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Umpires Beware, Automation is Here!

by Suresh Subrahmanyan

Suresh Subrahmanyan dusts off and presents an unpublished article he wrote 41 years ago in 1976, little realising the prescient and portentous implications this humorously imagined piece was to have on the world of cricket, a few decades later. Or to put it another way, instant replays and the third umpire were still a distant dream in the ‘70s.

Newspaper reports indicate that instant slow-action film replays may well be used in the near future to help Test umpires adjudicate on controversial appeals.

Bowler (appealing vociferously for catch behind) – ‘HOWZZAT?’

Umpire – ‘Tricky one, that. Did he get a nick, or did it brush the pad? I wonder. Hang on a minute, there’s a good lad. I’ll check back with Control on my walkie-talkie for the slow-action replay.’

One can hear the rumblings of discontent among the die-hard cynics at Lord’s.

‘Ridiculous. Don’t be absurd, man.’
‘Never heard such a load of clap-trap.’
‘Walkie-talkies indeed! What won’t they think up of next?’
‘I say old chap, a bit thick, what?’
‘The sun will never set over Lord’s.’

‘Really Sir, are we to stand by and watch idly, while a handful of iconoclastic renegades mess around with the rules of a game that we gave the world?’

‘A rebellious race of ribald rabble-rousers who wouldn’t think twice of felling a batsman like an ox with nasty, rising deliveries without so much as a by-your-leave.’

‘A gang of vindictive vagabonds, who cannot appreciate the infinite merit and sublime glory of the forward defensive push, bat angled down, bat and pad locked together, back leg firmly anchored to the crease.’

‘Thank God for Geoffrey Boycott.’

While Lord’s is in turmoil, the Umpire at the Adelaide Oval, known for his swift decisions, has taken just under thirteen minutes to get the feedback from Control, and the first, historic walkie-talkie cum slow-action replay (code name: DON DUCK) decision by any umpire in first-class cricket, is about to be delivered, as the batsman’s life hangs by a thread.

The Umpire, standing by himself in the region of long-off, the volume of his walkie-talkie turned down low so the players can’t hear, now ambles up in slow, deliberate strides to the wicket, a frown creasing his fine, alabaster brow. The second Umpire is an idle spectator. The batsman in the dock, so to speak, is asking for fresh guard from the non-striker, as the fielders fall about in helpless mirth at what they doubtless regard the height of optimism on the part of the batsman.

Umpire (speaking into the walkie-talkie) – ‘Thank you, Lindsay. That was a most useful summation. Your analysis of the situation, taking into account the pros and cons of both sides of the argument, your complete integrity, and above all your brevity, has won the hearts of all of us here. You are a credit, indeed a credit, nay a credit to the noble game of cricket.’

At this point in the narrative, the Chronicler must perforce, digress. Albeit briefly. That the occasion is of great pith and moment – a trailblazer, a pacesetter, portentous and any other timeworn cliché you’d care to think of – can hardly have escaped the notice of the keen cricket enthusiast (may his tribe increase). Befitting this memorable occasion, the splendid organizers at the Adelaide Oval extended themselves in the arrangements.

In less time than it takes to say ‘hop o’ my thumb’, a neat little shamiana atop a two foot dais had been erected. A banner, bearing the bold legend ‘WELCOME HISTORIC DON DUCK’, fluttered against a gentle sow’ westerly breeze blowing across the ground. It goes without saying that this most imposing, yet somehow unostentatious edifice was not erected on the actual pitch. It was about fifteen metres away from the wicket at the Pavilion End – a tribute to Australian ingenuity and resource. Squatting on the ground are a battery of press photographers and TV cameramen. On the dais itself, the guests have arrived, and an impressive array of dignitaries they are too – Sir Don Bradman, Freddie Truman, the silver-tongued John Arlott, the England women’s cricket captain, Rachel Heyhoe Flint, Lord Learie Constantine, Harry Belafonte, specially flown in to render a mournful dirge called ‘Jamaica Farewell’, to mark the humiliating West Indian performance during the ongoing series against the Aussies.

We are now back to the scene of action. As the Umpire walks up to the dais and on to the speaker’s podium, a shrill fanfare is played by six colourfully-attired trumpeters standing on the ramparts of the pavilion. At the end of the fanfare, the Umpire bows to the VIPs, the players (who, incidentally, are lounging around the pitch), and finally to the crowds, and speaks thus into the microphone.

‘Ladies, Gentlemen and Players,

Even as I am speaking to you, I am sure you are all aware that we are passing through, correction, creating an historic moment. Never in the field of cricketing conquest have so many, paid so much, to watch so little – cricket, that is. Nonetheless, you are watching history being made, even as you live and breathe. And anyway, who wants to watch a bunch of inept batsmen getting their blocks knocked off by a bunch of fiendish bowlers, who seem to think they are playing at coconut shy? On behalf of the Umpires’ Guild I may say with full justice that we have been held back far too long. It’s high time we too cashed in on this publicity lark, that seems to be all the rage among the players (ripple of applause). Thank you. Now getting back to the game, what I have to say concerns the cricketing world as a whole, and I sincerely hope those gnarled policy-making Poms at the Marylebone Cricket Club in London are glued to their television sets, and turning a nice shade of green. Yes, you antediluvian fogies, those rules of yours are getting knocked about quite some here Down Under. And don’t think you can stop us.’

