Darrell Hair: One of the most high-handed and controversial umpires in the history of cricket

Darrell Hair © Getty Images

Darrell Hair, born September 30, 1952, was one of the most controversial umpires the world has ever seen, who left a blazing trail of unsavoury firsts in the history of the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who brought about the first Test match awarded by forfeiture.

The autocratic decision maker

Dickie Bird was a pretty useful umpire in his days. When England and Australia faced each other in the final of the 1987 World Cup, the Aussies were prepared to overturn the new rule on neutral umpires to have Bird officiating from one end. Such was the esteem with which the Yorkshireman was regarded in the cricket world.

Down the line, he penned quite a lot of his experiences in delightful books, full of wit, wisdom and warmth. They bore quaint titles  — That’s Out, White Caps and Bails, From the Pavilion End and later simply My Autobiography, or chuckling about his own advancing years with 80 not out.

Frank Chester, the first legend among umpires, named his autobiography How’s That in celebration of his profession.

Rudi Koertzen played on the tantalising moments he created for batsmen by calling his memoirs Slow Death.

The other great umpire David Shepherd gave his book the simple unpretentious name Shep. And Piloo Reporter stuck to the basic facts of his life with An Umpire Remembers.

However, when one looks at the chronicles penned by Darrell Hair, one comes across titles far more self-important and overbearing. The first one is called The Decision Maker. And that is perhaps what distinguishes this officious Australian umpire from the rest of his colleagues.

While many adhere strictly to the ancient adage that the best umpire should be inconspicuous, others, such as Dickie Bird and Billy Bowden choose to regale the crowds with antics that are hilarious but never quite interfere with the action in the middle.

Hair however, as the name of his book suggests, saw himself as an authority figure out in the middle, empowered to decide fortunes of cricket and the cricketers. He believed in his interpretations of rules as well as the extent of his jurisdiction, and many felt his views were distorted on both counts.

After a large part of the cricket world, the administrators, media and public especially from the subcontinent, had cast severe disapproving looks at his high-handed supervision and had virtually forced him into retirement, Hair came up with his second book. It was called In the Best Interests of the Game  — another title that seems to underline his self-satisfied arrogance. However, there is a deliberate attempt in several sections of this book to negate the dictatorial demeanour and come across as the average Joe.

But, it really does not sound convincing. Hair was never too comfortable with being the average, inconspicuous man. He had to make his presence felt, even if it meant creating turmoil and the most unsavoury gashes in the history of the game. And the hornet’s nests that he stirred were not always uniformly and unbiasedly distributed across geography and skin tones.
The first foray into controversy

Born in Mudgee, New South Wales, Hair started work as a clerk in the NSW railways. Transferred to Sydney he played as a fast bowler for North Sydney and Mosman, enthusiastic but limited in potential and results. He later confessed that the beaches and beer gardens were too inviting for him to concentrate fully on the game.

It was at 33 that his knees could no longer carry his bulk around in competitive games. He took up umpiring “to keep in touch with the game.” However, down the years, his point of view perhaps underwent a radical change. He himself ended up touching the game rather crudely, violating some of the more sensitive parts.

Hair passed his umpiring examination in 1985 and made his debut as a First-Class umpire in 1988. According to his second book, with its visible attempt to portray his human side, Hair says that his success as an umpire owed a lot to a sympathetic employer as well as an understanding partner, and his rapid rise to Test level was a result of luck. There was also not too much money in the job.

He graduated to the highest level in 1992, standing in the fourth Test between India and Australia at Adelaide. And almost immediately he started making waves of the murky kind. According to Wisden, the Adelaide game was “marred… by controversy over lbw decisions  — eight times Indians were given out, while all but two of their own appeals were rejected.” Hair played a leading role in controversial leg-before decisions, and managed to find a major mention in the papers on four of the five days.

On his very first day in office, Indian wicketkeeper Chandrakant Pandit was incensed when an LBW shout against Merv Hughes was turned down. He exchanged a few words with the debutant umpire and was warned by Hair’s colleague at square-leg, Peter McConnell.

