/ 11 January 2008

Bucknor: Honourable man who made honest mistakes

Steve Bucknor looks a weary man. Hardly surprising, of course, given the delinquency that surrounded him and Mark Benson in the course of five days in Sydney. But over and above that, and the fact that from his first appearance as an international umpire in 1989 he has conveyed the impression that life, like his decision-making, is for the slow lane, he looks like a man in need of a long holiday..

Now that he has been jettisoned from officiating in Perth’s third Test between Australia and India and, taking the positive view, he can at least put his feet up for a few days and watch, if he has the inclination, Billy Bowden and Asad Rauf cop the flak instead. He might even make it home to Jamaica if he can remember where it is, or even if it is still there.

Since the 2002 inception by the International Cricket Council of two independent officials in Test matches, Bucknor has scarcely touched base, cricket’s equivalent of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to roam forever.

Bucknor is the most experienced umpire that the international game has seen. Others — Rudi Koertzen and David Shepherd — have umpired more than his 167 one-day internationals, but none has stood in all World Cup finals since 1992 nor come close to his record in Tests: this last one was his 120th.

It is a phenomenal achievement, reflecting not just staying power and extremely high standards in what at times has been a hostile environment, but the esteem and affection in which he has been held by those who have played the game in that time. An umpire does not gain a reputation such as his by being an incompetent or even remotely so. Word quickly gets around, bowlers clamour to get to his end, fielders push their appeals to the limit of intimidation and beyond. A career would not last two decades as has that of Bucknor if the players themselves had not conveyed a confidence.

They appreciate the manner in which he deliberates over his decisions, a mental checklist rather than employing the instant, often instinctive method of others — ”I always look for a reason to give a batsman not out and if I can find none then I give my decision for the bowler,” he has said time and again.

In the end, though, time starts to dull the senses, no matter batsman, bowler, fielder or indeed umpire who relies on eyesight, hearing, concentration and judgement.

Bucknor had a shocker at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Several of his decisions were, in the current jargon, game-breakers with a huge bearing perhaps on the outcome of the match (although, as ever, this is hypothesis) but a bad decision is a bad decision no matter what the state of the game.

Yet in itself this ought not to be sufficient to cause the International Cricket Council, in effect, to drop him, for Bucknor has got more right than most over the years. A bad match does not in itself a bad umpire make. Of more concern, however, ought to be a more evident general lowering of Bucknor’s standards over a period of time, a decline.

The edge appears to have been dulled. Likely, he remains a good umpire, but at the highest level that is insufficient and, in fairness to him and the players he is officiating, it is probably time to call him in now.

None of this, though, is the real issue. Replacing him for the Test in Perth has little to do with his skills and much to do with simple expediency — a way to appease India and ensure that the tour and series are able to continue. And if, in their considerable triumph, the champion cricketers of Australia embarrassed themselves (and, according to many Australians, their country) then they will not even touch the embarrassment that Bucknor will feel, an honourable man who has done nothing worse than make honest mistakes.

His departure might be the thin end of the wedge now, for a precedent has been set and what is to stop teams, in their own way, from vetting the umpires list and cherry picking to suit? After a fashion, it happened to Darrell Hair. It might have happened in Sri Lanka recently, too, had not Koertzen, the man who created a furore in that country for a hideous decision against Kumar Sangakkara as he approached a double century in Hobart, been switched from Kandy to Kolkata.

Logistical reasons it was said, but it was mighty convenient. Who next will the players bully out of a job? One day they might end up with the officials their behaviour deserves. — Â