Transcript: Couch Talk with John Holder, Former International Umpire

Couch Talk 116 (Play)

Guest: John Holder, Former International Umpire

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, John!

John Holder (JH)– Thank you. Thank you, Subash.

SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure.

Writing in The Guardian in the aftermath of the brouhaha over Stuart Broad not walking during the Ashes Test in Trentbridge, you had written that you had done the job for 27 years and you were pretty philosophical about it and In the end you had become quite cynical. Can you expand on that – what made you cynical towards the game?

JH– The reality is that there has for a long time been the perception that cricket is a gentleman’s game. The batsmen walk when they ‘nick the ball and are caught, and bowlers and fielders only appeal when they feel or are very certain that the batsman is out. Those days are long gone. That was gone even before I started umpiring in 1983. The reality is that, especially when there is big money, the pressure to win is greater than ever. Some players will cheat. Some players will claim catches which they know are not catches. Players and fielders will appeal because they want a wicket. As long as batsmen walking is a concern there, most players even at club level, where I have been umpire at for the last three years, a lot of players don’t walk. The attitude of most players is that the umpire is paid to do a job and let him do a job. Under the laws in cricket, a batsman is only out on appeal. Lots of players now, lots of batsmen play it that way.

What I find distasteful is that batsmen who after an umpire has made a decision that he may have made wrong, may have given the batsman not out and the batsman is quite happy to accept that and carry on batting, but he then gets what he thinks is a bad decision he is unhappy. One of my former umpire mate, John Hampshire – we were the first neutral umpires – he told me a story that after he left playing for Yorkshire, he played for Derbyshire for a few seasons before retirement. The former South African all-rounder Eddie Barlow was captain of Derbyshire. He told his players that he never walks, but if the fellow in the white coat put his finger up, whether it is a good decision or a bad decision, he left the field. He didn’t complain.

In life you can’t eat your cake and have it. You can’t say that the umpire should do the job and you shall leave it for him to do it and he makes some mistake in your favour and you are happy to accept it. Then, if he makes a mistake or what you see as a mistake, you complain. You can’t do that. You can’t eat your cake and have it. there is lack of honesty in the game. That is a double standard.

SJ– That is the underlining reason behind your cynicism about how the game is played?

JH– Absolutely. I can’t do anything about it, I can’t change their mindset.

SJ– Player dissent, you mentioned about what a player might think as a wrong decision and he remonstrates to the umpire in certain ways – looks back at the umpire, shakes his head. You have played and umpired over a long time. So, from your playing time, to your umpiring time to now, has it gotten much worse?

JH– Yes. I think a lot of pressure comes not only from more money but also from the coaches. There was a coach who was a first class umpire. He went and coached one of the English counties and he told his players that you must appeal. He is pressurising. Having been an umpire and having experienced the pressures of umpiring, all of a sudden, he leaves umpiring and becomes a coach and he wants to pressurize the umpire because he wants the results to go his way. The reality is that the coaches, without success, you got to know that there is every chance you will lose the job. The coaches encourage the players to appeal, because then you hope the decisions will go their way.

SJ– We have had several cases of excessive appealing. There has been one example of India being in South Africa, there was a charge laid against Indian team for excessive appealing and it became a major international incident. In your experience, as an umpire, does someone making a strong throated appeal, instead of a polite enquiry, sway the umpire’s mind in terms of giving it out or not out?

JH– It shouldn’t. But the main thing about it is that they are times in the middle, where you think the batsman is out but no one appeals, or just a plaintive appeal, a half hearted appeal. You would look like an absolute mug if you put your finger up. And, because of this little weak appeal, that is being unrealistic. Umpires will make decisions when there are good, strong appeals. As I said, you will look extremely stupid if you saw what you think was an LBW, and there was a half hearted enquiry rather than an appeal. That is human nature.

SJ– But then, isn’t that what leads to excessive appealing, trying to coax the umpire into making the decisions that you wouldn’t have otherwise made?

JH– No, I think it is often the desperation of the situation that will encourage the fielders to appeal excessively. It happens where they are desperate for wickets because of the situation of the game, and they feel that is the best way to get a decision their way. They appeal and they appeal and they appeal. Also, I maintain that the players watch umpires as much as umpires watch players. Players can tell umpires who are weak, who can be swayed by strong vociferous appeals and they will appeal accordingly. But, if as an umpire you feel that the appealing is excessive, it is potentially designed to intimidate you and your decision, you speak to the captain.

