarter,” a livid Kohli had said after the on-field umpire failed to spot a no-ball from Lasith Malinga that denied his team a fair chance off the final ball against Mumbai Indians.
While both sides have a fair case, the fact remains that technology that is available at the discretion of the umpires is often not utilised.
What proportion of the adjudication workload, traditionally performed by humans, can now be taken up by technology? This remains a point of global concern across disciplines but, at least in cricket, the humans (umpires) seem to be doing too much. From ball-counting to checking the front-foot no-ball to watching for close lbw calls or faint nicks, on-field officials are hard-pressed to be sharp as a tack for the entire three-hour-long duration of a T20 match.
The front-foot no-balls and balls count for the over have in particular been dealt with lackadaisically and it is perhaps time for technology to take over on this front. While this remains a different debate altogether, bizarre decisions surrounding dangerous full tosses above waist height and unspotted snicks have placed the standard of umpiring under scrutiny.
Folllowing the umpiring gaffe in the MI v RCB match, BCCI match referee Manu Nayyar did not submit any adverse comments against the on-field officials, Sundaram Ravi and C.K. Nandan. The feedback from the match referee is part of a rigorous evaluation process that umpires go through, wherein captains too put in their two cents on the officials’ performance at the end of a match. Cumulated and ranked over the course of the tournament, this is ultimately of little use practically because the umpiring bench strength simply isn’t much to write home about.
As it stands there are only 11 Indian umpires, of whom just five have officiated in international matches, who are assigned duties as on-field umpires or TV umpires for the 56 IPL matches. What this means is that the captain and match referee can pour their heart out with negative remarks on a particular umpire but the BCCI is handicapped in taking any corrective measures because there aren’t too many replacements available.
Ironically, C.K. Nandan, who was at the heart of the controversy in the game between MI and RCB, was even recognised as the best Indian umpire at the BCCI awards two years ago. Sundaram Ravi, meanwhile, is the only Indian umpire in ICC’s elite panel. Neither has lived upto their reputation in the IPL this season.
The erroneous calls have been an albatross around the neck for BCCI and CoA (Committee of Administrators) but no solution has been arrived at. According to data from PTI, there were about 114 umpires in the last 2,000 BCCI games across gender and age groups. The number of hopefuls appearing for BCCI’s umpiring Test for levels 1, 2, and 3 have gone down drastically.
There are umpiring academies which prepare candidates for BCCI tests with hacks similar to entrance examinations for engineering graduates. The flawed system has all but fully undermined the qualifying structure in place for umpires to go up the ranks.
The BCCI and CoA are also at odds with each other. One unnamed BCCI official had gone on a rant against the CoA after the umpiring errors this season. “What you saw was a symptom and not the disease. It has been two years since the Umpires’ Committee functioned. The process that was followed were the umpires were assessed during the year by a panel of former umpires who were on the Umpires’ Committee” he said.
“The Committee members were also free to visit and see the assessment done. All of that went out of the window once the CoA moved in lock, stock and barrel. Mistakes happen then too but there was a system because of which the umpires were apprehensive since they were being judged.”
The lack of a proper system has meant that umpires never face consequences for their actions which affect players, teams, tournaments and even careers. The decisions to do away with the sub-committee by CoA has led to holes in the process followed for umpire recruitment.
With the errors that were limited to the Ranji Trophy, Vijay Hazare Trophy, and other domestic competitions, now creeping into the IPL, and threatening to infect international matches, we can only hope that a more airtight structure is set up and a more conscientious process is followed for the officials who have the power to make or break the viewing experience.
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