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An upset Australia captain Ricky Ponting pleads his case with a Aleem Dar during the Ashes Test against England in 2010. Hamish Blair / Getty Images
An upset Australia captain Ricky Ponting pleads his case with a Aleem Dar during the Ashes Test against England in 2010. Hamish Blair / Getty Images

Decision time lurks for respected Pakistan cricket umpire Aleem Dar

His reputation is in danger of being tarnished by a spate of uncharacteristic errors of late.

Sports writing has its dilemmas. One of the central ones is in continuing to tread the fine line between the dutiful objectivity of journalism and what sometimes is a natural drift to some kind of (usually) benign partisanship to nationality. Are we sports writers, are we sports fans? Is there a difference?

Mostly it is possible, not easy, but possible, to cover your country and if the beat is long enough you can build an emotional distance with it over time. That distance never becomes infinite of course; the attachment, the fan, never completely goes away.

So, over the years, covering (mostly) Pakistan cricket has become an objective pursuit. The wins, the losses, the players, controversies, scandals, everything I have tried to deal with objectively, unemotionally.

The only times I have shunned this, and happily so, is with Aleem Dar. Now this, I will admit, is a little complicated. In actively supporting Dar, I take comfort in the idea of his neutrality, that he is a neutral adjudicator as all cricket umpires are. I am, in effect, supporting neutrality.

That is how I comfort myself anyway, because to not see the triumph of Dar as some kind of broader triumph for Pakistan as well is almost impossible. Maybe it is not so much triumph he represents as redemption because Pakistani umpiring needed redeeming.

For many years after Pakistan became a Test nation, their umpires were sketched in two simple pictures, neither flattering.

At first they were seen as buffoons, their incompetence magnified by pliancy to Pakistan captains. Later they became more malevolent creatures, not needing so much prodding from home authorities and deriving that perverse pleasure that only the high of unchecked authority and a misplaced sense of nationalist duty can bring.

Then came Dar, the product fittingly of an idea that Pakistan pushed for longest and loudest, that of neutral umpires. And gradually, Dar became so good at what he was doing, so globally respected, that he was two things at once.

Not only was he a de facto roving goodwill ambassador, reclaiming the pride and goodwill his predecessors had frittered away (let us not wince: Pakistani umpiring maintained a long and pretty shameful tradition), but he became, in terms of Pakistani public life, a freak occurrence.

For some years he was so frighteningly consistent, so regularly right in every single call - marginal or otherwise, aided by the Decision Review System, or hung by it - that he could not be Pakistani.

That is not offensive. It is just the way it is: every day life does not always work in Pakistan. Things go wrong. There are swings across the spectrum and especially sporting performance.

But Dar did not swing. He first reached a peak of excellence that was rare anyway, and then stayed there. Every day he stayed, working just as he is supposed to. He was like Jahangir Khan in squash, or Sohail Abbas as hockey's deadliest penalty corner specialist.

Like Jahangir winning, Abbas scoring, Dar getting decisions right was a rare, reassuring certainty in Pakistani public life. (Maybe it is no coincidence either that all three are painfully decent and modest human beings.)

And when Dar stood face to face with Ricky Ponting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the fourth Ashes Test in 2010 - Ponting rabid, angry, mouthy; Dar dignified, impassive, calm and right - it was not hard to think back to the infamous and seismic photograph of Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting, wagging fingers at each other in Faisalabad in 1988, and feel a little closure.

So it has been a little jarring to see him get a few decisions wrong lately. Actually, I will be honest: it has hurt.

There was a howler in the India-Australia series against Phil Hughes. A few others in series juxst before it come to mind but that is the real curse of umpiring.

It is not that we only remember the howlers. It is that we do not remember specifically any but the last one.

It is completely unfair because everybody will make errors but that was the delight of Dar, that for a protracted period, he did not.

At the 2011 World Cup he was the only umpire who did not have a single decision overturned on review (not quite the same as getting every decision right, but close enough).

Now the errors worry me because umpiring career arcs are ominous like that. Once umpires slip, they slide away sharply.

That is, in many ways, the result of the nature of this unnaturally intense, demanding and unrelenting job.

Too many hang around as poor umpires.

Others, such as Simon Taufel, leave at just the right time.

So I worry, because one way or another, errors mean we could be coming towards the end of the golden age of Dar.



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