There are only a few professionals around the world who can say without any iota of doubt that they have indeed left their profession better than they found it. If ever a list is made of such people, Simon Taufel would definitely feature somewhere in the top half of it.
Taufel changed the way people looked at umpiring in cricket and enjoyed an immensely successful International umpiring career from January 1999 to October 2012, officiating in 74 Tests, 174 ODIs, and 34 T20Is.
At a time when a section of cricket lovers was not quite impressed with the standards of umpiring in International cricket, a sight of Taufel on the cricket field ensured millions of people around the world that the best umpiring standards would be followed in the game. Taufel won the ICC David Shepherd Umpire of the Year award for five consecutive years and was easily one of the best in the business in the first decade of the 21st century- dawn of the new era in International umpiring.
In an exclusive interview with thestatesman.com, Taufel talked at length about cricket, cricket umpiring, and about his book “Finding the Gaps”.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. How have DRS and technology changed umpiring and cricket?
A. Well, one of the great things about technology- if you want to put a positive spin on Technology is that it actually shows how many good decisions umpires do make and you know when ball predicted path and ball tracking technology did come in- wasn’t it interesting that when the umpires started to give LBWs when the batsman was on the front foot- the ball tracking was showing that the ball was actually going to hit the stumps.
So I think technology has had a positive impact on the game to the point where it sort of supports a vast percentage of how many good decisions the umpires make but when you have to change your decision after getting that word from the third umpire in the ear to say that ‘I have got conclusive evidence to overturn your decision’- getting that instant feedback is the challenge.
That is the shift between pre-DRS and post-DRS. Seeing your decision dissected in front of thousands of people in the stadium and millions of people at home and having that courage to put your arms across your chests and change your decision and then having that mental strength to try and not to get your mind stuck in the past about how you got the decision wrong or in the future about what they are going to be saying about you on TV and to really stay connected with the moment and umpire that next ball to the best of your ability- that is where mental challenge, that is where the real challenge around DRS really comes in from an umpire’s perspective.
Q. We often talk about the big match nerves from the player’s point of view. Do umpires also feel the same way?
A. They do. I believe so. It’s hard to talk for a lot of other umpires but we are humans. The players are human. The umpires are human. We have normal feelings and emotions and that’s why I have a chapter in my book “Finding the Gaps” around the pressure and how we manage pressure and how much pressure can come from the outside which is the pressure of expectations from players, captains, spectators or broadcasters. So you have got to manage that pressure and the book talks about how to manage that pressure. But sometimes we put pressure on ourselves because umpires fundamentally, I believe, are driven by fear, fear of making a mistake. Fear of saying this bowler does not bowl from my end. I don’t want anything bad to happen today. I just want a nice clean game where no one is talking about me and I am not criticized. So we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and just like a player can get overwhelmed from pressure and stress of what other people think, as an umpire because you are human and normal too, those emotions can take the rational side of what you need to do.
Q. Could you talk us through the journey of this book? When was it precisely that you conceived the idea of getting this published?
A. Well, about a year ago I finished full time umpiring with Cricket Australia. It probably took me a little bit by surprise when I started talking about with other colleagues to set up a business around performance development, coaching, and training with two other business partners. And one of my mentors I have been working within this space said, “Look, if you really want to be taking this business forward you really need to write a book, you really need to pen and get all of your thoughts, ideas and lessons and material in a book form so that people can read it and decide for themselves if they want more or they want less or they do not want it at all.”
Not being able to work full time, obviously, I thought to myself what am I gonna do now. So I started writing this book and I started making sure that I was going to be able to get all those thoughts down on a white-board and something that was going to be interesting, relevant but was also going to be something I was passionate about, in terms of sharing. So probably took me about 7-9 weeks to write it and I was really lucky to have 4-5 people around me who were giving me some really good advice about how to write, how to get the best out of writing a book for the first time and then they were also double checking my chapters as I was writing them and giving me feedback about not so much content but about style because it is a difficult concept to do. I have written it in a way that I would like to read a book so its summary got summary chapters after the end of particular chapters- my takeaways from that chapter and things like that.
Then, of course, I started this journey of finding a publisher. I got a couple of knock backs in Australia since I wanted to publish it there first and then a contact of mine said ‘oh look let’s have a go in India.’ And then we managed to get one and then another company Pan McMillan eventually published the book.
