Steve Bucknor: Over and Out
Steve Bucknor, for 20 years the master of the long, slow decision, stands in his last international match tomorrow. Cricket will miss him, writes Stephen Brenkley
Saturday 28 March 2009
To be given out by Steve Bucknor is death by torture. First the appeal, loud, prolonged, imploring. And then nothing. Only a tense stillness. Time is suspended. Packed stadiums freeze. The bowler grimaces in hope, the batsman tries not to look.
Bucknor's brain computes. Where did the ball pitch, how much did it move? Or could it have taken the edge? Was there a noise? Or a deviation? You can hear the cogs turn. He betrays no emotion. And then the slow nod. Usually, it is just one movement. Slowly comes the final blow, the raising, almost reluctantly of the index finger as if to say: "This is hurting me far more than it's hurting you. But sadly I have no choice."
For 20 years that little scene has been one of the most riveting sights in cricket, a piece of theatre of its own. At the end, it is probably blessed relief for the batsman. Over at last. There have been times when Bucknor, without knowing it, has seemed to play to the gallery. They want a slow death, they can have it. Or sometimes the reprieve, similarly considered and announced eventually with a slight shake of the head. Again no sign of emotion.
When Bucknor has made a decision the impression is of a supreme court judgement. It really is final. This does not make him right and sometimes he has been spectacularly wrong but the gravitas is unmistakable. No more. Bucknor, 62, will stand in his 309th and last international match tomorrow in Barbados, his 181st one-day match to go with the 128 Test matches. It was April 1989 when he first started doing this, twice as long as many illustrious playing careers.
"It was my time to go," he said. "I wanted to go before people were telling me it was time to go, while I could be sure in my mind I was still doing the job properly. It just feels right."
Bucknor has stood in some of the most outstanding and controversial matches, some of them made so by his presence. In India he is certainly less respected than he is almost everywhere else but then that is the penalty you pay in that hotbed of cricketing fanaticism for daring to err.
His relationship with India reached its nadir when they were playing Australia in Sydney last January. He gave two decisions that were blatantly wrong – after, that is, slow motion replays had shown them to be so – and this might not only have affected the result but prompted the ill grace and misbehaviour that defined the match. He gave Andrew Symonds not out when he had edged the ball behind and gave Rahul Dravid out caught when the ball had only hit his pad.
There was also the small matter of Harbhajan Singh being alleged to have called Symonds "a monkey". So acrimonious were feelings between the sides and towards Bucknor that he was withdrawn from the next Test by the ICC. He will not say as much but that must have hurt, must have gone some way towards making up his mind that his time had indeed come.
Bucknor perpetually declines to talk of the contentious times, understandable considering the perpetual scrutiny that umpires are under. But what people forget about that Sydney match is that the vast majority of his decisions in that match and other matches, were right. He had a higher percentage of correct calls than his colleague in that game, Mark Benson.
"The travelling has been wearing me down," Bucknor said . "It's always been hard – getting from place to place has never been that easy. I've just spent 30 hours getting from South Africa to Barbados and that is very tiring with a match the following day. I won't miss that."
The best umpires cannot afford to have moments of doubt which is why they have enduring careers. But they have to be prepared to admit that they were wrong.
"I analyse all my performances, especially the difficult decisions that I've made during the day to check that I did not do anything wrong," Bucknor said. "From time to time I look at replays and I see some mistakes, but then I look at others and I see my right decisions too. It's important for me to check them all, right or wrong, and confirm to myself why I made the decision."
India started to become disaffected with Bucknor because he three times gave out their idol Sachin Tendulkar contentiously. You mess with the "Master Blaster's" wicket at your peril. The last time was against Pakistan at Eden Gardens in 2005 when Tendulkar had made 52 and there was daylight between bat and ball. They have never forgotten.
Yet the dignity of the man has been ever present. That dignity was plain when after his last Test match in Cape Town the other day he knelt on the field and offered a prayer (pictured, left). "I was giving thanks," he said. "I'm a believer and I said 'thank you Lord, you have taken me through, and it all seems to have gone well'."
The two series this winter between South Africa and Australia have seen Test cricket at its very finest – knocking into a cocked hat the stultifying events of West Indies against England. But it would not have seemed so had Bucknor been absent. He stood in two of the six matches, enough to be involved in the experimental referrals system.
"The review system could help the game a great deal," he said. "It can be of assistance in the case of a wrong decision being made and ultimately you can get more correct decisions in a game." But crucially he would change the method by which decisions are either reversed or questioned.
"We know when the decisions are tough and marginal – we know. I believe that we are the ones who should be going up there to say, 'third umpire, have a look at this, it is marginal', because ... when a team has used its two referrals, that is when they have failed twice, they have no more.
"So the umpires still can make mistakes and these mistakes could be costly. I have nothing against the experiments but we know when the decisions are tight. And rather than having a team not capitalising because they have used all their referrals, I hope that later on it should be the umpires asking rather than the players."
Bucknor should have some input into this. He hopes eventually to be offered some advisory role as international umpire and this should be snapped up rather more quickly than he makes his decisions. For now, he is about to do some football coaching. Football is his other great love and he was a Fifa referee once, having had the whistle in a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and Netherlands Antilles back in 1988. "I prefer umpiring to refereeing but I can't separate the sports."
A favourite memory of Bucknor, the umpire, who brooked no nonsense and knew that his word was law, came in Karachi in December 2000. Pakistan had used deliberate delaying tactics against England but when it grew dark, which was their plan, Bucknor refused to terminate play. He stood absolutely firm and England, batting on without being able to see the ball much, won. But it was a victory for umpiring that day too, a great, deserved victory.
Nothing really changes, of course. Forty years ago in an International Cricket Council meeting the formidable English administrator Gubby Allen made the point that it was possible for umpires to lose form just like players. Bucknor has no doubt had his periods of poor form but he has always come back. But not any more. The slowest draw in the west knew when to quit.
Tested Bucknor's best
*Tests 128; ODI 181 (inc. tomorrow)
*Has stood in five World Cup finals
*First Test West Indies v India (Kingston, April-May 1989)
*Last Test South Africa v Australia (Cape Town, Mar 2009)
*First One Day West Indies v India (St John's, March 1989)
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