Aleem Dar’s hat-trick: with the ICC Award for Best Umpire (from left) 2009, 2010, and 2011 © Getty Images
Aleem Dar’s hat-trick: with the ICC Award for Best Umpire (from left) 2009, 2010, and 2011 © Getty Images

Aleem Dar, born June 6, 1968, is easily the greatest umpire produced by Pakistan. In a land where the quality of umpiring had necessitated Imran Khan to insist on neutral umpires, Aleem Dar remains an aberration who rose through the ranks to emerge as the most respected umpire in international cricket. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at an incredible journey.

Chester-le-Street, 2016. England came into the second Test one-up, aiming to seal the series with a Test in hand. They went through the usual ritual of toss. Alastair Cook opted to bat. And amidst reasonable cheering, Aleem Dar and S Ravi walked out.

The match followed a normal course. The first ‘event’ of sorts took place in the 39th over. Angelo Mathews rapped Joe Root on the pad. They appealed. Dar turned it down. Mathews pondered on it for a while before his hands formed the familiar T — and television umpire Rod Tucker was asked to intervene. Replays showed that it would have gone over the stumps.

The match went on till the 85th over when Nuwan Pradeep had an appeal against Jonny Bairstow. It seemed a close call, but once again Dar turned it down. The only way Bairstow would have survived was an inside edge, but there was not any… but the ball-tracker showed that the ball would have slid down leg.

Cook declared on 498 for 9 the second day. Sri Lanka were 6 down in no time. Then Moeen Ali slid one through, and there was an appeal amidst a puff of dust. Once again Dar turned it down. Once again they referred. The ball had planted a microscopic kiss on Rangana Herath’s boot — and would have missed the stumps.

Sri Lanka were bowled out for 101. Cook asked them to bat again. This time Chris Woakes bowled one that whooshed past Mathews’ bat, they appealed, and Dar gave him out. Mathews reviewed, but Hot Spot agreed with Dar.

Sri Lanka fought hard in the second innings. Dinesh Chandimal and Milinda Siriwardana were battling hard when Stuart Broad struck the former on the pad, and Dar said no. Hawkeye confirmed that the ball would have gone over middle stump.

The innings defeat was averted. Then James Anderson hit Herath on the pad. Dar ruled him out. By now they should have spotted the pattern, but they reviewed anyway: it would have hit leg, perhaps even leg-and-middle.

About half an hour later Dar was taken ill and had to leave the ground. Tucker took over. David Millns took his position in front of the screen. England won by 9 wickets.

How do we note down bowling figures? There were 10 reviews in the match, none of which was turned down. Six of them went to Dar; three others to Ravi; and even Tucker, in his brief stint, had one. Had the umpires been a bowling attack against the cricketers, these might have gone down as something on the lines of “Umpires rout cricketers 10-0, Dar takes 6”.

The first Test at Lord’s had lasted 162.4 overs, but there was another 2-0 haul for Dar. He was the designated television umpire in the third Test, which meant he finished the series with an 8-0 triumph.

Now, if that is not a whitewash, what is?

But then, there was little to be surprised by Dar’s performance — one that definitely deserves more than a passing mention.

Dar had shown what he was capable of in the 2011 World Cup. DRS was still a new concept at that point. At that stage the umpires were up against an uneven battle: while the entire world — couch critics included — had the benefit of criticising, cursing, making fun of them with the benefit of action replays and technology, all the umpires got was the real-time action under deafening noise in Indian stadium.

Dar emerged from the tournament with a 15-0 margin. How did he pull that off? He later told The Express Tribune: “I wasn’t competing with technology or letting it get to my head. I think when you let the use of technology affect you, it backfires and may even hamper your decision-making process. I never felt the extra pressure due to the DRS and gave the on-field decisions to the best of my ability.”

But then, even the spotless World Cup show was not a surprise. Ashes fans would have spotted his prowess in the Brisbane Test of the 2010-11 Ashes, where he did an impeccable job in an intense, high-profile contest.