At this point, Freddie Truman gets up, his fists clenched, but Sir Donald restrains him.
‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall…’ Sir Don prods the Umpire from the back with the ferrule of his umbrella. The Umpire is brought up short. ‘Er, sorry friends. Got carried away. The game, yes, back to the game.’ (Moistens his parched lips with a sip of water).

‘Well, where was I? Oh yes, the game of course. In front of me stands young Alvin K, the accused, charged with being incapable of negotiating a peach of an outswinger from our very own strapping, torrid Thommo (wild applause). Not only that, but of having got the faintest of tickles to be taken superbly by M.Rodney, our acrobatic custodian of the wickets. (delirious applause)’

‘Thank you. That’s the way I felt too, and were it not for the marvels of modern science and technology, I would most unhesitatingly have raised my right forefinger, signalling curtains for Alvin. But, as you’re all aware, in accordance with the brand new laws which have been introduced from this Test on, an umpire may not give a decision on any appeal other than clean bowled off a legitimate delivery, I waited for what can only be described as every umpire’s dream friend’. Here the Umpire pauses dramatically and fishes out from the recesses of his white gown the walkie-talkie. He holds it aloft with his right hand, while pointing an outstretched left hand at the Commentators’ Box. It is clearly his moment.

‘Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the new, wonder umpire, DON DUCK, the walkie-talkie cum slow action replay set. A proud product of Australian expertise and know-how, available in three convenient sizes depending on the size of the ground, at very reasonable prices.’

The announcement is followed by deafening applause. The crowds go wild. A hail of empty beer-can missiles greets the announcement. Two streakers run a lap of honour, but nobody takes any notice and they slink back to their seats.

‘’’Let’s get back to the play’, resumes the Umpire. As I said earlier, I was all set to bundle young Alvin off, with a flea in his ear. But thanks to DON DUCK, Alvin does not go.’

This announcement is followed by some commotion. Some of the Australian players, the aggrieved bowler in particular, are seen prancing up and down angrily, pulling out tufts of turf with their bare hands, and raising more than one finger to the skies. Cheery sounds of merriment and jubilation can be heard from the West Indian camp in the pavilion. Harry Belafonte strikes up a bouncy calypso. But by the beard of the prophet Grace, the Umpire is not to be robbed of his thunder. No Sir! He quickly obtains order by throwing back his head and letting rip an imperious cry of “NO”, much after the fashion of calling a no ball. ‘I have not quite finished. While I did say that the batsman does not go, I did not say that he was not out either.’

Confused murmuring from the VIPs at the dais. Harry Belafonte strikes up a discordant note on his guitar. The Umpire continues.

“I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense, you say. He’s toshing talk, I mean talking tosh, you say. But patience, I say. Hear me out, I say. I am building up to a climax. Delaying the final stroke till the very last second, not unlike a Bradmanesque late cut (wild cheers). The fact is, my good friends (there’s a catch in his voice), I slipped up. I, the Umpire, the God who can do no wrong, I erred (stifles a sob). And what was my sin? I’ll tell you, if you’ll bear with me. The genius that is our DON DUCK did support me in that good old Thommo did deliver a beauty, and the errant Alvin did get a touch. But………… and what a ‘but’ that was, my friends…’

Here the Umpire breaks down, but before Sir Don is at his side, giving ample evidence of those great reflexes, with a comforting arm, the Umpire recovers and amidst great sobs, continues. ‘It was NO BALL my friends, and I didn’t even notice it. A no ball, for crying out loud.’ He breaks down completely and collapses into a heap into the comforting arms of Sir Don. Rachel Heyhoe Flint, eyes moist with unshed tears, plays the ministering angel. Harry Belafonte plays, ‘Oh how the mighty have fallen.’

The Umpire is escorted gently to a chair, still mumbling inconsolably, ‘Yards down the crease he was and I didn’t see it. Oh, the shame of it all, the perfidy.’ Harry, in a flash of inspiration, starts to sing ‘Perfidia’. Freddie Truman grabs hold of the guitar, and smashes it over his knee.

Meanwhile, back at the MCC HQ at Lord’s, ‘Upstarts’, ‘Aborigines’, ‘Ignoramuses’, ‘Ned Kelleys’, ‘Isolationists’, ‘Geoff Boycott, you are our beacon of hope………….’

(A quick guide: Alvin K. is Alvin Kallicharran, Rodney M. is Rodney Marsh, Lindsay is Lindsay Hassett, Thommo is Jeff Thomson, Ned Kelley was an Australian bushranger in the mid 19th century – a folk hero who was hanged, and Belafonte, Arlott, Boycott, Truman, Grace and Sir Don are….. If you’re a true cricket aficionado, we don’t need to spell it out!)

Suresh Subrahmanyan is a Bangalore based brand communications consultant, deeply interested in a variety of musical genres. As a columnist he contributes on a regular basis to some of the leading dailies and periodicals in India. An avowed P.G. Wodehouse fan, many of his columns are in satirical and humorous vein.
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