Cricket: Bold Bucknor's first stand: Graeme Wright welcomes to England an independent umpire who is familiar with the big occasion

Click to follow
STEVE BUCKNOR has been popping up all around the world recently and this week he is coming to England as an International Cricket Council independent umpire. It does not seem so long ago that the diehards were saying it could never happen here - the home of the professional umpire - but the times have been changing quickly in international cricket.

Bucknor, who will walk out with Dickie Bird at Trent Bridge on Thursday, is no stranger to the big occasion. Take no notice of the fact that this is only his 13th Test match, whereas it is the muchfeted, flat-capped Yorkshireman's 57th, stretching still further his world-record number of appearances. Since making his Test debut in a riot-interrupted match in his native Jamaica in April 1989 with little more than a season of Red Stripe umpiring behind him, Bucknor, 48 on Tuesday, has stood in some significant matches.

For a start, there was the 1992 World Cup final, in which his above-the-shoulder call from square leg denied England the early wicket of Ramiz Raja, 'caught' by Graeme Hick off Chris Lewis. No one who has umpired in front of 90,000 in a day/night match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is likely to be fazed at the prospect of being the first independent umpire in a Test match in England. Not that he will be the first West Indian to stand in a Test here. Barbados-born John Holder was on the TCCB panel from 1988 to 1991, as well as umpiring with John Hampshire in Pakistan in 1989. Pakistan pioneered the practice of 'third country' umpires when the West Indies toured there in 1986-87.

Bird was the first independent umpire under the auspices of the ICC with sponsors the National Grid, standing in Zimbabwe's inaugural Test when they played India at Harare in October 1992. But Bucknor was next up, and in more challenging circumstances: the return of Test cricket to South Africa for the first time since 1970, with the series against India. He had already umpired in South Africa's Test comeback, their historic meeting with the West Indies in Barbados the previous April, and, but for some rescheduling, this summer he would have been umpiring here when the South Africans make their long-awaited return to England.

Having read a lot about South Africa, he says he was pleasantly surprised by what he saw there and was made to feel very welcome. Which is just as well, considering he gave South Africa's Jimmy Cook out off the first ball of the opening Test, caught at third slip off Kapil Dev. And as if the dramatic and emotional importance of the series were not enough in itself, there was the added significance of it being the first in which television replays were used to settle questionable decisions on stumpings and run-outs.

In the second Test, Bucknor turned down appeals by the Indians for recourse to the replay after he gave South Africa's Jonty Rhodes the benefit of the doubt in a direct-hit run-out. Rhodes, 28 at the time, went on to make 91 and the television remained a constant reminder that not only was Rhodes out of his ground when Javagal Srinath's throw hit the stumps but Bucknor, the umpire at the bowler's end, was himself some five yards out of alignment with the crease at the crucial moment.

Before that series Bucknor had been quoted as disapproving of television replays. Today, not surprisingly, he thinks they are one of the better things to happen in cricket in the past five years and would like to see them used this summer on boundary decisions when there is doubt over a ball or foot crossing the line. The use of the television replay still has its critics, who argue that the finality of the umpire's verdict, be it right or wrong, is at the heart of the game and should be sacrosanct. Then there are those who find the presence of an independent umpire equally abhorrent, proclaiming that all umpires are by definition neutral. 'Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (the times change, and we with them),' as they said at the Colosseum when the gladiators took to using shields.

The point is that television replays were already undermining umpires' authority and credibility at a time when players were openly expressing their lack of respect for them. Using television strengthens the umpires' position. Similarly, the need for independent umpires may be a poor commentary on modern concepts, on and off the cricket field, but if they help the game maintain its true spirit and dignity, more power to the National Grid for making them possible.

Like the TCCB I would have preferred a panel of the best umpires worldwide, regardless of nationality. Local sensitivities, however, led to the current compromise of two from each Test- match country except England, who have four: Bird, Ken Palmer, Nigel Plews and David Shepherd. Plews will stand with Bucknor at Lord's and they will make an authoritative pair: the former was a Fraud Squad officer and Bucknor an international football referee until reaching the Fifa retirement age of 45.

After Lord's, Bucknor flies home and South Africa's Barry Lambson wings in for the third Test at Old Trafford. That's how it is with these ICC independents. They come and go, if not like Prufrock's women then more like auditors, ensuring that international cricket is played in the best traditions of the game.

(Photograph omitted)