A few low blows from the high veldt

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The return of South Africa to the international playing fields has been an unqualified success. Especially for the country's breweries. They drank the place dry when the Springboks lifted the Rugby World Cup and the corporate hospitality boxes were on tap again for the cricket Test series against England.

The factor common to both is that home support is crucial to South Africa's success and any visiting referee or umpire has to have the skin of an aardvark not to be affected by the frenzied activity of the swarm in the grounds.

What happened in the crucial final Test in Cape Town last week was sad but predictable. The only good thing about Graham Thorpe's protracted dismissal in England's second innings is that he deserved to go. He did not, however, deserve to go in that manner. What should have been a straightforward run-out developed into an extraordinary and wretched piece of cricket.

First of all Thorpe, on 59 and holding England together, should never have gone for the single. He stood no chance against Andrew Hudson's throw which hit the stumps with the batsman about nine inches short of safety. Umpire David Orchard, in perfect position, gave Thorpe the benefit of his doubt and it was at that point that the people in the hospitality boxes made a little piece of history. Damned television again.

A roar from the patrons watching the replay prompted Hanse Cronje, the South African captain, to pressure Orchard into calling on the third umpire. Initially Orchard refused, then relented and finally the film raised its finger. This was not so much a dismissal by the third umpire as the fourth, for the hospitality boxes had already passed judgement.

Perhaps Orchard's conscience was bothering him. He had already given Robin Smith out, caught behind, when the replay showed the bat tucked behind pad. No outcry from the lubricated observers in the hospitality suites on that one, nor on the dismissal of Graeme Hick, adjudged lbw to a ball going down the leg side.

It is an intimidating place for a neutral official. Referees in charge of the Springboks' matches in the World Cup were under intense pressure. In the quarter-final between South Africa and Western Samoa at Ellis Park, Johannesburg last summer, Jim Fleming, the experienced Scottish referee, would not have been human had he not reacted to the screaming voice of the crowd. The Samoans stood no chance.

The situation was exacerbated by the replay of incidents on a giant screen in the ground. The editors in charge of this facility were not exactly from the Cry Freedom school of film. They showed only replays of Western Samoan indiscretions; when the Springboks broke the laws the screen was blank. This only inflamed the crowd even more. Afterwards Pat Lam, the Samoans captain, was on the point of revealing a story that members of his team had been subjected to racial abuse but was advised to keep his mouth shut. The silence of the Lam was deafening but understandable given that South Africa promised Western Samoa that they would not be isolated in the game's new professional world.

Derek Bevan, the Welsh referee and one of the best in the business, also felt the heat in the semi-final between South Africa and France which the Springboks won 19-15, Bevan disallowing what the French claimed was a try in the last minute. Subsequently Bevan was presented with a watch by the South Africans, a handy present for a referee. As for the All Blacks going down with food poisoning on the eve of the final, that's another story.

A team from the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, which monitored the World Cup, discovered that playing time was lost due to the inaccuracy of timekeeping by referees. It suggests the employment of official time keepers, a regular practice in rugby league and American Football, would enable the refs to concentrate on the match.

What the World Cup and the Test series show is that the stoical referee or umpire is in a new ballgame. They need to be upgraded and as professional, in every sense, as the players. It is no longer a part-time job for an ex-player but should be a career move for the youngest and brightest. Perhaps Orchard's eyesight is not what it was but in a Corinthian world Thorpe might have "walked" and saved everybody from all that nonsense.