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An Umpiring Insight: Rendezvous With Simon Taufel
"The best way I can describe it is that umpiring chose me. I didn't choose it."
Simon Taufel is speculating in a hotel room near Newcastle, Australia, reminiscing about his career with Betway Insider's Tom Clee.
Having played the important role of an ICC umpire for a long span of time, with constant supervision over 74 Tests, 174 ODIs and 34 T20 internationals, Taufel was completely aware of the journey full of ups and downs.
But watching his daughter participate in an Under-12s regional tournament, filled his heart with euphoria. However, he was a semi-retired man now.
"When I pulled the pin on my international career," he says, "I sort of thought that I'd lost a lot of my two boys growing up, and I didn't want to lose my daughter."
Taufel had just touched 29 on the age bar when he played an umpire for the first time in his life in December 2000 in the match between his native Australia and West Indies. It was a moment of utmost pride.
He figures that during the entire duration of 13-and-a half years, 60-70 days on an average just flew by in fulfilling his duties as a devoted umpire and another 3 days away for every one that he was on the field.
On a whole, he remained detached from his family for more than five long years!
"It's not easy and it's not for everyone," he admits.
Taufel was about to begin University in June 1990. He had no intention of becoming an umpire until his friend insisted upon joining him in the umpire's course. He still looked at it only as an opportunity to earn some extra bucks!
As luck would have it, his pal Dave was unable to pass the test with the required percentage of 85 and Taufel, on the other hand, came out with flying colours.
"If anything, I was always probably a little guilty of over-preparing," he says. "I'm a bit of a check-list freak."
He was quickly progressing and before he knew it, his level of achievement highlighted the word 'International'. This clearly meant that he had to revise and summarise six diverse laws each day in order to incorporate the entire rulebook into his brain, every two weeks.
His retention power was at its peak. He did everything to polish his skills and increase his knowledge and thus observed with keen attention: bowlers, batsmen and previous series, way before being assigned any particular work. He even made it a point to grace net sessions with his presence and watch the teams prepare!
Previous tour notes would be his reference guide and he even kept himself updated about local airports and alternative hotels, just in case! This scenario is before the beginning of cricket.
"I think I probably went further than most, simply because I wouldn't describe myself as a natural umpire," he says.
"I had to work harder at my game to feel that I was ready and that I deserved to have a good day out there, rather than just turn up and it be OK."
His winning the ICC David Shepherd Umpire of the Year award for 5 years consecutively came as no surprise because his hard work and sheer dedication were definitely commendable.
However, he kept no awards to himself, except for one, and gave it all away to the people whom he believed to be his pillars of strength throughout his journey.
"I did feel embarrassed and uncomfortable with those awards," he says, "because umpiring is a team sport and we were singling out one person."
Talking to Taufel, it became evident that the importance of teamwork between umpires is quite fundamental.
After his retiral from cricket in 2012, he upgraded to the position of ICC Umpire Performance and Training Manager, where he commanded the development and implementation of additional resources to assist those on the field and television booth, not to forget the stationing of umpire coaches to all the international level matches.
"If I did my career again, I would probably want to talk more about my mistakes," he says.
"To share my shortcomings more with my colleagues after a day's play, rather than keep them to myself and deal with them on my own in my hotel room."
Introducing the DRS was definitely an assisting tool to review the decisions taken by on-field umpires, but Taufel, who had sailed through without its aid for 9 years, 4 years with its support did not make much of a difference to him. It did not change the dimensions of the game, in his perspective.
"I don't think DRS has necessarily made umpiring easier or more difficult," he says. "It's just made it different."
"Pre-DRS, you'd deal with the error later. With DRS, you've got to deal with it at the time.
"You hear your decision dissected in your earpiece, in front of millions of people, and then, after 90 seconds, two minutes, you have to publicly change your decision and somehow regather your thoughts.
"You can feel a bit embarrassed and humiliated. It's really tough to move on and focus on that next delivery."
Technology is pretty influential. It not only affects the decision-making process but also toys with the behaviour of a player. A clear example is Australian batsman, Cameron Bancroft, who in March this year, was caught altering the condition of a ball using sandpaper in a Test match in South Africa.
"The third umpire, quite easily, has got the toughest job out of the whole umpiring team," explains Taufel.
"Their job is to watch the TV as their primary focus. There should be nothing that goes out to people in their lounge rooms but is missed by the third umpire."
But, as this incident - which led to Bancroft, his captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner all being banned - proved, situations can be deceptive.
"I think it's fair to say that nobody would have expected what happened in Cape Town to unfold before our eyes as it did.
"As much as you try to simulate different scenarios in a training environment, sometimes there are things that you just think: 'Wow, is this really happening?'"
Taufel was in charge of the Australian team, officiating umpire selection and match referee management, at that time, and felt empathetic towards the officials put in that tight spot.
"The game of cricket is now more commercialised. It's a different type of animal at Test and international level."
"There are a lot of people who cross their limits to try to mould the results their way.
"I've got no problem with players playing the game hard, no problem at all," says Taufel, who captained his first XI at secondary school before going on to play for New South Wales Schoolboys Under-19s alongside Adam Gilchrist and Michael Slater.
He laughs. "I played the game pretty hard. I appealed for just about everything I could. I don't think I ever got into trouble with the umpires, but I do remember getting a bit of a bollocking from my coach for swearing on the field.
"For me, behaviour is a captain, a coach and a team issue. At the moment, people seem to abrogate that responsibility of managing player behaviour through code of conduct or umpires."
Yet Taufel believes that the scene could change the entire game around! Nevertheless, he can proudly say that he was the only umpire who had ever been invited to give the MCC Spirit Of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture.
"I hold the spirit of cricket close to my heart. Results come and go, but who we are and how we play really defines us.
"We are guardians of the game of cricket. We have to leave it in good condition for the next generation.
"The only way that we can do that is through adherence to the laws and to the spirit of that game."
This is where Taufel believes that players and coaches can learn from umpires.
"You can't change what's already happened, it's part of history now."
"But, like a cricket umpire who can't change the ball that's already gone, you can certainly do your best to get the next decision right," he says.
"That's what I would say to Australian cricket and that's what I would say to the global game: learn from what's happened and use the opportunity to make the game stronger than it's ever been before.
"That's something that everyone can look at. Not just one country or one player or one captain, it's up to everyone to play their role."