 

That more or less sounds like what champion cricketers do — or claim to do — whenever they take field. It was no surprise that he would win the ICC Umpire of the Year.

Dar’s award came as no surprise. It was, in fact, a hat-trick for him, for he had won it in 2009 and 2010 as well. Simon Taufel had won the award five times in a row since the inception of the award in 2004. Dar clinched it on the next three occasions.

How good is Dar?

Given the amount of data, it is difficult to measure how good an umpire is. Don Bradman and his contemporaries swore by Frank Chester. How does one compare Chester to a modern-day giant like, say, Taufel, given that very few have witnessed both in action?

The task is arduous. Scorers rarely noted down umpiring errors (how would they, given that there was no action replay?). Newspaper reports sometimes mention them, but questions of bias arise, as well as the obvious question: how did the journalist understand from an elevated press-box that the decision was erroneous?

The only way seems to be ICC Awards, but that applies only to contemporary umpires. The current jury consists of the 10 contemporary Test captains, 18 officials, and 28 others that include former cricketers and correspondents. Fair enough.

Dar has also been on the ICC Elite Panel since 2004 (the third year since the inception of the panel), and has stayed on despite the axing of several men — once again, by a group of officials of repute.

This also means that superior umpires stay longer on the panel, and hence get to stand in most matches.

Dar has gone past Rudi Koertzen’s tally of 108 Tests. The only man ahead of him is Steve Bucknor — his mentor and idol — with 128. In ODIs he is at third spot, behind Koertzen and Billy Bowden. And he leads the T20I list. One must remember here that Bucknor had made his international debut in 1989, Kortzen in 1992, Bowden in 2000, and Dar in 2003.

And despite being a late starter, Dar has also officiated in most international matches across formats. This excludes matches which he was appointed television umpire.

No, there is no evidence to conclude that Dar is one of the all-time greats. However, we can safely say that Dar is one of the two greatest umpires of the 21st century, the other being obviously Taufel.

Playing the optometrist: Aleem Dar inspects Ricky Ponting’s eyes © Getty Images
Playing the optometrist: Aleem Dar inspects Ricky Ponting’s eyes © Getty Images

The challenges

How difficult is umpiring these days? Let us have a checklist:

Laws change more often than they have at any point of time in history. Think Powerplay overs and the continuously changing laws around it. Think the Supersub and its discontinuation. Think the abolition of the concept of the runner. Think the penalties for no-ball. These may not sound much, but collectively they add to a lot to a man who get a split second to shift his concentration from the bowler’s boot to the batsman.

T20s came into vogue when Dar was peaking (remember, he has stood in more T20 Internationals than anyone else). Think franchise-based T20, where blaring music and cheerleaders and ground jockeys and raucous cheers and jeers. It is almost impossible for umpires to keep their calm and take their decisions (put yourself in their shoes), more so given that nobody typically remembers correct decisions but everyone pinpoints errors. Add the antics of several cricketers to that…

There is also the concept of DRS. There is no doubt that technology has helped decision-taking, but it has also reduced umpires to helplessness. In these days of power-hitting, few remember a bowler being hit for three consecutive sixes, but Moeen challenging Kumar Dharmasena thrice and getting it right every time within a short span became the subject of internet memes.

Remember, if a player makes an error his teammates come to his rescue. That is not the case for umpires, who are out there all by themselves. The era of five-Test series is gone, as is the concept of two umpires standing together for a long time.

Add to that the travel across time zones. You may have to stand in Tests in India and West Indies in consecutive weeks. Fitness, stamina, sustained levels of concentration, the ability to switch between Tests, ODIs, and T20 cricket — they all count.

Umpires have come up with their own methods to tackle these problems. Taufel, for example, had a regime as rigorous as most cricketers. Dar works out, plays table tennis, and makes it a point to sleep eight hours a day, as he told The Telegraph (Kolkata). He also plays club cricket while still being an ICC Elite Panel umpire.

