Two years ago, Aleem Dar was the best umpire in the world. His status was officially ratified twice in the ICC annual awards and thousands of times more by the accuracy and resolution of his decisions. Dar’s face, when he first picked up the trophy at a ceremony in 2009, beamed from ear to ear. It meant something to have his uncanny gift recognised.
Two years ago, he might have been spared the ordeal of what he has just gone through in the first Test match between England and Australia because he would have done things differently. He made two decisions, both of them not out, which had a monumental bearing on the match.
They were both wrong. First, he decided that Stuart Broad had not hit the ball in England’s second innings when the batsman was on 37. Slow-motion replays showed he had firmly edged it and Broad is still reaping the whirlwind for declining to own up and walk.
Dar’s lapse was forgivable, given the angle of Broad’s bat and the fact that the ball then crashed into the gloves of wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, perhaps blurring the original sound. Australia could not dispute it – or not officially, that is – because they had used up their allocation of reviews.
As the match reached its sapping climax, Dar ruled that Haddin had not touched a ball from Jimmy Anderson that swerved in at him. Perhaps he was influenced by England’s distinctly unconvincing appeal, perhaps he did not pick up the thin inside edge.
It is merely conjecture but perhaps he was also mindful of the fact that this was a decision on which the match and possibly the series depended. There may have been an unconscious thought that if England were sure, they could ask for a review. England did so and Dar had to alter his verdict. Thus did an epic Test match end in an early 21st-century way.
Dar and his fellow umpire, Kumar Dharmasena, his successor as ICC umpire of the year, were drained by the events of Trent Bridge. Doubtless, the third umpire, Marais Erasmus, felt similarly. It was a close game full of narrow decisions and reviews.
The evidence of Trent Bridge suggests that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make rulings. The decision review system is there to help but it also fuels the umpires’ doubts and affects their self-esteem.
By far the vast majority of players accept that umpires can and do make errors and get on with the game. That does not make it any easier on these officials, however, and there were moments in Nottingham when Dar and Dharmasena looked like crumbling before our eyes.
Four men are juggling the three umpiring positions throughout this series and the one that follows in Australia, with the trio for the first Test being joined by Tony Hill of New Zealand. This is because the ICC elite panel of 12 now contains four Englishmen and four Australians, none of whom is permitted to stand in matches involving their sides. Elite matches deserve elite officials which leaves the ICC nowhere else to turn.
By January, the officials will have had to contend with appeals spurious and genuine and reviews legitimate and politic. They will be tired men and along the way, like poor Dar in the past few days, they will be cast as villains.
Neutral, or independent, umpires were originally introduced to eradicate even the suspicion of prejudice based on national support. But elitism carries with it its own responsibilities (not to mention the scrutiny of the cameras). If the balance of the panel continues to be as it is a change of policy may be necessary.
Big decisions: to review or not to review
On six, Agar appeared to have fallen just short before a stumping decision was reviewed. Third umpire Marais Erasmus saw things differently and Agar made 98.
Clarke was adjudged to have been caught behind, but the Australian saw things differently and sent the decision upstairs. The captain was rightly dismissed after a tiny nick showed up on the infra-red.
Broad stood still and silent after his thick edge was caught by Clarke at slip via Haddin’s gloves. The incensed tourists, however, had no remaining reviews.
Fittingly, the final wicket of Australia’s second innings was sent upstairs after suspicions of Haddin’s feathered inside edge. With 15 runs needed to win, captain Alastair Cook opted to gamble, and England took the Test.