Crying for Bucknor/The Umpire as Tragic Figure

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.

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17 thoughts on “Crying for Bucknor/The Umpire as Tragic Figure

  1. arvind says:

    well, i agree changing the umpire wasn’t right under normal circumstances but to educe the tension that was prevailing has to be calmed down this was the real reason
    and moreover its not only this match because of which indians are agitated ,he has created many gaffe in umpiring against india in the recent past. i heard somebody say he has been the thorn in the flesh of Indians…
    Its just that when u keep the emotions inside it would burst out one day..thats what has happened and i really feel sorry for bucknor ..
    Otherwise the other umpire would have also faced the charges, i guess he committed some blunders against the ethics of umpiring by asking ponting instead of asking the third umpire.
    morally i feel it might be wrong but there was no other way out for ICC
    Its just bucknor got penalized for every wrong decision h has given against the indians

  2. duckingbeamers says:

    Actually, Arvind, Benson was right in not referring the Ganguly catch to the third umpire. Why? Because before the Test series, both Ponting and Kumble agreed that, in the event of a contentious catch, the final word would go to the fielder and his captain. Benson was informed of this, and we was merely following the captains’ wish.

    As for reducing tension, there are many ways to do that other than breaking the rules and procedures (which, arguably, raises the tension even more — every other cricketing country knows now that when the BCCI throws a tantrum, however justified it may be, it will get its way, regardless of the rules that the international cricketing community has set in place). How to reduce the tension? Well, do as I do: realize that umpires make mistakes, and move on.

    As for whether or not Bucknor was a “thorn in India’s side” — again, if that was the case, if the Indians truly believed that Bucknor has been and would be unfair to them, India could have reasonably requested before the Test series began that he not be appointed. And really, I don’t think Bucknor is that much of a thorn — as I noted before, if it weren’t for him, India would have lost the first Test against England at Lord’s last year. A thorn by any other name…

  3. chris says:

    Thanks for a good post. I agree with a lot of what you said, particularly the last paragraph. However, I do think it would be a good idea to introduce a mandatory retirement age for cricket umpires – maybe 60 or something – so that we can be sure that umpires retain their full sight and hearing. Umpires could also be linked to the stump microphone during the game as they did in the World Cup, which would greatly improve their hearing without disrupting the flow of the game. I not sure how the ‘rigorous tests’ that you mentioned are conducted, or how effective they are, but there is certainly a lot of money involved in umpiring at the highest level and there needs to be institutional checks to ensure that umpires don’t hang past their prime for the financial incentives.

  4. […] it comes to the technology debate in the game. There are a few reasons for that, not least that I couldn’t buy into the collective rage that descended India during the Sydney Test fiasco (a.k.a. […]

  5. […] made some comments about his expulsion from the India-Australia Test series. I’ve defended Bucknor before, so I’ll do it again (if only because no one else […]

  6. […] leave a comment » From-The-Rising-Of-The-Sun may not be aptly named (and for a cricket blog not to have a sporting reference is downright criminal), but Jonathan, its writer, has made some great points of late: first, where do standards of dissent stand in the world of instant replay? If a player can ask for a reconsideration, isn’t this, as Jonathan nicely puts it, a “decriminalisation” of dissent? (For a note on why I think we protect umpires from dissent, please see my post about the Umpire as Tragic Figure.) […]

  7. […] I’ve connected Hobbesian philosophy and cricket before. The umpire, for me, is a true Hobbesian sovereign, given wide powers precisely because player […]

  8. […] and, quite frankly, even it were, I still wouldn’t support its use because I like the fallible-but-sovereign umpire figure. Yes, umpires change the course of the game, but while some think that’s unfair, I believe […]

  9. […] Australians (and the Sydney Test had much to do with it). Besides, it didn’t make much sense: umpires should make decisions, not […]

  10. […] that prefers boisterous patriotism to a measured one. We saw this model most clearly after the Sydney Test umpiring fiasco, when all sorts of people — politicians! ex-players! man-on-the-street! — claimed […]

  11. […] in cricket, umpires may be reviled or even considered dopes in certain situations (recall the tragedy of Steve Bucknor, India v. Australia), but on the field, they cannot, must not, should not be questioned. Here, […]

  12. […] a more flexible approach. The problem, I suspect, is that in a pick-up game, you can’t create the Hobbesian umpire figure. That’s because the person chosen to umpire often comes from one of the teams, and is thus […]

  13. […] Freehit_MJ suggests that contact sports may be more difficult. I’m not sure why. I confess I have only a vague idea of what American football referees do, but it can’t be that hard if the most disputed call is whether a foul occurred or not. I also don’t think these questions raise to the level of importance of appeals in cricket. Losing a wicket is tremendously important to a batting side, whereas a foul in soccer/basketball/etc. is only a big deal in certain situations. I think cricket accords umpires so much protection from dissent precisely because we understand how difficult the job is. For more that, go here. […]

  14. […] readers know that I view the cricket umpire as a mythical demi-god who cannot be questioned. I have explained this before, but briefly, it relates to Hobbes’ […]

  15. […] “Crying for Bucknor/The Umpire as Tragic Figure“ […]

  16. […] they were treated like a Hobbesian sovereign. (I’ve made this argument in more detail before here.) Hobbes, you will recall from your college philosophy days, was worried about how rulers could […]

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