Sample this. On a rank turner at Mumbai in 2004-05, Australia, chasing 107, were famously bowled out for 93. It was a difficult match for Dar and Koertzen with the ball jumping up at awkward angle to hit bat or pad or both and flying at awkward angles over three days.

Two days later Dar played for Police B against Police A at Mumbai Cricket Club. He scored 82 with 6 fours and 7 sixes.

No, quitting cricket was out of the question.

Further challenges

No, Pakistan has never earned reputation for producing quality umpires. Let us do a quick detour of the past.

The attitude and supposedly ‘biased’ decisions of Idrees Baig (who also used variants of both names — Idris, Beg, and Begh) went down so poorly with a touring MCC side of 1955-56 that the touring cricketers actually abducted him and poured a bucketful of water over his head.

The tour continued following apologies. There was an inquiry. But things simmered down. There are two things worth a mention here. First, the New Zealand team that toured the year before had actually lauded Baig. And secondly, Abdul Hafeez Kardar, Pakistan’s first Test captain, suggested neutral umpires at this point.

The altercations between Shakoor Rana and Mike Gatting are too well-documented, especially after the entire episode showed up on YouTube. Khizer Hayat was not the most popular name among non-Pakistani cricketers, either.

Imran Khan knew, of course. Before the Rana incident, Imran made sure there were neutral umpires for the Lahore Test of Pakistan’s 1986-87 home series against West Indies: Piloo Reporter and VK Ramaswamy came from India. Three seasons later, for the series against India, Imran invited John Hampshire and John Holder for the home series against India.

By 1992 ICC made one neutral umpire a Test mandatory. Unfortunately, even that did not help the cause of Pakistan umpires. Javed Akhtar’s performance in the 1999 Headingley Test between England and South Africa was so ordinary that Ali Bacher brought allegations of match-fixing against him.

And in later days, Dar’s contemporary Asad Rauf got banned by BCCI under corruption charges. In other words, Dar did not have much to look up to.

Early days

Years before he became a legend, Aleem Dar used to bowl spin and bat in Pakistan domestic cricket. Like many dreamy-eyed boys of the generation, Dar wanted to play for Pakistan. Unfortunately, he learned quickly that he would not make the cut.

Of course, there was promise. Dar showed up at the trials at Islamia College, Lahore. Imran picked him as the first-choice batsman (the bowler of choice was one Wasim Akram). However, there was still not enough for him to remain motivated over a sustained period of time.

Born in a middle-class family in the relatively obscure Jhang (in Punjab), Dar moved with his family quite a bit, for his father was an attorney in the police service. He never got formal training, but he was talented enough to earn repute in college cricket when he did a BA in humanities from Islamia.

He played 17 First-Class matches across eight seasons that fetched him 11 wickets at 34. He was not a batsman either, for his average was under 12. It was actually surprising that he played so many matches, given the quality of cricket in Pakistan on either side of 1990. The List A career was not much to write home about either.

He played office cricket, mostly for Income Tax Department in the BCCP Patron’s Trophy Grade II, and did rather well that level. However, there was little chance he would make it to the national side — especially as he was in the wrong side of the 25.

But he refused to give up cricket. As he told PakPassion in an interview, “I realised that perhaps it was too late to catch that train, but to break the romance with my passion for this game was not possible, so I made a life-changing decision: Instead of occupying the crease as a player, I contented myself with staying on the turf as an umpire.”

He started with club matches, which obviously did not pay enough. At one point he even came close to giving up on his dreams. Thankfully, his family and friends stood by him; and he continued his pursuit.

When he finally left Gujranwala, he told his parents that he would “become something big”; he had set out to “fulfil that promise,” as he later told Dawn. His eyes were set on becoming the best umpire in the world.

