Making the right decision

It is encouraging to see former cricketers officiating as umpires at international level. The latest to join the ranks was former Sri Lanka off-spinner Kumar Dharmasena who made his ODI debut in the first match of the on-going one-day international series between Sri Lanka and India at Dambulla on Wednesday. But watching the manner in which Dharmasena conducted himself it was quite evident that he was under tremendous pressure from the Sri Lankan team to give decisions in their favour. Eventually he crumbled under the pressure and gave the world’s best batsman Sachin Tendulkar leg before wicket to a ball that pitched outside leg stump. Incidentally it was his first decision on international debut and what a howler it turned out to be. Thankfully for Dharmasena and Sri Lanka, India won the contest and not much noise was made of the master’s dismissal. One dreads to think what would have happened if Sri Lanka had won that day.

In the context of it one cannot blame Dharmasena, being pitched into the battle straight away. The blame should lie squarely on those who took the decision to push him up the rankings ahead of other senior umpires. He was not ranked among the top 15 in the Premier ‘A’ panel and was ranked second to Maurice de la Zylva in the Premier ‘B’ panel. How Dharmasena came to surpass all his umpiring colleagues and gain promotion is through the fast-tracking process which the previous interim committee had put in place. He was fast-tracked to surpass his much senior colleagues on the grounds that he was a former national Test and ODI cricketer, a qualification which none of the other umpires in the panel have apart from Asoka de Silva. Also, Dharmasena was a member of Sri Lanka’s 1996 World Cup winning side which was another added qualification.

Representing one’s country is one thing and officiating in an international match is another. The two don’t coalesce with each other. So where Messrs Ken de Alwis, Daya Sirisena, Vernon de Mel, Srinath Silva and Sudharman Silva who form the umpire’s committee would have erred is in trying to use Dharmasena’s cricketing experience to push him into the international panel.

From what took place at Dambulla it is clearly evident that it was a rather premature move by the umpire’s committee. There is an ICC requirement that to qualify to be included in an international panel an umpire should have officiated in at least 10 major domestic (Premier) matches or been in the ‘A’ panel for two years, neither qualification which Dharmasena has.

Umpires like Nick Cook, Trevor Jesty, Robert Bailey, Richard Illingworth, Neil Mallender and Ian Gould from England, Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker from Australia and Enamul Haque from Bangladesh to name a few, spent a good deal of time officiating in domestic matches before being elevated to the international panel.

Further, instead of rushing Dharmasena to officiate in a high-profile one-day series as the one between Sri Lanka and India, what the umpires committee should have done is sent him to officiate in a low key one-day series like the one taking place in Mombasa between Kenya and Zimbabwe. Where the umpires committee has got their priorities mixed up is they have sent an experienced campaigner like TH Wijewardene to officiate the matches there instead of Dharmasena who would have been far more comfortable umpiring in Kenya without any undue pressure. The experience he would have gained from that series and a few more similar ones would have given him that much extra confidence and held him in good stead before he was pitched into a high profile series.

The other disadvantage Dharmasena has while umpiring at this stage of his career is that most of the cricketers who are playing today have been either his team-mates or those whom he had played against during his career. So, borderline decisions could easily sway in favour of the national team, as was the case at Dambulla. It’s only human that it should take place and Dharmasena cannot be blamed for it.

It is a good thing for past cricketers with international experience to take to umpiring, but they should come through the proper channels to the top. Otherwise it only leaves room for others to point fingers at them and makes life difficult for the umpire to officiate domestic matches with colleagues whom he had bypassed unfairly to get to the top.

One wonders whether there are proper guidelines in place for Sri Lankan umpires to reach the top. If there are, it is imperative that the umpires committee make it known to all umpires before the start of a season. That way embarrassment can be avoided all round.