The elevation of K N Ananthapadmanabhan, popularly known as Ananthan, to the International Panel of Umpires of the International Cricket Council (ICC) during the week that went by was welcomed warmly by the cricket lovers in Kerala. This is the first time that an official from the state has become a member of this prestigious panel and further highlights the progress of this hard working former player to reach the top echelons in the world of cricket umpiring. Presently there are three Indian umpires in this panel - C Shamshuddin, Virender Sharma and Anil Chowdhary - who are eligible for officiating in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), T20 Internationals and the U-19 World Cup. Nitin Menon, who was in this panel, was recently promoted to the ICC Elite Panel of Umpires, thus making him qualified for standing in Test matches. As there was no one in the elite panel for the last one year and player-turned-umpires from India had not found place in international panel for long, the elevation of these two umpires mark significant events for Indian cricket and hence warrant a detailed discussion.
Fine playing career
Ananthan shot into fame during the early 1990s as a brilliant right-arm leg-spinner and a useful lower order batsman. Kerala came of age in Ranji Trophy during the years that Ananthan was at his peak. It was under his captaincy that Kerala qualified for the knockout phase of the Ranji Trophy for the first time ever during 1994-95 season, even defeating fancied Karnataka by 16 runs at Palakkad. However, Ananthan was distinctly unfortunate that his playing days clashed with that of Anil Kumble and hence did not get an opportunity to play for the country at the international level. However, his haul of 344 wickets and 2,891 runs in first-class cricket, which include 25 five wicket-hauls and a double century as well, shows the impact he had on the domestic circuit.
Once his playing days were over, Ananthan took up umpiring to stay connected with the game. Umpiring was one of the many options as he could have turned to coaching or even cricket administration. In many ways umpiring was the most difficult one as well since none of the other choices made such demands on the physique and mind of the individual. Many first-class cricketers and even those who donned national colours had taken up umpiring during the 1990s after seeing the success that S Venkataraghavan attained in this field. But most of them soon left the arena as they found that umpiring was much more difficult and demanding than they had envisaged. Further, they were not able to make the necessary change in attitude and mindset; they remained players at heart, which worked against them becoming good umpires.
The success of Ananthan as an umpire is on account of the fact that he was able to shed the baggage of being a player and think and act like an umpire. It is a fact that no one can become an umpire without playing the game and having a passion for it. But playing a team game like cricket with its highs and lows, joys and sorrows and thrills and excitements is completely different from umpiring a match, which is a lonely job, without any scope for emotions or sentiments. Further, players are the centre of attention who are showered with applause and adulation when they perform well, while umpires remain inconspicuous and mostly come into limelight only when they commit a blunder. Though from the outside it might appear that players possess the fortitude and skillsets to control a game on account of having played it and handled the pressures involved therein successfully, in practice, most of the former cricketers do not have the demeanour or temperament to become umpires.
It is to Ananthan’s credit that he was able to make this move seamlessly and ascend the ladder to reach the pole position. This is a tribute to his commitment to the game and determination to excel in a field that he chose for himself. He has the rare distinction of umpiring an important first-class match from both ends when his colleague got temporally indisposed during the Ranji Trophy final last season. He handled the situation with aplomb, the calm assurance that he displayed indicating that he was ready for taking on more serious responsibilities, which have now come his way.
Nitin Menon is only the third umpire from India to make it to the ICC elite panel, the first two being Venkataraghavan and Sundaram Ravi. While Venkataraghavan had been widely acknowledged as one of the best in the game and won all-round respect, Ravi did not cover himself with glory and had to face the ignominy of being dropped from the elite panel on account of below average performance. That Ravi could officiate in only 33 Test matches and 48 ODIs during his nine-year long tenure in the panel while his colleagues umpired twice the number of games in a similar time span stands as proof for the average standing he had at this level.
This is indeed a far cry from the 1980s when Indian umpires were considered to be among the best in the world. When Imran Khan wanted to have neutral umpires for a Test series against the West Indies in Pakistan in 1986, he sought the services of two Indian umpires, Piloo Reporter and V K Ramaswamy. The duo of Reporter and Ramaswamy thus became the first set of neutral umpires in international cricket history. It was only during the 90s that the ICC came up with the concept of having neutral umpires in Test matches. Initially a combination of one neutral umpire with a host country official was tried before the ICC finally decided that both ends should be manned by neutral umpires. In 2002 the ICC introduced the system of a panel of elite umpires, who are deemed to be the best in the world, for officiating all Tests, besides select ODIs and World Cup matches.
Why did the quality of Indian umpires deteriorate so rapidly after the heady days of 1980s? This was solely on account of the lack of attention given by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) towards this aspect of the game. When the number of international matches started increasing from the mid 90s onwards, the BCCI increased the strength of umpires in their All India panel who were allotted more important matches on the domestic circuit and ODIs. Initially the BCCI decided to rotate the postings among all umpires in this panel so that most of them got opportunities for officiating in ODIs. When it was found that this arrangement was not satisfactory as there were wide divergences between umpires in the same panel when it came to accuracy of decision making, the BCCI decided to allot international matches based on performance of officials in domestic matches. In the normal course this should have ensured fairness and meritocracy but for the unfortunate fact that the BCCI did not have a proper system in place either for assessing performance of umpires or for grading them. It was found that umpires who were close to the BCCI official in-charge of umpires committee invariably won the best grades and hence got opportunities for standing in international matches! This manipulation of the system by a few unscrupulous elements brought disrepute to Indian umpires in general and lowered the status of officials in the eyes of players and followers of the game.
It was only towards the last years of the first decade of the present century that the BCCI decided to bring in a system for objective assessment and grading of umpires. Umpire’s academy was started at Nagpur, annual seminars for umpires became more focused and result oriented and the BCCI sought the services of reputed Australian umpire Simon Taufel to improve the standards. Another important decision was to record all domestic matches using properly placed cameras and trained crew and to use the recordings not only for assessing umpires but also to help them to improve their performance. Thus, all umpires were provided access to the recording of the day’s play, which they could go through and see how they fared; they could also seek out specific instances that they wished to watch again and review. This helped the umpires to understand how they were faring, where they were going wrong and what they needed to do to improve themselves.
These measures by the BCCI helped in the evolution of a new generation of umpires during the 2010s. All the officials who are presently in the elite and international panels of ICC have come of age during this period. The training and assessment of umpires is at present more structured and objective, with merit and performance being the relevant criteria for moving up to higher levels. These actions with the resultant transparency and objectivity in grading helped to improve the trust of umpires in the system and, in turn, led to an improvement in the standards of umpiring within the country. Menon, Ananthan and the other three officials in the international panel are products of this new approach of the BCCI towards umpires and umpiring.
Congratulations to Menon and Ananthan on their richly deserved promotions. Here is wishing them good luck and success during their tenure in the ICC panels.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)