In 1996 PCB tried to form a batch of umpires out of First-Class cricketers. Dar responded (he was still playing). It helped that Majid Khan, then COO of PCB, encouraged him, as did PCB President Khalid Mehmood and Test cricketer Iqbal Qasim.

Dar graduated from club matches to First-Class cricket, officiating at that level for the first time in 1999. He was 31 at this stage. The fee he received on debut was, as he told Peter Oborne, roughly equivalent to $50.

In 2000 he got his first ODI, in a match against the touring Sri Lanka at Gujranwala; later that year he was appointed television umpire in the Rawalpindi Test against England; and he got his ‘Test hat’ at Lahore, in the New Zealand Test of 2002.

Dar later told Dawn that his ascent was a fortunate one: “I think I was extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to officiate in an international match with only a year’s experience. Even if a Test cricketer comes to this field, he requires at least five to six years to complete the procedure and officiate in an international match.”

Dar later told PakPassion about the role Bucknor had in his early days, hailing him as his “favourite international umpire” and “role model”. He added: “He was closely associated with me in the initial part of my international career, and lent me maximum support as a senior in the trade, and guided me in carrying out my assignments.”

The feeling remains mutual: in a later interview with Bipin Dani, Bucknor mentioned that Dar was “like his younger brother.”

The ascent was quick. Then came the 2003 World Cup.

Tragedy

The 2003 World Cup in South Africa was the first major event of Dar’s career. In fact, it was this tournament (once again, an error-free one) that established him as one of the finest in the world. He was inducted into the Elite Panel the year after.

He was almost decapitated as well when Sachin Tendulkar hit a booming straight-drive against Namibia at Pietermaritzburg. It would certainly have hit Dar on his head. Dar himself admitted that had he not had the reflexes of a regular cricketer, it might have been the end of him.

Unfortunately, not all was easy for Dar during this period. His personal life would come down with a crash. He had to leave his wife Noshaba Banu and daughter Javeria back home.

Javeria, born epileptic, was just over six months at this stage. The doctors had informed them that she would not live long. Unfortunately, she died while Dar was in South Africa.

At this stage Noshaba displayed immense fortitude: “To avoid distraction and to enable him to concentrate only on his job, we had decided not to tell him about Javeria’s death. We kept things under wraps,” she later told mid-day.

So Noshaba kept concealing the fact when Dar called home. When a group of Pakistani journalists eventually informed Dar, he was shocked. He called Noshaba immediately, asking her about the truth; her resilience finally gave way as she broke down into tears. Dar took the next flight home.


What Happened When the Daughter of Aleem Dar… by uk93526

Ascent and controversies

The four years that followed firmly established Dar as one of the world’s finest. David Shepherd and Srinivas Venkataraghavan retired. David Orchard, Russell Tiffin, and Asoka de Silva were removed from the elite panel. Darrell Hair was banned from officiating in matches involving full members after the 2006 Oval Test.

All of a sudden Dar found himself as one of the seniors on the panel alongside Taufel and Bowden and senior professionals Bucknor, Koertzen, and Daryl Harper. ICC got in Rauf, Mark Benson, Billy Doctrove, Steve Davis and Tony Hill to fill up the vacant slots.

Dar officiated in the 2007 World Cup final alongside Bucknor with Koertzen as third umpire, Bowden as reserve, and Jeff Crowe as match referee. The match was reduced to a 38-over contest. Adam Gilchrist famously reduced the Sri Lankans to pulp, taking Australia to 281 for 4.

The Sri Lankan chase lost steam after they lost wickets. The light faded out to the extent that the moon came out. Then Dar and Bucknor offered light to the not out batsmen Chaminda Vaas and Lasith Malinga, which they accepted. At that stage Sri Lanka needed 74 from 24 balls.

Under normal circumstances, Australia would have won the match under Duckworth-Lewis system. However, as per existing ICC rules, if play had to be stopped and there was a reserve day, the match would have to be continued the next day.

