Steve Bucknor, born May 31, 1946, was the most experienced umpire in the ICC Elite Panel until his retirement in 2009. On his 67th birthday, Jaideep Vaidya looks back at the career of the Jamaican who was also a FIFA referee in a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles in 1988.
Steve Bucknor, all of six feet three inches, is standing towering behind the sticks at the non-striker’s end. The bowler and the fielders around the bat have just made the appeal, arms stretched in the air and eyes pleading for the famous nod. Bucknor, unperturbed by all the commotion around him, stares deadpan in the direction of the batsman, his bespectacled eyes revealing nothing. The wait is long and agonising, almost painful for the bowler. Elsewhere in the stands, you can even go and grab a chilled one from the counter, rest assured Bucknor’s decision is going to take a while. The proverbial hawks circle the sky above the batsman. Bucknor stares hard, the bowler pleads harder, while the batsman waits in dread, before eventually it’s all over within a matter of seconds. Bucknor gives a swift nod before nonchalantly, almost reluctantly, raising the finger of his right hand and mouths, “Out!” The dagger, which was dangling over the batsman’s head, finally comes down and pierces through his heart and the slow death is complete.
‘Slow Death’ Bucknor teased and terrorised cricketers in this manner for all of his 20 years as an international umpire, beginning his career in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1989. He was a high school mathematics teacher prior to it, which is where he perhaps got all his terrorising abilities. Bucknor was also a FIFA referee for a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles in 1988, before eventually switching to umpiring in cricket.
In an unprecedented career, Bucknor stood in 128 Test matches, which is more than any other international umpire. Only David Shepherd and Rudi Koertzen have been part of more One-Day Internationals (ODIs) than Bucknor’s 181, which includes as many as five consecutive World Cup finals. When Bucknor was awarded his first World Cup final in 1992, he had officiated just four Tests and a few more ODIs, obviously having done enough in those matches to prove his worth.
A true and dedicated student of his profession right until his retirement, Bucknor was always willing to learn from his mistakes. He used to analyse his performance after each game to check if and where he had gone wrong. “From time to time I look at replays and I see some mistakes, but then I look at others and I see my right decisions too,” he told the Independent. “It’s important for me to check them all, right or wrong, and confirm to myself why I made the decision.”
Later in his career, at a time when the technology boom barged into the world of umpiring and polarised opinion, Bucknor was one of the few white-coated officials who was pro-technology. While many of his colleagues lashed out at the Decision Review System (DRS), Bucknor said, “The review system could help the game a great deal. It can be of assistance in the case of a wrong decision being made and ultimately you can get more correct decisions in a game.”
However, Bucknor wanted to tweak it a bit and give the authority to the umpires, and not the players, to use it. “It is my opinion that it is the umpires on the field, they’re the ones who should be asking these questions,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “Not the batsman, not the bowler. We know when the decisions are tough and marginal. We just know. I believe we are the ones who should be going up there to say, ‘Third umpire, have a look at this, it is marginal.’
“In these games, when a team has used its two referrals, they have no more but the umpires still can make mistakes. These mistakes could be costly. Rather than having a team not capitalising on a fair decision because they have used all their referrals, I hope that later on it should be the umpires asking rather than the players.”
As one of the handful black umpires to have been a part of the game, Bucknor, even though highly respected all over the world, admitted to have been subjected to racist comments during his career. However, he did not let a few asinine remarks affect his work and simply moved on, helped by his childhood which wasn’t the rosiest. “I grew up tough,” he told the BBC. This [racist remarks] was just water under the bridge. You have to let it go.”
Raised by a single parent, Bucknor’s childhood was far away from the luxuries of the world. He had “one pair of shoes to go to school, to go to church, to go anywhere. Things were not very easy.” Growing up in the Caribbean, Bucknor was a natural athlete and “did a lot of running, jumping.” He even did some coaching before shifting to refereeing and umpiring, where he carved a niche for himself.
It is thus unfortunate that a glittering 20-year career was to end on a sour note. Bucknor got embroiled in one too many controversial decisions in his tenure, the majority of them being against India — who would become a cricketing powerhouse towards the end of his career. Iconic players such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid bore the brunt of Bucknor’s erroneous decisions and the frequency with which India were affected, a rift was bound to arise. Being one of the officials in the shambolic farce that was the 2007 World Cup final., where the two teams — Australia and Sri Lanka — were made to play in pitch darkness, did not help his reputation. And the final nail in the coffin came at Sydney in the Australian summer of 2007-08 when Andrew Symonds benefitted thrice from Bucknor’s generosity, while Dravid got caught at the wrong end once again.
Ravi Shastri remarked on television, “Umpire Bucknor has outlived his shelf life.” Even senior colleague Dickie Bird felt that “he had gone on too long.” Not only did Bucknor end up getting a negative report from Indian captain Anil Kumble, but the all powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) demanded his ouster from the next Test, and got their way. Bucknor was sacked by the International Cricket Council (ICC) from officiating the next Test at Perth. The then 61-year-old, although admitting he had erred, did not agree with the magnitude of the punishment. After his routine self-review after the match, Bucknor said, “I consider it a sad day to see umpires sidelined after making only two wrong decisions out of a record of 35 appeals… To err is human, to forgive divine, as the old saying goes.”
However, Bucknor did not go without taking pot-shots at the BCCI. “I have survived for a long time,” he said. “Had it not been for strong-willed people within the ICC I might have been out due to negative reactions from certain quarters. When you speak to a captain and he’s not happy you are reported. If his [national] association is strong enough they may believe that they should take action. Because they are more equal, they seem to have more say. And what they say, especially influenced by money, they seem to have their way.”
A year later, Bucknor stood in his last Test at Newlands, Capetown. As the two teams, South Africa and Australia, gave him a guard of honour, Bucknor knelt down on the ground and prayed. “I was giving thanks,” he said. “I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, you have taken me through, and it all seems to have gone well.’” Talking about his decision to retire, he said, “It was my time to go. I wanted to go before people were telling me it was time to go, while I could be sure in my mind I was still doing the job properly. It just feels right.”
Bucknor’s last cricket match was an ODI between West Indies and England at Bridgetown, Barbados, a week after the Capetown Test. He retired as the most experienced umpire in the ICC Elite Panel. As a testament to his character, he chose to volunteer to help young umpires in the Caribbean even after retirement. “I hope I will be accorded the opportunity by the West Indies board to work with young umpires in the region because I still would like to continue making a contribution,” he said. In October 2007, Bucknor was awarded the Order of Jamaica, Commander Class, for “outstanding services in the field of sports”.