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Who needs an eye test... or a pink slip?

By Thaleel Bhai
January 2 2005

Those who have been calling for technology to replace the men in the white coats over the past year will be pleased at the argument provided for them. Just about every match in 2004 seemed to provide some evidence as to why cricket needs to head away from umpires and to technology for its own good. In a year of individual and collective form slumps and purple patches, one thing's been consistent almost right through the year - and that's been the decline in the umpiring standards from the ICC's so-called "Elite Panel". In the last few years, with the arrival of technology for the armchair viewer such as "Hawkeye" and "Snickometer", the clamor for technology to either be used as an umpiring aid or as a total replacement has been increasing - but it has never been as loud as it was this past year.

The year began with one of the most impressive scenes in incompetence and buffoonery from the ICC. After a thrilling test between India and Australia at Sydney that was marred by some poor umpiring by Billy Bowden and Steve Bucknor, Saurav Ganguly rightfully complained to the ICC, filing a report that described Bucknor's on field conduct and performance as "very poor". Instead, the ICC acted as if it had never happened and instead allowed Bucknor to officiate in the upcoming VB Series, and in one of the India/Pakistan tests later in April. The horrible decision-making hadn't been confined just to Indians, and with the move to give more games to younger umpires like Simon Taufel and the like, the ICC was expected to at least demote Bucknor after a number of poor decisions and man-management on the field over the space of two months. Not even a slap on the wrists ensued.

The umpiring debacles weren't just confined to those from the subcontinent. When England hosted first New Zealand and then the West Indies, both touring teams were on the receiving end of some rough decisions. A shocking piece of umpiring saw Mark Richardson robbed of a hundred in the first innings at Lords - and later, the likes of Stephen Fleming when batting, and Daniel Vettori and James Franklin more than their fair share of decisions going the wrong way. The trend continued into the following series, where Darrell Hair provided enough evidence to suggest that he might need a seeing eye dog to aid him at the non-striker's end.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul was given out LBW padding up to a ball that appeared to be missing off stump by six inches or more, Brian Lara was adjudged caught off his pad, and this time it was Dillon, Collymore and their ilk who suffered when bowling. While the press did pick up on the frequency of these horrendous decisions over the two tours, with the English press nicknaming Simon Taufel "Awful Taufel" following three poor decisions in a single day's play against the Kiwis, the ICC kept their blindfolds on.

The umpiring reached even greater lows as the year progressed. Australia's tour of India was supposed to be the delight for any cricketing connoisseur, but any fan who watched it would no doubt have been staggered by the quality of umpiring in the four games played. A number of shocking decisions were made in the first test, the most notable being Virender Sehwag being given out LBW off a massive inside edge visible from the press box - and they continued, with Steve Bucknor again returning to display his incompetence, and being accompanied by Aleem Dar, Billy Bowden and David Shepherd, all of whom only added to the arguments against human umpires.

A number more decisions of similar caliber unfolded throughout the year - Brendon McCullum being given out caught behind by Bucknor after missing the ball by a few inches - and later being given out LBW in a similar decision to that which Sehwag copped, Justin Langer escaping a handful of plumb LBW shouts over the year that would no doubt have hurt his average this year, and Pakistan later suffering at the hands of Rudi Koertzen and Jeremy Lloyds in Melbourne.

Collectively, it's made another big case as to why technology needs to be moved into the game as soon as possible. And with such furore over these decisions, one almost forgets a lone incident that stood out in Dambulla. After Peter Manuel had adjudged Andrew Symonds LBW off an inside edge, he realized that he'd made an error - and consulted Marvan Atapattu to recall the batsman, publicly admitting his mistake to show that yes, umpires are human, and yes, they do make mistakes. If the ICC could encourage such behavior rather than continue to behave as if the likes of Bucknor and Shepherd are infallible, then maybe there might be a chance of seeing technology be a primary source of judgement in the near future.

After all - fifteen years ago, such debates took place with run outs as the core of the argument. Since the third umpire has been brought in, it's been very rare to see any such controversy over run outs or stumpings. It's a lesson that the ICC needs to learn - and the sooner it learns, the better - as otherwise we might only be subjected to repeats of the shambolic displays of the men in the white coats this year.

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