Q. What was the most fascinating and challenging part of being an International umpire?
A. I think the most fascinating part for me was learning about yourself because you spend a lot of time on your own, you spend a lot of time in different environments, and you have got such tremendous resources around you from a coaching and training perspective of working with the athletes at the highest level and they are going to throw so many different things at you- both on and off the field and it’s almost like you are constantly having to readjust or rethink or become more self-aware about what it takes to be surviving. So umpiring is like a game of survival- on the field particularly but even when you are away from up to two months at a time – it’s also about surviving away from home. So managing relationships when you are not there and then being able to manage a relationship when you are there because you feel like a guest at your own home when you go back home or when you enter in a team environment for say the World Cup you are pretty much with the same people for 7-8 weeks and that’s a challenge in itself. So you learn about how to handle yourself, how to carry yourself, how to get by, what works, what doesn’t work but also you learn to like yourself a bit more because you only got yourself inside the four walls of hotel rooms and if you are in these rooms for a couple of weeks at a time, what you are going to do. So you learn about yourself.
One of the biggest challenges is probably time away from home. On average, if you are away from home 6-7 months in a year, you have a 10-year international career, you are away from home for 5 years. That’s tough and then when you got young families, you miss your kids growing up. I haven’t talked about any cricket umpiring stuff yet but that’s part of the challenge.
Q. Was that one of the reasons why people are of the opinion you retired early?
A. Well, chapter 16 of the book talks precisely about that. In that chapter, I deal with professional reasons why I left and also the personal reasons why I left and it took me a couple of years at least to develop the next strategy and what would it look like. Some of the personal reasons I just touched upon and professional reasons about developing a new passion for coaching and training and that type of thing.
Q. With all these experiments around the game like the T10 League or 100 ball cricket, what do you think cricket should do to reach out to some of the other countries?
A. Cricket is going to find a way to get into their community culture. It has to find a way to get into schools and it has to find a way to get into a way of life for a lot of these other countries. And it has to do it in a way that these countries are able to easily adapt- to be able to do that the shorter format of the game has an ability to do that – you can’t go from zero to hero in a very short period. You can’t develop Test cricketers without actually having a strong domestic competition and that’s something your namesake in the BCCI has recently spoken about which I agree with.
So the shorter form of the game is something you can develop faster- you can actually get a bit of a foothold in a community a lot easier and there is going to a pathway and that’s what is interesting about the T20 World Cup is that there are lot more teams than can qualify and make it to the World Cup which is important.
Q. How do you think the Pink-ball test, Day-Night Test cricket is going to change Test Cricket?
A. There have been quite a few Day-Night Test matches played in the last few years but it is interesting that when all of a sudden it is being played at your own backyard there is a sudden interest in people. It has generated so much interest, discussion, and put a lot more focus on Test cricket in general in this country and that’s got to be a good thing that people are talking about Test Cricket and are more actively engaged and involved in Test cricket.
That will have a novelty for a certain period of time. I don’t claim it to be a silver bullet- to be the thing that will help revive Test cricket forever and ever and there should be a more holistic view and the game should be promoted with the help of players, spectators and ensure that people have value and relevance of Test cricket and encourage the best players to stay in Test cricket.
Q. Do umpires prepare for different formats of the game differently or their preparation and approach remain the same?
A. You are asking me to speak on behalf of other people, I would probably prefer not to do that. For me, the basis of my preparation routine, again in the book, is around the fundamentals and then you look at which venue I am at today, which umpiring team have I got today, which cricket teams have I got today, and then tweak your preparations to suit those variables and the other variables as you said is the format of the game.
So a lot of your base preparation, say 80-90 percent of your preparation is fundamental- it is always the same. It’s always someone’s Test match in my book. So whether I am doing fifth grade in Sydney or a Test match it literally is someone’s Test match today and they expect your best performance. Then, you look at those variables I just outlined and say what do I need to tweak in specific to these variables.
Q. Your most memorable moment on the cricket field.
You are asking me to take sort of 23 years of umpiring and give you one moment. There isn’t one moment. There are so many great ones. Every time you do something that’s a first- like your first first-class match, first ODI or Test Match, first ICC event, first final whatever- they are always special.
I walk away from International umpiring feeling quite satisfied that it’s been a fascinating journey. It’s taught me a lot more about myself as I said but I feel very proud even when I go to an event like the other day in New Delhi with the Australian High Commission and I sit on a stage with people like Harbhajan Singh and top broadcasters and I have got lots of media, people from India, Australia who were there to hear me talk me about some thoughts I have written down and to acknowledge that umpiring is equally important in the game of cricket and that we are able to share amongst all the people that have helped create a career in international sport.
One of the first messages that I shared in this event is that we are here because of the product of everyone who has put the effort into the team.
So my best moment would be to being able to live on my own terms, it’s being able to celebrate the successes with the people that have really helped along the way and being satisfied that I have finished umpiring in a better position than when I found it. That’s probably the best way I can describe my memorable moment not in terms of a particular match or particular decision.