Cricket: New era for umpires: ICC signs pounds 1m deal as captain snubs his county

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AN international panel of Test match umpires will be set up by the International Cricket Council as the result of a sponsorship agreement announced at Lord's yesterday. Though the ICC chairman, Sir Clyde Walcott, said that he did not agree with the view that 'umpiring in some matches was not sufficiently impartial', pounds 1.1m of the National Grid's money begged to differ.

For 38 months from 1 February 1994, all Tests will be umpired by one official from the International Panel (who will sport the National Grid's logo on his coat pocket), and one appointed by the host country as before. In practice, the local umpire is likely to be a panel member too, though there will be the opportunity to give emerging umpires a chance to stand in a Test with a richly experienced international official. The ICC's match referees will also be sponsored (and appropriately attired), and asked to submit a confidential report on the performance of both umpires in each match.

Each of the nine Test nations has been invited to nominate two umpires to the panel, with England contributing two more to reflect the large number of full-time umpires in the country. The panel will thus consist of up to 20 officials, with its exact composition subject to review each July.

Nominations are still arriving and the membership of the inaugural panel will not be announced until mid-January. The only certain appointee is Dickie Bird, who will launch the scheme on 10 February when he stands in the opening Test of Pakistan's tour of New Zealand. England's introduction to the new system will be the first Test against the West Indies in Kingston on 19 February.

The sponsorship will meet the umpires' expenses, and they will be paid the usual salary of their country of origin plus a flat fee of pounds 200 per Test. There is money, too, for a Test umpires' conference, and a development programme which aims to improve the overall standard of umpiring. In return, National Grid gets the coat logos and a useful peg for an advertising campaign, while the ICC is also discouraging a simple 'independent' or 'neutral' as a description for the officials. 'National Grid International Panel' umpire is the preferred wording at all times. 'GIP' umpire might be a suitable acronym, given the amount of it they now receive. The new system should, in theory, attack the perceived bias which is the root of much dissent, but it remains to be seen how easily the old habits die. An umpire who raises his National Grid forefinger may still be risking a Tetley Bitter torrent of abuse.

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