Ex-International Cricket Council umpire from Jamaica shifts base to New York, where he officiates in cricket and football matches; willow game talk prevails in new home
Steve Bucknor with young cricketers from the Queens United Cricket Academy at the Idlewild Cricket Ground in New York. Pic /Lalit Bhatia
Steve Bucknor may have umpired in 309 international matches, including five successive World Cup finals, but he is often reminded of the decisions he got wrong.
"Last year, I was in New York umpiring a local match and there was one fellow who came and said: 'On my phone, I have a video with 10 mistakes you made. Do you want to see it?' And I said, 'No, I don't need to see it. I know my mistakes. I am sure I made more than 10. But if you think I made 10, then it works out to one mistake every two years of my international career. Isn't that a good record?'"
Bucknor, who relocated from his native Jamaica to New York three years ago, says he is not one to defend his errors. Yet, he observes that umpires are often judged on the wrong decisions.
2008 Sydney Test
"I made two mistakes in the Sydney Test in 2008. Mistake one, which happened when India were doing well, allowed an Australian batsman to get a hundred. Mistake two, on Day Five, might have cost India the game. But still, they are two mistakes over five days. Was I the first umpire to make two mistakes in a Test? Still, those two mistakes seem to have haunted me."
The batsman he refers to is Andrew Symonds. India appealed for a caught behind when Symonds was on 30, Bucknor ruled not out. Symonds went on to score an unbeaten 162.
"You need to know why mistakes are made. You don't want to make similar mistakes again. I am not giving excuses but there are times when the wind is blowing down the pitch and the sound travels with the wind. The commentators hear the nick from the stump mic but the umpires may not be sure. These are things spectators won't know."
Before the pandemic confined him indoors, Bucknor had plenty to occupy himself. "My bag was always filled with work," he says, chuckling into the phone. "For about 11 months of the year, I officiated indoor soccer—with games in the late evenings and nights. Plus, I refereed in the high school outdoor soccer competition. Then for about seven months, I umpired high school cricket and adults cricket. On most days, I would return home around midnight."
Bucknor, who turned 74 in May, has always been drawn to the pleasures of sport. "As a youngster I was on the field six days a week. Those days in Jamaica, January to April was the track and field season. I used to take part in triple jump and high jump. May to July was cricket season. September to December was football season. I took part in everything."
His attention to fitness played a pivotal role in an illustrious international career that spanned two decades.
Bucknor rates the World Cup in 1992 as a high point since he had begun the tournament as the least experienced umpire. "I stood in only four Tests and three ODIs before that. And I was the only umpire from the Caribbean at that World Cup. So I didn't know if I was good enough to be there. During the tournament, I was told I was doing very well. The captains had good things to say. My aim was to be among the six umpires for the semi-finals. I would have been happy to even be a reserve umpire. I stood in the New Zealand versus Pakistan semi-final in Auckland. And after the match I was told, 'Bucknor, you're doing the final.'"
That was the first of his five World Cup finals he stood in: a "bitter-sweet" accomplishment, he says, since his presence on the grandest stage was thanks to the West Indies team's absence.
"I remember in 1996, West Indies versus Australia in the semi-final. I was in Delhi and I left my hotel room when Australia were 15 for four. I went down to the lobby and told them to book my tickets to Jamaica. I then packed my bags and got ready to leave the next morning. That night, West Indies lost. I was sad because I wanted West Indies in the final. But personally, I was happy. Once the game was over, I was told, 'Bucknor, first flight out to Pakistan for the final.'"
Bucknor's suspenseful pause
Bucknor's signature move, a suspenseful pause that followed an appeal, earned him the nickname Mr Slow Death. "I created replays in my mind," he says of his decision-making process. "Did the ball pitch outside leg? Was it high? Is it missing off? These are the questions I asked myself. I was criticised in my own country when I started out. One commentator said that if there is an appeal in the last over of the day, Bucknor's finger will go up the next morning."
Bucknor opens up
On giving Sri Viv lbw: In the 1991 Test between West Indies and Australia in Antigua, I gave Viv Richards out lbw for a duck. Richards is from Antigua and the whole stadium erupted. The Antiguans were saying nobody should be giving Viv lbw in Antigua. I never made a decision based on who was batting. I saw the ball and decided if it was out or not out. Next year, when I was in Australia, I bought the highlights tape of that series only because I wanted to see the replay of that one dismissal. And once I saw the Richards lbw, I was satisfied.
Warne's straight ball: He used to say to himself, 'Get it straight, Shane. Get it straight.' Now the only straight ball he bowled was the flipper. So if the umpire hears him, he may think, 'It must be a straight ball.' He was not talking to the umpire but he was speaking in the presence of the umpire. The important bit to remember though: not every time when he says, 'Get is straight' is the ball actually straight. It may pitch outside leg stump. You can't react to what Shane says. Once, he was literally on his knees asking for an lbw. And I said not out. And when he passed me he said, 'Good decision, that was going down leg'. He was like that. But then, he was always a fair-minded person.
Slater walks away:
In the 1998 Ashes Test in Adelaide, Michael Slater gave himself out lbw. He walked before he saw my finger go up. He didn't look back. That was the only time I saw a batsman walk for an lbw.
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