Quis custodiet…

Oh hey, it is Daryl Harper in the third umpire’s chair — what could possibly go wrong? This:

Smith, who top-scored for South Africa with 105, his 20th Test century, appeared to be given a let-off on 15 when he attempted a cut against Ryan Sidebottom and appeared to feather a nick through to the keeper, Matt Prior.

Although the onfield umpire, Tony Hill, initially turned down England’s appeals, the captain, Andrew Strauss, immediately used one of his team’s two reviews, and the TV replays seemed to indicate an audible snick as the ball passed the bat.

However, Harper upheld the onfield decision, claiming that he could not hear any noise on the replay that he was being shown in the third umpire’s booth. An angry England coach, Andy Flower, claimed that this was because he had the volume too low on his television set, and confirmed that an official complaint was being made to the match referee, Roshan Mahanama.

An umpire using technology to rule on whether the batsman nicked the ball or no has his TV volume on mute. Surprised? You shouldn’t be — Daryl Harper has throughout a colorful career moved in strange ways his blunders to perform. Remember this bit of recent history?

Harper in the third umpire’s booth had little say in the first and none in the second, but he was utterly in the thick of things for the third and fourth breakthroughs of the day. First, he sent Shivnarine Chanderpaul on his way for 70 to a delivery that would have cleared the stumps by six inches, before – and to total incredulity from players, spectators and pundits alike – he over-ruled the onfield umpire, Aleem Dar, to saw off Brendan Nash in a near identical fashion.

In police-speak, Harper has been a ‘person of interest’ ever since 1999, when in Adelaide he re-wrote the rule book when he deemed that it was possible for a player, in this case Sachin Tendulkar, to be out LBW when struck on the shoulder by a Glenn McGrath bouncer.

But let’s not go there. More recently, there was the more recent instance of Harper, again in the video umpire’s chair, giving Darren Powell out caught behind when replays — of which he watched a good half dozen — clearly showed daylight between bat and ball. In the Cape Town Test of the ongoing series, he again adjudicated Ashwell Prince caught behind — when, again, replays indicated Prince had missed the ball by a foot.

Keep Harper away from all big decisions, says Nasser Hussain, writing from the vantage point of being on air as a SkyTV commentator when the Graeme Smith incident happened. Nasser could, with greater justice, have said simply, keep Harper away from all decisions, period.

Harper has his own take on things — and interestingly, he has chosen to give it on Facebook, though there exists an ICC proscription against umpires discussing their decisions in public. But what to me is more interesting is that Roshan Mahanama, the match referee, lost no time in defending Harper.

“During the review, the TV umpire followed the correct protocol and as he did not hear any noise to indicate the ball hitting the bat, he recommended Mr Hill to uphold his earlier decision. It must be noted that umpire’s decision is final,” Mahanama said.

When an official uses words and phrases like ‘correct protocol’ without specifying what it is, the ‘obfuscation’ flag goes up. What ‘protocol’ is a third umpire supposed to follow in such cases? There is visual evidence and there is audio evidence — and every commentator on duty at the time, and even fans listening in to the commentary, are unanimous that the sound of bat on ball could be heard. Mahanama, however, says:

“There have also been suggestions in a section of the press that Mr Harper had turned down the feed volume. It is clarified that the volume on the third umpire’s feed, right throughout the series, had been configured to optimise the quality of the audio, by both an SABC Head Engineer and the ICC technical advisor.”

That ‘clarification’ makes everything as clear as mud. Simple question: did the match referee check the volume levels? Was it set so you could hear the snick so plainly audible to the rest of the world, which didn’t have the benefit of the skills of head engineers and technical advisors?

The real problem is not in Harper’s serial screw-ups as it is in the ICC’s readiness to jump to the defense of its officials when they screw up. Consider this insight into how the ICC vets its ‘elite’ panel:

There is a close examination of every aspect of an umpire’s performance. Both captains and the match referee submit a report to ICC about every game. An ICC assessor then examines every appeal that an umpire is required to answer, and a comprehensive assessment is compiled. The umpire eventually receives a DVD, packed full of replays and accompanied by the written assessment, so every performance can be reviewed and sometimes reconsidered. Umpires are assessed on their abilities to judge decisions, to communicate with players and with each other, to cope with pressure and to apply the laws and regulations of the game. The ICC has a very informative description of this procedure on its revamped website, and more details can be found at http://www.icc-cricket.com

That insight comes from Harper himself, in course of an interview that also comprises some interesting comments about technology and umpiring. So then, the question the ICC needs to answer is this: when captains submit adverse reports about umpires [read the box in the Nasser Hussain piece linked to above — on one occasion, a team has actually submitted video evidence of the umpire’s blunders], what action does it take after it ‘compiles’ its ‘comprehensive assessment’?

Is there a single case in its history when the ICC has sacked an umpire from its elite panel for serial incompetence? If not, then what price all these elaborate reports and reviews and compilations?

Captains will tell you that writing a post-game evaluation of umpires is fraught with risk. The ICC promptly shares these reports with the umpires in question, so the official knows the nasty things a team, through the voice of its captain, has had to say about him. The ICC, however, takes no action on such reports — so the official, who is not punished for his blunders, gets to stand again, and take out his ire on the captain, and the team, that filed a poor report on him.

The Umpire Decision Referral System is on extended trial — and Harper has routinely made a mess of it to the point where, in true baby with bathwater style, some teams are calling for the end to the UDRS itself.

Maybe what we need is an umpire/match referee appraisal system, that rewards the good ones but also punishes the demonstrably bad officials by removing them from the elite panel. The ICC’s brief is not to shelter and protect its officials, but to run the game as well as is humanly possible — and protecting and encouraging incompetence is not consistent with that brief.

In other news, the Bangladesh media corps gets its first taste of a Virender Sehwag press conference. Which reminds me, an embarrassment of riches on TV, with England-South Africa, Australia-Pakistan, and India-Bangladesh — and me with a perfectly good TV set in the home I am currently busy setting up, but no sign of the TataSky people who promised to connect it up, yet. I’ll find someplace to watch the action from; see you guys back in here late tomorrow, or on Monday morning.