Cricket: Bird to become a neutral power

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Dickie Bird will become cricket's first sponsored independent umpire on Sunday when he officiates in Zimbabwe's inaugural Test match against India in Harare.

The International Cricket Conference approved the principle of 'neutral' umpires more than two years ago, but declined to implement the scheme until it could fund the estimated pounds 500,000 per year costs with sponsors' cash.

No one has yet been prepared to stump up this sort of money, but Britain's National Grid power company has now agreed to sponsor seven Test matches in Zimbabwe and South Africa this winter for an undisclosed amount.

Bird will stand in two more Tests in Zimbabwe, against New Zealand on 22 October and 13 November, and his colleague, David Shepherd, will join the West Indian, Steve Bucknor, in the four South Africa versus India Tests between November and January.

The sponsor, which is also funding the ICC match referees, will, in return, have its company logo displayed on the umpires' breast pockets. The PR men yesterday issued a statement every bit as naff as sponsorship statements invariably are. 'We regard ourselves,' it said, 'as the umpire of the UK electricity market.'

Until now, home countries wanting neutral umpires have had to fund it themselves, as Pakistan did when they last met India. Pakistan have been campaigning for 'neutral' officials for the last 10 years, and given that their Test matches generally generate enough electricity to power the national grid, the current sponsors may well feel inclined to fork out again.

England's four Tests in India and Sri Lanka this winter have not attracted a sponsor, and will be officiated by home country umpires.

Two Australian Test umpires began a libel action in Perth yesterday against the Sydney Daily Telegraph Mirror over claims made by the former India batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, in an article headlined 'Aussie Cheats'. Peter McConnell and Terry Prue, both from Western Australia, were not named in the article, but were two of only four umpires for the series, which India lost 4-0.