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Rex Whitehead – A tale of four eventful Tests

Rex Whitehead officiated in four Test matches in the early 1980s.
Rex Whitehead officiated in four Test matches in the early 1980s.

Rex Whitehead, who passed away on June 26, stood as umpire in just four Tests but they were as eventful as can be. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the umpiring career of the man forever associated with Sunil Gavaskar’s infamous walk-out at Melbourne in 1981

Rex Whitehead, who passed away from a massive stroke on June 26, stood as umpire in just four Tests. But, those four Tests seemed to have been handpicked by cricketing gods with a predilection for the dramatic.

The Victorian, born in 1948, started with the Sydney Test of January 1981. Greg Chappell hammered the Indian bowling for a supreme double hundred and Len Pascoe struck Sandeep Patil on his head. In the second Test at Adelaide, Patil roared back to score a fascinating 174, but the Indians ended up on the wrong end of quite a few close decisions. In the end, Karsan Ghavri and Shivlal Yadav negotiated the bowling for 31 minutes to hang on to a draw with two second innings wickets remaining.

And then came the third Test, the thriller at Melbourne that dubiously etched Whitehead’s name in history.

In spite of a delectable hundred by Gundappa Viswanath, India found themselves trailing by 182 runs in the first innings. In the second Sunil Gavaskar, off form and in the middle of his driest century-less spell in Test cricket, batted steadily with Chetan Chauhan to put on 165 runs.

Dennis Lillee ran in, Australia desperate for a wicket. The ball jagged back towards the middle stump and struck Gavaskar on the pad in front of the wicket. Was there an edge? There was no technology to verify conclusively. Whitehead did not think so. His finger went up. Lillee rejoiced and Gavaskar was devastated.

The Indian captain gestured that he had hit it. Whitehead’s colleague at square leg, Mel Johnson, later said that there was definitely no edge. However, Gavaskar was clearly unhappy. Lillee, in a fascinating gesture of helpfulness, went up to the batsman and pointed out precisely where the ball had struck his pad. As he reluctantly walked off, Gavaskar’s pique suddenly seemed to have been touched off with an inflamed matchstick. The legendary batsman said that it was triggered by a racist comment by the Australian fielders, but there is no real evidence of this. He gestured towards Chauhan, and with his captain’s prerogative beckoned him to follow him on the way back to the pavilion.

It was unprecedented. Wisden called it a dreadful scene, a bizarre incident that brought controversy over the umpiring to a head.

On the field Greg Chappell wondered what would follow. Johnson informed him that according the rules, the Indians would forfeit the match. Whitehead, according to his colleague, was not really keen to watch a Test match ending this way.

As the departing Indian captain was subjected to jeers across the ground, the disaster was averted by the quick action of team manager Wing Commander Shahid Ali Khan Durrani. Known to be a strict disciplinarian, Durrani rushed out and asked Chauhan to go back to the middle. He then gently patted the new batsman Dilip Vengsarkar on the back to send him on his way.

Later,in his manager’s report, Durrani did not mince his words: “This particular act of Gavaskar and more so as captain of the Indian team is deplorable, to say the least. Irrespective of any circumstances it was not correct to have behaved in the manner in which Gavaskar did.” He also recommended that the Board should ask the Indian skipper for an explanation.

It was fortunate that the manager managed to get the action back on track, because Kapil Dev bowled India to a famous 59-run victory as they defended a target of just 143.

Whitehead’s last Test match was even more dramatic and again there was a whiff of controversy attached to his decision making. Australia met England at Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test of 1982-83, and the visitors clinched the match by a wafer thin margin of three runs after Allan Border and Jeff Thomson had added 70 for the last wicket. It was a juggled catch at the slip, parried by Chris Tavare and grasped by Geoff Miller, which ended the glorious game.

However, in this match, Whitehead raised his finger to declare David Gower caught behind. It looked out and fellow umpire Peter McConnell later remarked, “At home, I said yep, that’s out, bang. Then they showed it from the camera behind the wicketkeeper and he missed it by a mile. But Rex wasn’t standing behind the wicketkeeper and I felt so sorry for him.”

Robin Bailhache had already quit without notice that very season. He had felt dehumanised at having his screw-ups rehashed frame by frame whereas he could adjudicate only real time. Rex Whitehead followed suit. He stood in just two more One Day Internationals in January 1983 before calling it a day. In all, he umpired four men’s Test matches, 14 ODIs and a women’s Test between Australia and New Zealand. Television replays had claimed their first victims.

In spite of his bloomers, however,Whitehead’s colleagues maintained that he was an excellent umpire and a great bloke to boot.

On June 26, Rex Whitehead suffered a massive stroke and did not recover. He was 65.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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