In my last year, I did a One Day game at Hove between Sussex and Surrey. I was standing at Square Leg, and the wicket keeper kept on appealing, “HOWWWW….HOWWWWWWWWW!” and I said, “Excuse me, just say ‘How is that?’ and that is the end of it. you don’t have to keep shouting.” I think he was quite surprised with what I said. That was a blatant case of a wicket keeper desperate to get a decision in their favour and kept on appealing and appealing and appealing. It was against the spirit of the game as well.

SJ– I want to talk about the DRS. But before that, you had made your opinions on it clear in saying that the players shouldn’t be the one initiating the review. Instead, if the umpire was in any doubt, he should ask for the help of the third umpire…

JH– Even last summer here, in 2013, even Brad Haddin said that, because there was an awful lot of controversy surrounding the use of the DRS last year. Haddin said that as far as he is concerned, and he is quite happy to allow the umpires to use the technology to make the decisions. But, I feel and I feel this strongly, that the whole idea of the players’ challenge is the drama of television as well. There is an appeal, the umpire has made a decision, then you get a huddle between the fielders and the two batsmen confer. There is a bit of drama. If the umpires are uncertain of what has happened, and if he was allowed to ask the third umpire, “can you tell me what happened?” I don’t think that is as dramatic as the challenge of the fielders or the batsmen at the wicket making the signal challenging the decision.

SJ– I am assuming that you are not in favour of the way the DRS is instituted the way it is right now and how it is carried out? Am I right?

JH– Correct.

SJ– You had mentioned that there is no concerns for the feelings of the umpire who has made the decision in good faith. The umpire has to standing the middle and  live with his decision, after being show on the television, on the big screen in the stadium, on the TV they are analysing the 27 different cameras and the ex-players who are commentators now are basically ridiculing the job of the umpire. And, you also mentioned that was the reason a former elite umpire quit the job. Can you illuminate further on that?

JH– No, I am not at liberty to make any further comment on the elite umpire who quit the job. But, I am not at all in favour of the DRS. I fully support the Indians. Cricket is the game played by human beings and the umpires who are officiating are human beings as well. i rest my case there.

SJ– You would rather have a situation where we go back to a time where we have no DRS, where we have two umpires on the field and that is pretty much it. whatever decisions they give, we live with it.

JH– Yes. Absolutely.  You want to train your umpires to be as good as they can be. The umpires have to have that desire to be as good, not just to be in the job earning big money. You are out there under the microscope, the scrutiny of millions of people, you have to do everything, do all you can to be as good as you can be – your physical fitness, knowledge of the game and concentration, etc. I would like to see the game go back to just people playing the game, umpires making decisions and getting on with the game.

SJ– We talked earlier about player dissent. Doesn’t DRS actually bring it down a little bit, because players have a recourse if they felt that they have been given out wrongly or not given correctly. Perhaps a mistake can be fixed, and then we can move on and there won’t be any raw feeling between the players and the umpires and so on and so forth? Don’t you see it from that point of view, that the DRS could be useful?

JH– I umpired 11 Test matches and I don’t remember any raw feelings and players being feeling hard done by. I am sure I made mistakes, but I don’t remember any instances of dissent. I gave Graham Thorpe LBW when I did my last Test match at Lord’s. I made a mistake in an Ashes Test there. In the England and innings, I gave Thorpe LBW. the ball had pitched outside the leg stump. I had given him out LBW. i got it wrong. There was no dissent whatsoever. One of the things about umpiring is man management, how you interact with players and I think if you have a good relationship with the players, and they respect you as umpires and it wasn’t as if it was a massive mistake that I got it wrong, players will accept it and get on with it. if as an umpire, you can get the respect of the players, they will accept your decisions.