It was ridiculous, but all five officials agreed to stick to the rulebooks. Thankfully, the two captains (Ricky Ponting and Mahela Jayawardene) reached a consensus: Australia would use only spinners to bowl the remaining overs in the dark, while the batsmen would not go for big hits. Sri Lanka scored 7 for 1 in those 4 overs.

Australia lifted the trophy, but all was not well for the four umpires and Crowe: all five were banned from officiating in the inaugural World T20 later that year.

He was criticised for not noticing a massive edge by Broad off Ashton Agar in the 2013 Ashes.

He also took flak from the Bangladesh cricket fraternity after the 2015 World Cup quarter-final. Rohit Sharma hit a high full-toss from Rubel Hossain to deep square-leg. Dar called a no-ball for height, but replayed suggested otherwise. The Bangladesh fans and media slammed Dar, calling him responsible for their exit.

Never an easy task, player management: Aleem Dar deals with Ricky Ponting (left), Michael Clarke (centre), and Andrew Flintoff © Getty Images
Never an easy task, player management: Aleem Dar deals with Ricky Ponting (left), Michael Clarke (centre), and Andrew Flintoff © Getty Images

But these were minor blips in an otherwise exceptional career for a man as respected as anyone in the circuit in contemporary cricket. Amicable yet firm, soft-spoken yet, Dar’s demeanour makes him a popular man among cricketers.

His handling of Ponting in the Melbourne Test of the 2010-11 Ashes was exemplary. Ponting had an eight-minute heated argument with Dar and Hill after Dar (rightly) ruled Kevin Pietersen not out. Things took an ugly shape. “It confirmed the depth to which manners and behaviour had sunk in society as a whole — even cricketers were behaving madly,” wrote Chris Rumford. Amidst everything, Dar never lost his composure, calmed Ponting, and made sure the match went ahead without fuss.

The feeling is not restricted to cricketers, either. “Aleem is also a wonderfully dedicated family man and a caring individual. I have now forgiven him for beating me in a golf competition in Zimbabwe in 2005, and for the practical jokes that I had to endure for almost a decade on the road,” Harper, Dar’s colleague, told mid-day.

And he was duly honoured. As mentioned above, he did a hat-trick at the ICC Umpire of the Year. He could not hold back his emotions when he won it the first time. “I had tears in my eyes, I never thought I would reach this level,” he later confessed in an interview with Dawn.

In 2011 he was awarded the President’s Award for Pride of Performance, one of the highest awards in Pakistan.

Dar continues to lobby for higher payment for umpires from PCB to lure former Test cricketers to take up umpiring as a profession. Pakistan’s isolation from world cricket has led to an obvious lack of exposure for the umpires as well.

Few are doing as much for Pakistan cricket, too. “Due to my ICC commitments, I conduct very few local games, but I try to give chances to other Pakistani umpires to conduct international ones. A few upcoming umpires are in touch with me and I share my experience with them when I do get free of the ICC,” he told Oborne.

Aleem Dar Cricket Academy opened in 2013 with a specific purpose. The students, across genders, are all hearing-impaired, and are provided with free kits. He wants to expand it to a sports complex for them with speech therapy and language classes.

His sons Ali and Hassan found themselves in controversies in 2016. They had been convinced by Kilmarnock CC’s Vice-President Muhammad Saleem to play for them under pseudonyms, assuming identities of Glasgow-born Scottish nationals Umer and Saleh Mustafa.

Dar stood by his sons, insisting that his sons were hoodwinked into playing under false identities: “I do confirm that I, along with my wife, went to watch the game but it was a friendly game I thought. I went there to watch my sons and nephew Azeem, but I didn’t know that my sons were playing with different names,” he later told ESPNCricinfo.

Kilmarnock were duly relegated to the Second Division of the Western District Union.

In 2017 Dar was inspired by Hashim Amla to grow a beard (an imposing one, at that). Whether that is going to stay is already a matter of discussion among his fans as he goes from strength to strength…