After officiating in his 500th international match, ICC Chief Match Referee talks about his life in the game, how the role of the match officials have evolved and his hopes for the future
In an exclusive interview with www.icc-cricket.com, the former Sri Lanka captain, who recently became the first member of the Emirates Elite Panel of ICC Match Referees to reach the 150-Test mark, talks about his life in the game, how the role of the match officials have evolved and his hopes for the future.
Q: How were you first selected as a Match Referee?
A: In the early 1990’s there was no professional structure in place. Every Board had to nominate two referees and I was nominated by the Sri Lanka Cricket. Back then all (match official) appointments were made on an ad-hoc basis by the ICC. We’re light years away from that nowadays.
Q: What was the role of the match referees in its formative years?
A: The big issue at that time was discipline. Therefore, bringing a high standard of discipline back to the game was the focus. Initially, I must admit that I was apprehensive about taking the position because it was a role that wasn’t as clearly defined as it is now. But I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and see it evolve to what it is now.
Q: How often were your appointments back in the early days?
A: Appointments back then were few and far between. I officiated my first game in end 1993 and my next one wasn’t for another two years in 1995 I think! I was in full-time employment in those days so, if I had work then I wasn’t available to travel. So, it was a case of working around holidays and taking annual leave. By 1997, the structure around umpiring / refereeing had become more concrete and it is then that the ICC under Malcolm Speed, the then CEO, started working on a professional structure for the match referees to be employed full time by the ICC rather than nominations from the Home Boards etc.
Q: Why did you choose refereeing having worked in the corporate sector for many years?
A: I had been seconded for service to South Africa by the company I worked for. Almost at the same time I was offered the opportunity to officiate in an Ashes series in ’1997. At that point, I thought that this is something I would love to do full-time, if the opportunity was to present itself in the future. I feel very fortunate to have gained a lot of experience in the corporate world and my company understood how passionate I was about the game, having played at an international level and my continued involvement in terms of being a national selector for five years. Initially, I took two months leave from work, but when I returned my mind was made up. It was a tough decision (to resign) as I was moving from a settled life of safety and security into the unknown. I had worked there for a long time - 18 years - but in life you have to take a chance and follow your heart. Looking back I can say and safely use the cliché, “I have had no regrets!”
Q: What is the primary role of the Match Referee?
A: Specifically, the role of the Match Referee is to ensure the game is played according to the Laws, the Standard Playing Conditions and in the spirit it is intended to be played.
Q: How has the role changed over the years?
A: In the early years there were teething problems. I remember being appointed to a game in Pakistan and there was no area for us to work, so I was given a seat under a stairway to work - for five days! The ground officials weren’t at fault though, they just weren’t told that there would be a match referee working, so, I had to ask for a seat and just went about my work. It was quite a funny incident. You look back and laugh at the memory, but it’s unrecognisable from where the game is now.
The role is broader nowadays as it has evolved from a disciplinary role to more of a management role. The Match Referee is the ICC’s on-site representative and you look at lots of different aspects of the event apart from the Laws, Playing Conditions and discipline to areas such as operations, assessment of facilities, working alongside the host team, dealing with potential safety issues, assessing umpires, report writing, etc. Over time the umpires and the referee became the Playing Control Team and have become the third team in any international match. It took a long time to get there and we pride ourselves on that.
Cricket is a game I love. I have looked at officiating as a challenge obviously, because it can be quite intense and highly pressured, but I have always tried to approach the game through the eyes of a cricket lover. That way one can see the game the way it should be seen, so, that you can enjoy the skills of players, the evolving technicalities/adaptations, the plots and sub-plots within the game, etc. This way you view the game in a holistic way than through the narrow eyes of officialdom. We are there to see to the smooth running of the game. Nothing has changed in terms of my approach or philosophy then to now.
Q: How has technology helped / enhanced the role of the Match Referee?
A: Technology in its widest sense has been a major plus for the game of cricket. As a player in the 1970’s and 80’s, the only means by which you could assess your game was by working off limited coverage of matches here and there or by speaking to your teammates. I wish I had some of the analysis equipment that is available to players now; working out things such as bat speed, head and body positioning, decision-making etc.
Umpires and match officials have adapted and taken the technologies provided to assist in decision-making on board and I believe that technology has shown how challenging a job umpires have under intense televised scrutiny and, in fact, how well the umpires perform this demanding and exacting role. In my mind, it is possibly the hardest officiating job in sport as the umpires have to adjudicate on many variables before arriving at a decision.
Cricket is a very technical game and I believe that the game has also benefited from the media coverage which it gets because commentators take a lot of time to explain the nuances of the game.
One of the biggest areas of improvement is in terms of transparency. In the past umpires might have been nearly afraid to admit a mistake. Nowadays there is a very robust assessment process assisted by technology which has helped umpires, players and coaches make the game that much better.
Q: In your 21 years, having also been a Sri Lanka captain, do you feel that the relationship between players and match officials has changed?
A: In the past there was great respect between players and officials and amongst players, but as in any sphere of life these relationships have had its ups and downs. There have been flashpoints across the game over the years. When that happens its officials who have to make decisions without fear or favour for the greater benefit of the game. Having said that all the stakeholders have a duty to present the game in good light. It is just not one group’s responsibility alone. That is an important message.
Q: What are your interests outside of the game?
A: When a match is over I try to switch off from the game and I don’t have great difficulty in doing that. I try not to dwell on things in my down time. I read a lot, watch a lot of sport and try to attend as many sporting occasions as I can. I think that cricket has led the way in lots of areas, but you can always learn a lot from other sports. I like sports like golf, rugby union and tennis – sports who work well within codes – and how some leading players conduct themselves. I admire Roger Federer in tennis for what he has done on and off the court over so many years.
I watch sport to enjoy it, but sometimes I admit to wearing my match referee’s hat when you see a forward pass in rugby or how Hawkeye is used in tennis to overrule a line call! You might try, but you can’t completely switch off!
Q: How much time do you spend away from your family?
A: There is a lot of travelling involved. You could be away for weeks and months on end. On an average I spend a minimum of six months away from home. It can be difficult at times, but I think you’ll find that applies for anybody who travels as part of their job. My wife Kumi and daughters Annesha and Dhanya have always been incredibly supportive and we discussed the positives and the negatives of my job as a family. This is the life we have and the time we spend together is very special, especially as our eldest daughter has spent time studying in the USA and our youngest has just moved there to continue her studies as well.
Q: How do you balance your family life?
A: We have an empty nest at the moment, with the girls away pursuing their education, but technology has definitely helped us stay in regular communication. The one major downside to the job is being away from your loved ones, but that’s the same for many families I’m sure. It’s a part of the job and we have tried to adapt as well as we can to that challenge. We’re fortunate that we have a strong network of support, between family and friends in Sri Lanka which has definitely helped us over the years.
Q: Hopes for the future?
A: My main hope is that every stakeholder will hand the game over in better shape than they received it; and this includes officials, players, coaches, management, administrators, the media, broadcasters, sponsors and, of course, the followers and spectators of this marvelous game. If each of us takes that responsibility on board then the future of the game will be bright.