But, I think the press, as the TV technology has improved, there are commentators who like to be controversial. One of the worst around the world, Bob Willis, who after seeing that the umpire has made a decision and then the expert commentator after seeing 3 or 4 replays, suddenly says “That was a shocking decision.” This is the kind of language that Willis quite often uses. “That was an awful decision.” That is controversial. Most decent commentators don’t talk like that. The commentators only know that the mistake is made because of the TV replays, the ultramotion replays. Yet, someone as professional as Richie Benaud would say that. Richie Benaud would never say that.  I have heard Benaud, I have been watching TV when there has been a replay that show when the umpire has got it wrong. Benaud said “Play it at normal speed and you make your judgment”, rather than the commentator going on and on and on berating the wrong decision.

SJ– We talked about going back to a time where you just have the umpires and be done with it, which is where I want to ask you about neutrality or the perception of neutrality. I had interviewed Simon Taufel, and he said that the perception of neutrality is very important, that the umpire adjudication is unbiased as well. That perception is very important.

JH– Look, I think that the perception is only a perception because other sports have a so called “neutral official”. The reality is that with the TV technology being as developed as it is, you are earning, let us say £ 200,000 an year, you cannot afford to go out there on the field making decisions based on bias, on likes or dislikes. You got to be as good as you can be. Because, if you can’t, you are going to lose the job. TV technology will show you as being incompetent, being dishonest, or bothAs an umpire, the most important thing to you is your reputation.  You should not be making decisions based on likes and dislikes. Umpiring is and should be about excellence. The thing about this perception of neutrality is just a perception and does not hold water. In the final analysis, umpiring is about competence, not about neutrality.

SJ– I was going to quote you from 2001, where you said “Umpiring is about competence and not about nationality.” In a funny turn of events, you and John Hampshire were the first two neutral umpires to stand in a Test match. Pakistan vs India, in Pakistan.

JH– Yes, we were the first neutral umpires. What happened is that prior to us doing that series, the Test series in in either country used to be very incredibly acrimonious. Imran (Khan), having talked with the Indian opposite numbers, they decided to have neutral umpires. For me, it is just a perception.

In the final analysis, the job is about competence. With the level of the quality of TV technology now, where every decision that you make is replayed, it is all about excellence and not about neutrality.


I want to ask you about the situation of match fixing and spot fixing, which right now is one of the biggest scourges of international as well as domestic cricket. Last year, with the IPL, when the spot-fixing scandal broke, there were allegations of Pakistani umpire Asad Rauf and in the year before that there were umpires caught in an Indian TV sting and the umpires were from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. You had mentioned last year in an interview with Jonathan Agnew on BBC Test Match Special that you were approached in 1993 in Sharjah, am I correct?

JH– Yes.

SJ– What was the situation surrounding it? you had mentioned that someone approached you with an offer of £ 10,000 to make sure that there is a partnership of certain amount of runs, 85 runs, I suppose.

JH– Yes.

SJ– Was that the only time that you have been approached by anyone like that?

JH– Yes. Absolutely. That was the one and only time.

SJ– Have you heard of other umpires being approached?

JH– Yes. The former South African umpire Cyril Mitchley said that he was approached once and he was offered $ 100,000 to make sure Pakistan won a Test match against Australia. At that stage, there was this international panel. There wasn’t this Elite Panel. He said that it was a Test match in Lahore. He went on the field before play was due to start and there is pre-match inspection like you do. as he walked off the field, someone approached him and told him that there is $ 100,000 USD if Pakistan won the Test match. Knowing Cyril,  his response would have been pretty cryptic. It would have been very short, and to the point. The second word would probably be “off”. That was it.

I have absolutely no doubt, especially of how things are, that other umpires have been approached. I can see that. I am certain that umpires have been approached, because the umpires actually control the match. The umpires’ decision making can influence the game massively one way or the other. I don’t know if other umpires have been approached and haven’t said anything. I didn’t say anything for quite a long time, in fact.

SJ– But, you had mentioned that you had reported to the ICC at that time.

JH– Not at that time, because at that time there was no ICC as it is now. When I worked for the ICC briefly for about 3 years, it was then that I mentioned to one of their anti-corruption men. I called and told him the name of the chap who approached me. I have never heard about it since then.

SJ– Are you aware of any safeguards that are put in place for the modern day umpire to be protected from this?

