A former Delhi Ranji Trophy cricketer, a former selector and now a match referee, Varun Kumar is a known name in the BCCI domestic circuit.
A three-time winning captain of the VG Trophy Cricket tournament played at the All India University Level, Varun was drafted into the BCCI match referee panel for domestic matches last year.
In an exclusive chat with Thestatesman.com, Varun shed light upon various aspects of his life, career and talked at length about cricket.
Describe for a layperson, the duties of a match referee and the various pressures that a match referee might have to deal with.
First of all, for a layperson, the match referee for them is a person who goes out there and starts the match with a toss. They think that the duty of a match referee is restricted to conducting the toss. Many people assume that the match referee job is a very cosy job but it is nothing like that, it is a very challenging job – a lot of reporting work is there, a lot of paperwork is there. The most challenging thing is you have to deal with, especially in domestic matches – a lot of high profile cricketers, coaches and getting them into the same line because they all end up with queries regarding playing conditions, regarding laws and whatnot. So, one needs to be absolutely spot on. Sometimes there are match situations when things get heated up – players exchanging words or maybe some controversy going on regarding some decision, so you need to bring them under the same parameter.
The duties of the match referee start with the start of the match till the last ball is bowled and even after the match. It is the match referee who ensures that the spirit of the game is maintained throughout the game not only by the players but all the officials. The match referee is also answerable to all the stakeholders of the game – associations, sponsors who may demand certain things from time to time. It is not just a sitting job but it looks like that from the outset. A match referee controls everything. He is treated as the boss of the game but is the one who controls everything, taking care of everyone, backing everyone.
You were a wicketkeeper, right-handed batsman during your playing career then went on to become a selector, match referee, a senior sports officer here at BSNL – which of the roles do you relish the most and why?
Obviously, playing cricket is the best thing. Any sportsperson whatever game he/she is playing everyone wants to represent their country. When I was playing cricket at U-19, U-22, University Level, then I got into the Ranji Trophy Delhi team at that time my aim was to play for my country but somehow I got stuck at the Ranji Trophy level. I wanted to earn that logo (BCCI, India). But now I have got that chance to flaunt that logo when I got into this BCCI panel last year- that gave me my most pleasurable moment. I wanted to earn that logo as a player but somehow I couldn’t. I miss my playing days. Cricket is because of players- not because of officials and associations but because of the players. All officials and associations are there because of players. I really miss playing regular cricket although I am still playing the sport- representing BSNL in the DDCA league. I am thankful to BSNL. They were backing me even when I was playing- giving me leaves so that I could play with worry and now the same with the match referee which also involves a lot of travelling. Although I am enjoying being a match referee- as it has given me a chance to stay connected with the game-nothing beats being a cricketer and I miss my playing days.
When and how did you realise that you were going to make a career in cricket?
My father used to play cricket. He played till the university level but somehow he could not continue since he met with an accident. But I watched him play a few matches and I remember them distinctly.
I was very young, 4-5 years old when Ravi Shastri won that Audi Car in Australia (1985). Watching the Indian team in that Audi Car was unbelievable because at that time hardly anyone knew about the Audi car back in India so in that particular moment, I realised that I wanted to have something like that and I wanted to play this game.
So I practised a lot and even though I was not selected in the first trial I gave for my school junior team, I worked harder and in the next year itself I was part of both the junior and senior teams – that was a big turning point since after that I took the game even more seriously. I would like to extend my gratitude to my alma mater St Xavier and Khalsa College.
What prompted you to go for a career as a match referee post your career as a cricketer?
I played Ranji Trophy till 2008. After that, I was trying to get back in the team but around 2010-11, I got to know that it was going to tough. At that time, the association approached me to take retirement and get into the selection committee. But that time, I was a little confused and wanted to give at least one more year to my cricket and so I said no to them. But a year later, I officially retired from the sport and then I got into the selection set up.
I worked as a selector for three-four years. Then I got to know about the match referee vacancy, that there are exams conducted by BCCI- whenever BCCI conduct an exam- two former cricketers from each association are allowed to give exam. So DDCA gives chances to people according to seniority so I could only get a chance last year and am grateful to DDCA for being supportive.
I did well in that exam- practical and theory and cleared it with good margin. This is the best way to earn the BCCI logo and get back to current cricket. This is the best field- gets you a lot of respect, connected with current cricket, cricketers, a chance to travel. It is like representing your country and there could not be any bigger motivation than that and I feel this is a more dynamic and better job than other jobs like coaching, for instance.
Could you explain the elaborate selection procedure for becoming a qualified/certified match referee?
The first criteria for domestic match referee panel – you need to be a former cricketer with minimum criteria of 20 first-class games. Only cricketers who have played 20 or more matches can write exams.
So whenever BCCI conducts exams, they ask for names from state associations and each association sends two names each. These shortlisted people attend classes and workshops conducted by BCCI. After classes, there are practicals and theory exams and then a cut off is decided- say for instance 70. So in that case even if you get 69, you won’t be considered.
So more or less that’s the procedure, it may look simple but it is not because there are theory papers based on match situations and it may be very tricky at times.
How do you evaluate Delhi’s performance over the last few years and if could name some young players who have really impressed you?
I feel that Delhi cricket has got a lot of potentials, a lot of talent. I am not getting biased because I played for Delhi. On a neutral level, I must say I have travelled to many places and played with many cricketers across the country but whatever talent we have in Delhi no one can match that talent. But no one can match the facilities here as well. People talk about the stadium not being up to the mark but that should not be viewed in isolation- there are 1000s of academies in Delhi that produce lakhs of cricketers and they fight it out for a place in the Delhi team. Playing Ranji for the Delhi team is actually more difficult than getting a place in the Indian team.