On the second morning, Hair booked Hughes for breaching the new rule that permitted one short ball per over. The bowler at the other end, Craig McDermott, gave vent to his feelings by saying, “It’s a terrible rule.” By the end of the day, Ranbir Singh Mahendra, the manager of India, remarked: “We have nothing to say about the umpiring. You saw the television replays.” To be fair to Hair, the most obnoxious decision on this day  — an LBW shout against David Boon turned down when the ball would have crashed into the middle of the middle stump  — was made by McConnell.

On the following day, even a mild-natured pace bowler like Javagal Srinath could not control his emotions when Hair ruled Mark Taylor not out after a thick edge had been taken behind the wicket. A few moments later, the Indian fast bowler banged a ball short and hit the Australian southpaw on the jaw. Late in the day, Allan Border survived another supremely confident leg-before shout.

And on the final day, as Mohammad Azharuddin led India’s gallant chase of 372, four Indian batsmen were declared leg-before. Hair’s finger accounted for three of them, and when Dilip Vengsarkar stood with a disbelieving expression on his face, the commentator’s voice rang out, “If that was not outside the line of off-stump when it hit him, I am a Dutchman.” It was not Steven Lubbers behind the microphone or any of his compatriots. During the last moments of the Test, as Manoj Prabhakar fought a brave fight from the lower-order, Hair’s finger went up one final time, from what many reckon was a big inside edge.

Test cricket turns backyard game

Having started with a bang, it was much the same story for Hair down the years. Only, with time, the bangs were not that muffled by the heavy baggage of politeness that the Indian team of 1992 had dragged along from the past. And like a maturing showman, Hair chose the spotlight and delivered his performances without a hitch.

To be fair, it was not only a story of prejudice. There were moments of genuine incompetency as well.

A year after his debut, Hair stood in the most thrilling of Tests, between Australia and West Indies, once again at Adelaide. And with the hosts needing two runs to win, the fascinating Test match ended in an umpiring howler. A short ball from Courtney Walsh, pitched on the off-stump, lifted sharply to brush McDermott’s hand on its way through to Junior Murray. There was some sort of noise and Hair upheld the appeal. The conditions were somewhat difficult, with the noisy crowd singing Waltzing Matilda, but it was a tragedy that a great Test match would end in this way. The error managed to extend the West Indian record of not losing a series from 1979-80 for another couple of years.

Towards the end of 1993, Hair stood in a Test between Australia and New Zealand at Hobart. Westerly winds blew across the ground at 78 km per hour and sent the bails tumbling on the ground. After a while, Hair, along with colleague Bill Sheahan, took the unusual decision of removing the bails and letting the match continue. For the last hour and a bit of the second day, the Test match resembled a backyard game.

Without bails, whenever the ball passed close to the stumps, including bowled and run-out decisions, involved adjudication by the umpire after ensuring whether the ball had really hit the wicket. The glorious uncertainty of the ball hitting the stumps yet the bail not falling off was totally removed from the equation. New Zealand opener Blair Pocock did not relish the circumstances at all.

While Hair had earlier experienced a similar removal of the bails in a match at Sydney, this was the first time something of this sort took place in a Test match. “We persevered as long as we could but in the end it got ridiculous so we took them off,” he justified. This would not be the first time that Test cricket would experience something new while Hair called the shots.

In early January 1994, Hair returned to Adelaide, standing in the third and final Test match between Australia and South Africa, with the hosts trailing 0-1. From the umpiring point of view, the match followed more or less the same pattern as his debut encounter. The leg-before decisions were skewed 7-1 against the South Africans.

Peter Kirsten had an animated conversation with Hair after three of his team-mates had been given out LBW, and was fined 25 per cent of his match fee. Finally, when he himself was given out for 79, he lost his cool yet again. The outburst cost him a further 40 per cent of his match fee. Although indirectly, Hair was thus instrumental in yet another first in Test cricket — the same player found guilty of breaching the ICC Code of Conduct twice in the same match.

Darrell Hair: One of the most high-handed and controversial umpires in the history of cricket

Umpire Darrell Hair (right) signals a no-ball to Muttiah Muralitharan during the second Test between Australia and Sri Lanka held at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1995 © Getty Images

Hair and Murali

However, all these incidents were mere rehearsals for what was to come. It was on Boxing Day 1995 that Hair’s infamy spread across the Indian Ocean, from Canberra to Colombo.