JH– You can’t protect anyone for 24 hours a day. All you can do, whether umpires or players, a lot of it is about education, a lot of it is about having pride in yourself. Because, the reality with this match fixing thing is that people think that there is easy money. There is no such thing as easy money. Once you get into it, you are into a spider’s web. There is every chance that you are going to get found out. I think it likely because people like (Hansie) Cronje and (Mohammad) Azharuddin , they never thought they were going to get caught. Salman Butt and others at Lord’s 3 and a half years back, they never thought they will get caught out. They thought it was just easy money. There is no such thing. And what happens to you is that your reputation, all that you worked hard to achieve in the game is forgotten and you are remembered as being a cheat. If you can live with that, you will get involved in match fixing. If you can live with looking over your shoulder constantly, waiting for the phone to ring for someone to tell you to jump and you got to ask him how high, if you can live it like that, then you get involved in match fixing. I couldn’t live like that, so I just told him to get lost.

SJ– There was a 10 year gap in your international umpiring career. You umpired for a match between England and West Indies in 1991 at The Oval and then there was again a 10 year gap and you umpired in 2001. From a recent interview that you did with Roland Butcher, of University of West Indies, the former player as well, you had mentioned about submitting a match report after that England – West Indies Test match that there was ball tampering going on. You think you not being an umpire in international Test matches was direct result of you alleging ball tampering?

JH– I didn’t allege. I said it plainly that it happened, because I saw it and I reported it. i have no doubt whatsoever that my omission from the Test panel after that Test match – because I had a very good Test match – it was no doubt because I had reported the English players for ball tampering. I put it on the report. What was disappointing for me that after it became public, and it became public because I had been to Pakistan in 1989 and had developed a good rapport with the Pakistanis and they had come here in 1992 for the 1992 series. I had a good Test match at The Oval and the press was quite surprised when the Test panel was announced for the 1992 season, that I wasn’t on it, that I had been dropped from it.

They started to do some digging. The former Warwickshire fast-medium bowler, Jack Bannister, who was actually commentating on BBC when it happened – the incident happened on a Saturday morning – he did some digging and he found out about the ball tampering that I had reported. He wrote a book called “Jack In The Box”. In it, he mentioned this incident where I got dropped from the Test panel and the surprise that I caused among them in the media. His book was previewed before the start of the 1992 series against Pakistan. A sports writer from the Express, Colin Beartman, did a preview of his book which came out before the international season before it started. In it he made a reference to the ball tampering incident and when it became public, the bosses at Lord’s were livid. One of them actually came out, for the board, and made a statement to the effect that there was never any ball tampering and that wasn’t reported. That is a massive lie.

What actually happened on the Saturday morning, with the West Indies batting – this is about 20 minutes before lunch – they were struggling. They had lost a couple of wickets in their first innings facing a pretty big England total. I was at the Vauxhall end and I saw a player walking with his back to me with his elbows working sort of together. I thought that was a curious way of polishing the ball, because he had the ball he was to be shining. A couple of overs later, I saw that this things persisted. A couple of overs later, after the last ball from my end – Dave Lawrence was bowling from my end, and I asked “Can I have the ball, please?” And, one side of the ball had a dozen big bulge marks, like a player has been using thumbnails. It wasn’t just marks, there were big bulge marks about an inch or inch and a half long. When I looked at the ball, I swore under my breadth because i knew that we had a problem. I went to my colleague, Merv Kitchen who was a square leg. I asked Merv “What do you think of this ball?” He straightaway said that it has been scratched.

I called England captain, Gooch and showed him the  ball and said, “Captain, one of your players is tampering the ball. This is illegal, and it must stop right now.” I regret since then, not changing the ball at that time. i didn’t want to cause too much embarrassment. I just thought I would say something. It stopped, because for the rest of the game, I would inspect the ball and the tampering had stopped. I regret now not changing the ball once my colleague had confirmed that the ball had been tampered with. We should have applied the law and we should change the ball. But the law was a bit wishy-washy, it said that you can change it for one with similar condition. All that would happen is that you scratch that and you change it. there was no penalty at that time. the laws are different now, there is a penalty now.  At that time, it was a combination of that, plus you don’t want to cause too much of an embarrassment. So, I thought that I would say to the captain that this has to stop, this is illegal. I regret doing that. We agreed that the ball has been tampered with, and we should have changed it for an old ball, then the whole world would have seen what had happened. It meant that the board would not have been able to deny that the ball has been tampered with because there was my report as well, which I submitted on the incident and on the match report. The top column at that time was related to the ball to the breaches of the laws and the regulations and on that column, I wrote that on the Saturday morning the England players had tampered with the ball.