The Delhi team is playing really well- they were runners up in Vijay Hazare trophy last year, although not in the longer formats of the game. Lots of youngsters are there in the team so obviously they will take a little bit of time to settle in. However, players like Dhruv Shorey, Nitish Rana, Jontu Sidhu are making a good core. Navdeep Saini is there, he represented India recently, Rishabh Pant is there as well. Vaibhav Kanpal, a U-19 player is coming up along with Hrithik Shokeen and Himmat Singh. So these people are making a good core and are playing as a unit. So within a few years, you will see Delhi become quite a force reckon with in the domestic set up.
You mentioned one name – there has been a lot of talk about him – Rishabh Pant – what are your views on him being a Delhi lad yourself and a wicketkeeper?
I really like that player (Pant). I must tell you when he was playing U-19, that time I was part of the selection committee of the Delhi U-19 team. I will not take credit for selecting him but it was chairman of the selection committee- Nikhil Chopra who spotted him during the trials and came to us and told that watch that guy he is different and looks special. Rishabh never got a good start in U-19 cricket and in the first couple of matches did not score much but I must credit Nikhil Chopra who backed him and even the coach of that team Rajkumar Sharma also insisted that he would play with Pant in the team and it is because of their belief in Rishabh that he ultimately came good. In the next match, he scored 150 runs- he needed that click and got that and after that innings, he never looked back.
Even today, I think people are talking much, but the youngster already has a couple of hundreds in overseas conditions- in England and Australia which itself shows his capability of scoring big runs in tough conditions. He is not doing too much wrong. He has got the temperament to score big runs. When a player is going through a bad patch, he will score a zero no matter what, whether it is Sachin Tendulkar, Don Bradman or even Virat Kohli but how many runs can he score on his day when he is in good form and that’s what matters.
Pant can win you matches single-handedly when he gets going. He is a match-winner, not just a talented player. So the Indian team should stick with him and personally I feel he should bat at 5 or 6 in 50 overs team.
Do you think MS Dhoni will continue until the T20 World Cup 2020 and what happens to Rishabh Pant if Dhoni is still around?
If Dhoni is there, of course Risabh Pant can play as a pure batsman in the T20 format. Dhoni is one cricketer who I respect the most because the contribution he has given to Indian cricket is unparalleled. Different phases produced different big names- Bishan Singh Bedi, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev but off late there are two players who changed everything- Virender Sehwag and MS Dhoni. What Ganguly did for Indian cricket, Dhoni continued and where Dhoni left as a captain, Virat Kohli is continuing as a captain and a player. The best thing that Dhoni did is that he never left the game, he is still around, very approachable and players can surely learn from his immense experience.
I am sure he will make a comeback. His presence gives a lot of positive vibes to the team and the Indian players. He also possesses a lot of threat to the opposition as well. He is fit enough to continue till the next T20 World Cup.
You are the three-time captain of the VG Trophy Cricket tournament held at the All India University level- as a fellow Delhiite and someone who has had a fair bit of captaincy experience, how do you rate Virat Kohli’s performance as a captain across the three formats?
Obviously, captaincy is a skill. Not everyone can lead. Everywhere, not in India though, whoever performs well is made the captain but it doesn’t work like that. To give an example from Indian cricket, Sachin Tendulkar was made the captain of the Indian team but he failed to leave a mark as a captain.
There are two types of captains – one captain is good because of a good team and the other captain is a good captain because of his leadership skills. Someone like Dhoni will fit into the latter category, same with Virat. I also admired Stephen Fleming as a captain.
I feel that there is nothing to advise Virat, he is doing a good job. When he started, he was a bit too aggressive but now he has calmed down a lot and the best thing about him is that he backs all the players in the team and that reflects in the performance of the team.
Off the field also, he has managed the team well- allowing families to stay with them during tours, players hanging out together and it is Virat who is to be credited for all of these changes. In earlier cricket, junior cricketers were cautious before talking to senior players but not in the Virat Kohli era as he has created a family kind of an atmosphere in the dressing room.
With the rapid increase in technology in modern-day sports, do you think umpires and referees are always on trial and under scrutiny?
Since the game is getting commercialised, a lot of technology is coming up. Every TV channel is in a race to buy the rights, especially wherever Indian cricket goes. Earlier there were four cameras, then six, now there are 34 or more cameras for International matches. Stump vision, stump mic, ultra edge and what not. So umpires are obviously getting hampered.
What I feel, umpires are doing their job really well- it is just because they are now getting scrutinised because of technology- like a very minor edge getting caught in the ultra edge cannot be detected by human senses in real-time. Everyone makes a mistake so they should be excused. Virat Kohli practices every day but does not score a ton every game, similarly with umpires they are also working on their skills but may miss the mark sometimes.
Most memorable moments from your playing days.
The first time I played in Ranji Trophy Cricket was a very special moment because that was the highest level I played. Getting into the Ranji Trophy team representing Delhi- one of the highlights of my career and after that getting into the match referee panel is another moment I am very proud of.
Any unforgettable match, you have been a part of.
In 2003, we were playing Ranji Trophy semi-final match, we were chasing a total of above 300 runs and the big guns of Delhi Cricket, Gautam Gambhir, Aakash Chopra and Mithun Manhas got out very quickly. I was there in the middle with Virender Sehwag and we had a 100 run partnership. But just before the sumps on the penultimate day of the match, I got out. I played a bad shot. That game is always in the back of my mind, had I stayed till the end and then resumed the final day with a fresh mindset maybe things could have been very different. We eventually lost the match by 60-70 runs.
Adam Gilchrist- I used to idolise him and Anil Kumble if I had to pick a bowler.
Your Dream XI for Test matches
Sunil Gavaskar, Matthew Hayden, Rahul Dravid, Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Imran Khan, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Jasprit Bumrah, Wasim Akram.