Passport to far pavilions

Steve Bucknor heads a new breed of umpire. Simon O'Hagan talks to a much-travelled international decision-maker
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The Independent Online
The Cricket season in England may be over, but for the rest of the world it is only just beginning. The 33 Tests and 80 or so one-day internationals that are due to take place this winter show the extent to which the game has burgeoned in recent years, and for one group of cricket people in particular, that has meant a transformation in their way of life.

To be an international umpire nowadays requires as detailed a knowledge of flight times as it does of the lbw law. A constant round of travel is an acknowledged aspect of an established Test player's existence but, if anything, it is even more the norm for the leading Test umpires.

There are 20 umpires on the international panel - four from England and two each from the other eight Test-playing nations - but the number who can expect to officiate regularly outside their own country is much smaller than that. With the retirement last season of Dickie Bird, the world's unofficial umpire-in-chief now is probably Steve Bucknor, the tall, stately West Indian whose combination of geniality and gravitas has made him hugely liked and respected among both players and public.

Bucknor has worked to an intensive schedule over the last 12 months, and he is sure to be in demand again this winter when the International Cricket Council decides which overseas umpires should go where to stand alongside the one home umpire that each host country can appoint for Tests.

"The job has changed completely," the 50-year-old Bucknor said from his home in Montego Bay, Jamaica, last week, where he was enjoying a short break from the rigours of the circuit after a 12-month stint in which he has done duty in South Africa, India and Pakistan for the World Cup, England and Sri Lanka. "I seem to have been living out of a suitcase for a very long time. But you learn to accept that."

For Bucknor, who started umpiring Tests in West Indies in 1989, the big change came in 1992-93 when the ICC first experimented with neutral umpires. Bird was sent to Zimbabwe and Bucknor to South Africa, and since then he has umpired all over the world. Bucknor had already given up his job as an auditor at a Montego Bay hotel, but it was perhaps fortunate that the call to umpire abroad coincided with his retirement as an international football referee. He still coaches a school football team when he is at home.

For all his air of serenity, the strain of the job gets to him sometimes. "We are under much more scrutiny now," he said. "I do feel the pressure. I think the press is at times a bit hard on us when they go on about mistakes all the time.

"Of course we make mistakes. We're only human. But they should remember that they get to see an incident repeated in slow motion countless times on television. We only see it once at normal speed and have to make an instant decision."

Bucknor, however, does not object to big screens televising the action at cricket grounds. "That's fine. The crowd has another chance to see something and maybe they might disagree with you, but it's only once. It's when something is shown over and over again that I feel umpires are not really being helped."

One can tell from the boundary that Bucknor loves the job. Like Bird, he has a smile that helps defuse the tensest of situations. What the public is probably unaware of, though, is that not all Test umpires are paid the same. Bucknor is often more poorly rewarded for a day's play than other much less-eminent and experienced officials.

The reason for this anomaly is that umpires are paid at rates set by their own Board, irrespective of where they are on duty. Bucknor receives pounds 1,200 per Test, be it at Sabina Park or Lord's. And if it is at Lord's, his English counterpart will be receiving pounds 2,700.

"Even the third umpire up in the stands is receiving more than twice as much as I am," Bucknor said. "There must be something wrong with such a system. If I am working in England, for example, I should be on English pay."

Even without the demands now being made on umpires, such differentials seem extraordinary and tend to suggest that at a time of increasing prosperity for cricket, the workload and responsibility carried by Bucknor and umpires from the poorer Test-playing nations is not being recognised as it should.

That aspect apart, Bucknor is delighted to travel the world and play his distinctive role in the game. He particularly likes South Africa. "It was marvellous when I went back there last year to see how a people had changed almost overnight." He is hoping the ICC will send him there again this winter, for South Africa's series against India. Later in the winter he has West Indies' home series against India to look forward to.

In the meantime, Bucknor is finding it hard to put away his white coat. This weekend he is on duty at a one-day competition in Kingston.