x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Former cricket umpire Simon Taufel softly delivers a hard message

In the 13th Spirit of Cricket Lecture, Simon Taufel, of Australia, says cricket needs to be more pragmatic about technology and he is right, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Former umpire Simon Taufel, right, delivered a Spirit of Cricket Lecture this past week where he addressed technology in the game and endorsed the use of neutral umpires. Tim Wimboune / Reuters
Former umpire Simon Taufel, right, delivered a Spirit of Cricket Lecture this past week where he addressed technology in the game and endorsed the use of neutral umpires. Tim Wimboune / Reuters

Maybe I just read the script wrong.

I thought with it being the Ashes, with the Decision Review System (DRS) maintaining residency at the centre of civilisation's fault-lines, with the Spirit of Cricket floating around us as lightly as a lead balloon, with umpiring standards under increased scrutiny, that an ex-umpire delivering the 13th MCC Cowdrey Lecture might make for a juicy prospect.

I hoped at the least that the 13th Spirit of Cricket Lecture from Simon Taufel might come to be seen as either a barnstorming last stand of humans against the machines, or a sneering affirmation of the inevitable superiority of machines by a sell-out.

Some of the expectation was stoked by the late Tony Greig, who delivered what has become cricket's de facto state-of-the-union address last year.

He took some potshots at Indian cricket, which wasn't the most radical stance in itself, but by channelling a specific global dissatisfaction on a big stage, he momentarily caused a bit of a stir. Although, if you re-read the transcript now, it does not even sound so rabble-rousing.

It also, I realised, had a little to do with the MCC's new place in a new cricket order.

The MCC, remember, used to be the very bastion of the Establishment, an old, stiff, bacon-and-egg-tie power base of England and Australia.

It was a grumpy, unsmiling gatekeeper of the game's virtues.

But lately, it's role has changed. The organisation remains a gatekeeper of sorts, but has also, complicatedly and with much irony, become a kind of insurgent and philanthropist.

Now its World Cricket Committee is the independent, radical think tank of ex-cricketers looking out for the best interests of the game, unbound by any member boards and their politics.

In one video, Michael Vaughan, who is a member, says the committee is not full of old fuddy-duddies, which is precisely what the MCC as a whole was, and as far as membership is concerned, still is.

The Spirit of Cricket lecture, by extension, offers an opportunity for the MCC to poke cricket's conscience in this reversed order.

The presence of Greig was somehow apposite: a man once hounded by the body for leading a rebellion with Kerry Packer to uproot the old world, now welcomed back by that old establishment to have a go at the new one.

Somewhere in there is an equally relevant analogy about big record companies appropriating all underground music to make it mainstream (except that big record companies no longer exist and neither does an underground, really).

But I realised that to expect Taufel to come out, guns blazing, was folly twice over.

One, the Spirit of Cricket lectures are not really that incendiary. In fact, strip away the gravitas of the occasion and they have usually been pretty – what's the word here? – unremarkable.

Sunil Gavaskar was the first lecturer and like Greig, his very presence, rather than what he said, was the talking point. And even way back in 2003, Gavaskar's plea to stop sledging sounded old-fashioned and irrelevant.

In 2010, Imran Khan talked mostly about himself, which of course, all of Pakistan already knew he would, having heard his World Cup-winning speech in 1992.

In between, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a fine, left-field choice who delivered a less left-field and predictably poignant talk on race, politics and sport.

Kumar Sangakkara's lecture in 2011 was actually an Obama-esque audition for a post-cricket political career disguised by an attack on his own cricket board, which, given the state of that very cricket board, does not take much doing.

The other reason I should not have expected fires to be lit is that it is not Taufel's style, which is to say that, if Roger Federer were ever a cricket umpire, he would be Taufel.

We should be thankful for that, because what kind of umpire would he have made if he was not well-considered, logical and rational?

Taufel hedged his bets on technology, warning of a "double edge" which puts umpires and officials under all manner of unforeseen pressures, but also that the game needed to be more "pragmatic" in utilising all tools.

He also, to lesser headlines, endorsed continuing with neutral umpires, an idea his boss at the International Cricket Council (ICC), Dave Richardson, just recently said is ripe for re-examining. For many years, when Taufel was the world's best umpire and Australia the best team, he could not officiate in some of the game's marquee contests involving his country.

I thought that might have been a particular frustration and that he might lash out, but he did not.

No, Taufel did not oratorically go out guns ablaze. And worse, he was right.

Cricket does need to be pragmatic about technology, because it is near impossible to wish it away now. And neutral umpires, despite the ICC's elite panel being overworked, need to continue.

Just look at the outrages that DRS and umpiring errors create now. Do we really need to throw nationality and race into that mix?


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