SJ– Now, you have that report that you submitted. When the board official came out and said, responding to the Colin Beartman’s book review that nothing of that sort happened. and, on top of it you were dropped from the Test panel. Why didn’t you pursue with this further, because they were messing with your livelihood?

JH– I hadn’t signed a contract to just umpire Test cricket. So, I had no right to umpire Test cricket. It was up to every year, it was up to the authorities at Lord’s to appoint from the first class umpires on the panel to make a decision on who they were going to pick for umpiring Test cricket. No one had a right to umpire Test cricket.

SJ– Fair enough. but still, it  is basically the board officials saying that none of the thing of that sort happened goes completely counter to the actual turn of events. So, why did you not try to set it straight?

JH– It is my word against theirs.

SJ– You have a match report as well, and you had a discussion with captain Graham Gooch as well on the field.

JH– The match report is confidential and it went to the board. I have no idea where the report went. I have no doubt that it was  a report possibly for the England captain on my performance in that Test match that got me dropped from the Test panel. Just like Darrel hair got penalised for doing his ojb properly at The Oval a few years back, that is just a repeat of what happened to me. I think the ICC and the media and their hunger… Darrel Hair did his job properly, and what was wrong about it? on that day at The Oval, two umpires made a decision. Darrel Hair and Billy Doctrove were right from the outset. it was like Billy Doctrove didn’t exist and it was all Darrel Hair. He got the sack. It was exactly what happened to me a few years back.

SJ– That is extremely unfortunate.

I’ve had you here for quite a bit now. I will let you go. One thing that I want to know is, your relationship with Sachin Tendulkar.  You were the umpire when he was making his debut against Pakistan in Karachi. And, you were the umpire by whom he hit his straight drive to get his hundred, his first Test hundred at Old Trafford in 1990. Your experience of dealing with him? I also read that you also gave him some cricketing advice when he made his debut.

JH– That debut Test match at Karachi, the pitch was one of the greenest pitches I have ever come across. That was seriously bowler friendly pitch. That was designed for Waqar (Younis) who was making his debut as well, who bowled with the speed of light – he was quicker than Wasim (Akram) or Imran. It was tailor made for the Pakistani seamers. Sachin making his debut, he had scored loads and loads of runs in the Ranji Trophy. All of a sudden he came against three world class bowlers on a pitch which was tailor made for seam bowlers. He was like a fish out of water. And this ball was whizzing past the nostrils off a length and climbing. He thrashed it around. I think he got around 40 in his first innings, clearly out of his den, this is completely new to him. I was at the far end at Karachi, up the hill. When India came to fielding, I was at square leg and he was standing next to me. I just said to him, I realised he was a youngster there, I said to him, “You are playing against the best bowlers in the Test match level now. If you want to score runs, you had to be a little bit more circumspect. Take your time.” But, I think it was the essence of the occasion, the conditions. He was out of his depth.

SJ– That was 1989. Then you see him again at Old Trafford, where he scores a 100 against England. What are your memories from that Test match of his batting and the difference from the kid that you saw in Karachi vs the kid that you saw in Manchester?

JH– It was like an year later, but he had gone from being a kid to an adult. He had a maturity. He looked completely at ease on the international scene. He batted superbly. I think the run that got him his 100th was an off drive for 4. I was at the bowler’s end at what was at the time at Manchester before they turned the square around, He off drove somebody for 4 and massive celebrations. Sachin, during the time that I have umpired him in India and at Old Trafford has just been a very lovely young man. I hadn’t seen him for a few years, and then there the Tsunami game at Lord’s in 2005. He came to raise funds for Tsunami victims. Darrel Hair and I umpired it. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years and he was to captain one side while (Shane) Warne captained the other. I had to go into his dressing room, to his team. He received me so warmly. “John, it is so nice to see you.” And I hadn’t seen him for a number of years. He is just a very lovely young man.

SJ– On that wonderful note, John, you are a great person as well. Thank you for taking this time talking to me.

JH– Subash, it has been my pleasure. All the very best.

SJ– Thank you so much!


Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman