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It's them umpires again

UNTIL the first Friday in February, I was firmly under the impression that umpiring was a profession. But by the time the clock chimed midnight, I must admit that I wasn't sure whether this business of donning a tie and standing out in the middle constituted unpaid labour, social service or just a means of making one's face well-known to the masses who follow the game.

Stands to reason. If umpires were professionals, if they were being paid, they would have some level of competence in what they are supposed to be doing. They would not be shirking their responsibility in the manner of polished malingerers, they would not be interpreting the laws of cricket in any old way they please. Oh, and I must add that I also now have doubts whether umpires understand English as I happen to be aware that the laws of cricket are written in that language.

And whence do these doubts come? The corpulent Darrell Hair, him of the Muralitharan throwing controversy fame, was out there in the middle, ostensibly umpiring a one-day game between Zimbabwe and the West Indies. This was the poor man's derby; Australia has already qualified for the finals of the tri-series and the winner of this match would meet the Australians in said finals. Thus, the locals were out in relatively small numbers.

There was a measure of desperation in the proceedings for, despite the fact that it is going to be well-nigh impossible to beat Australia in the finals, both Zimbabwe and the West Indies wanted to make the grade. There is a difference of 25,000 Australian dollars in prize money between the second and third teams and if that doesn't drive a cricketer, then nothing will. Both teams were thus out to establish themselves early.

Now, we have seen plenty of instances of dubious sportsmanship this summer. When Australia plays, you can be sure that there will be such occurrences aplenty. The West Indies have, by and large, been a meek bunch, something which has contributed to their downfall a great deal; before this game, Zimbabwe, in my book, were a team for which I had a great deal of respect. Not any more.

Sherwin Campbell, the vice-captain of the West Indies, is a man who has gone through hell this summer. He has scratched around like a hen looking for wheat in the desert and managed just two half-centuries in the five Tests. He has done nothing much to trouble the scorer in the one-day competition and was thus looking for some runs at least to retain his sanity. And when Zimbabwe's opening bowlers bowled to a plan and managed to keep the West Indies to six runs in the first six overs, Campbell must have felt more than one atmosphere of pressure down his back.

For some time, the West Indies have not been known for running well between the wickets. They run like rabbits and panic in the manner of this animal as well. Daren Ganga, who had taken most of the bowling up to that point and been solely responsible for the abysmally low scoring rate, saw a ball ricochet off his pads towards short-leg and called Campbell for a run. Heath Streak ran for the ball and deliberately blocked Campbell from reaching his crease. Once the block had been carried through he stood back as though he was an angel from heaven who was reluctant to touch human beings.

Campbell could have gone around him and tried to regain the crease. He did not. He stood there in disgust. Streak is over six feet tall and almost as wide; Campbell is around five feet five inches and is difficult to sight sideways. If this was not a deliberate act of blocking, then I haven't seen one. Zimbabwean fielder Trevor Madondo had time to run to the wicket with the ball in his hand and break it.

The umpires took the easy way out. They asked Streak whether his side was appealing for the run out. This means that both umpires were either blind or stupid. Streak took the evasive way out - he said he felt the blocking was not deliberate and therefore the appeal stood. Hair then gave Campbell out. In other words, neither umpire was willing to judge an incident on the field in the light of the relevant law; they both squirmed their way around the law book and sacrificed a batsman. Maybe the laws should be translated into a language which both Hair and the other man on duty, Simon Taufel, understand. And remember, this is the same Hair who was so categorical that the law on throwing gave him the authority to call Muralitharan. Suddenly, the law on obstruction didn't seem to exist.

One of the strangest things I have observed about umpires is the way they try to right a wrong decision by giving another wrong one. The most glaring case I remember is that of Peter Parker, who gave Justin Langer out in the first Test against Pakistan last summer. Parker then apologised to Langer in private when his error became evident. And then in the second Test, he gave Langer not out when the batsman could not have been anything but; he was caught behind slashing at a ball that was nearly a wide.

Hair was about to resort to this method, but he used the third umpire as protection. Streak took a catch off Ganga at mid-on cleanly. He dived forward to make the take and held up the ball and claimed the catch. Now Hair was three feet from Streak. If he could not see cleanly at that range, he had better give up umpiring. No, this great man, this so-called professional, called on the third umpire to make a decision. It was ludicrous in the extreme. If he isn't competent to judge such a catch at such close range, then he has no business being out there and pretending to be an umpire.

The TV replays were conclusive but the third umpire ruled Ganga was not out. It made Streak look like a cheat. True, he had cheated when he blocked Campbell. But he didn't do it this time. Hair looked very pleased with himself. Doubtless, in his mind, the scales of justice had balanced themselves out. One bad decision against the West Indies, one against Zimbabwe. One minus one equals none. He would probably have made a good arithmetic tutor.

Umpires have suddenly discovered that they can evade responsibility by passing the buck. They don't need to stay fit physically or mentally. They can doze out in the middle, and when called upon to make a judgement, just raise their finger. A bad decision can always be balanced out. I have no problem when a bad decision is made on a lbw call because it is well-nigh impossible to rule on many lbws. But I do not absolve an umpire when he refuses to report players for appealing too often and too vociferously, for cursing and wearing audibly, for behaving in a manner becoming of louts, or for trying to use unfair tactics to rattle an opponent. The man who shrinks from this duty is professionally incompetent and should be sacked. When an umpire is incapable of running the game according to the laws, it is high time for him to retire to the country and grow grain.