x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Silent influence in the middle made all the difference

This is the conclusion to be drawn about Taufel, that he made so many good decisions - tiny, middling and huge, but all correct - that remembering just one is difficult.

Australia's Simon Taufel, right, was voted the ICC Umpire of the Year for five consecutive years from 2004.
Australia's Simon Taufel, right, was voted the ICC Umpire of the Year for five consecutive years from 2004.

Just before writing this, I tried recalling the best umpiring decisions I have seen.

Naturally the first few I remembered were all those that have been really badly wrong; Steve Bucknor not giving Javed Miandad leg-before in the 1992 World Cup final (you were in Melbourne Steve, not Karachi); Sanath Jayasuriya caught at slip by Graham Thorpe off a bump ball on an England tour to Sri Lanka in 2001 which remains one of the worst-umpired series ever; all Nasser Hussain dismissals between 2000 and 2001.

There are so many more I can remember, hamstrung only by the rule of thumb with bad umpiring decisions that the worst one ever always feels like the most recent one.

It took some time and some serious effort to remember the best ones and even then I could only remember two.

Both came during Ashes Tests. The first is from The Oval in 2005, Kevin Pietersen facing Glenn McGrath's hat-trick ball on the last day. Even now, if you watch it in real time the immediate reaction to seeing Pietersen arch back so sharply and the ball lobbing up to Ricky Ponting at second slip, is to say it was out.

The greatness of Billy Bowden's not out lay not just in that it was right, but that it was right in that moment.

Imagine how easy it would have been to get it wrong: a hat-trick ball, the last afternoon of one of the best series ever, the Ashes up for grabs, and a side for whom appealing was merely the afterthought to the fact that everything was really out.

The other came in England's second innings at Brisbane during the last Ashes.

Andrew Strauss padded up first ball to Ben Hilfenhaus and it looked so out; the entire continent and half the world knew it. Except Aleem Dar, cool because he is not really and unmoving, who knew it was not.

The referral proved Dar right (and Mark Taylor, who up in commentary, suspected it), that the bounce in the pitch would have taken the ball fractionally over the bails.

It was a decision so good it brought a tear to the eye not just because Dar alone seems to be righting all the past wrongs of Pakistani umpiring; it was good in the way of restoring faith in the idea of human decision making.

I could not think of a Simon Taufel decision, which was actually the point of the exercise, to try to remember his best - or just particularly good - ones.

And I was doing that because I suddenly realised that we are no longer going to see Taufel umpiring (and how cold and necessary a sponge he would have been for the heat of India-England).

This is the conclusion to be drawn about Taufel, that he made so many good decisions - tiny, middling and huge, but all correct - that remembering just one is difficult.

Until his decline began, around two years back, a Taufel mistake was defiance of the laws of science, as incomputable as saying maths is wrong.

I am going to miss him, which says something of a man who basically worked hard his entire adult life to not be noticed.

And I am not even sure what exactly I will miss about him.

Maybe the fact that he always looked like he had a great career as a 1950s Hollywood legend waiting for him and that strong-jawed smile (just picture him in the inspiration of the umpire's hat, the fedora)?

One thing, which became clearer over time, was how gently the weight of the position rested with him. He found just that right space between authority and friendliness and settled into it, which is the secret of all management really.

This came out best in the smile he offered the bowler after turning down an appeal; a little patronising sure with those pursed lips, but a little sympathetic too in those eyes. It was as expert and finely tuned as the steady hands that defuse bombs.

Otherwise he had no on-field gimmicks. Off-field he must have had a life, but we knew nothing about it. When his sideburns became longer and broader around the middle of the decade, that was about the only bit of extravagance I can remember.

He was rarely seen without a hat, which Daryl Harper says was because he was tying to cover the loss of hair on his crown.

Harper's tribute to Taufel on ESPNcricinfo, in fact, is not only an open and pleasant reminder of Taufel's dedication to umpiring but also revealing of how he was seen in umpiring circles as the prodigy who changed everything (in rain-interrupted games, other umpires would go to Taufel and his calculator rather than the playing conditions book to get the right numbers, knowing he would have worked it out himself).

In training to stay fit and sharp, in striving for ways to improve, in guiding seminar discussions on preparation and improvement, in appointing mentors and coaches, Taufel was the future.

Not an oddball, an eccentric, a referee from another sport, a board stooge or a personality: just a professional career umpire.

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