On the first day of the second Test between Australia and Sri Lanka at Melbourne, Hair no-balled Muttiah Muralitharan seven times in three overs for throwing. Interestingly, all the while he stood at the bowler’s end. Historically, and due to the practical problems of having to watch the bowler’s arm and foot at the same time, calls for chucking had been carried out by the square-leg umpires. Steve Dunne, the New Zealand umpire standing at square-leg, had no problems with Murali’s action. He did not call Murali even when the off-spinner was brought on from his end. In fact, later Dunne pointed out that the rules stipulated that any suspect action would have to be reported to the match referee rather than being called immediately. It was the ICC who had to rule a bowler’s action legitimate or otherwise.

However, as always, Hair was convinced that he was the decision maker. He refused to back down. Sri Lankan captain Arjuna Ranatunga bristled at the calls and took his team off the ground. It was fortunate that the side returned after a short interval, otherwise the Oval fiasco of 2006 could have been hastened forward by more than a decade.

In 1998, Hair mentioned in his first autobiography that he had received death threats for calling Murali. He went on to describe Murali’s action as ‘diabolical’ — and this resulted in his being pulled up by the ICC for bringing the game into disrepute.

Hair’s evaluation was in direct contrast with the assessment of Sir Don Bradman who watched from the stands on that day and said that it was the “worst example of umpiring that [he had] witnessed, and against everything the game stands for. Clearly Murali does not throw the ball.”

The action of the Lankan icon was later declared legitimate after studies were carried out at Hong Kong, England and Western Australia. The results gave birth to the immortal, although somewhat uncouth, one liner: “Hair or no Hair, Murali’s balls are clean.”

Yet, in his second autobiography Hair remains adamant. “I can safely say, 15 or 16 years on, there’s not been one person I’ve met in person who has come up to me and said, ‘You got that wrong, he doesn’t throw’. Quite the reverse, everyone has been very supportive and, ‘Yep, he’s a chucker.’”

In The Decision Maker, Hair also stated that he was disappointed with the lack of support from match referee Graham Dowling and the then ACB Chief Executive Graham Halbish. He added that he did not believe that Muralitharan straightened his arm all the time, rubbishing the findings that Muralitharan had a permanently bent arm, which he could not straighten. Hair called these inferences “laughable”. Here, it seemed, was a man who not only believed that the umpire’s decision was final, but who thought his authority extended into the realms of biomechanics as well.

In another part of the book, Hair revealed that he had also reported Sri Lankan slow bowlers Kumara Dharmasena and Ruwan Kalpage, but did not want to no-ball them on the field because he did not want to “sour Australia’s simmering relations with Sri Lanka” on the eve of the World Cup. True, one has to admire his nerves. One might be sceptical about his umpiring and suspicious of his attitude towards players belonging to the subcontinent. But his self-righteousness cannot be questioned.

However, to be fair, the Sri Lankans were not the only ones to suffer. Grant Flower of Zimbabwe was also pulled up for throwing. Hair also questioned the action of Ian Hewett of Victoria.
The Indians feel the heat

A few months after the Murali incident, in the summer of 1996, Hair stood in the first Test between India and England at Birmingham and turned down a number of supremely confident appeals against Nasser Hussain, the eventual centurion. India lost in spite of a brilliant 122 by Sachin Tendulkar and the team did not really sign up in the Darrel Hair fan club.

Inderjit Singh Bindra, then the supremo of Indian cricket, accused the Australian umpire of incompetence and racial bias and slammed his status as an international umpire as ’a disgrace’.

“Quite frankly, Hair is an incompetent umpire whose continuation on the international panel is a disgrace. He must be taken off. Besides the incompetence bit, Hair’s umpiring against Sri Lanka and our team actually smacks of racial bias,” Bindra told The Telegraph. He also said that he would take steps to make ICC remove Hair from the world panel.

Hair and Steve Randall were the Australian representatives in the international panel of umpires.  And ICC stood by their man. Hair’s turbulent spell at the top continued.

In 1998, the Sri Lankan board asked ICC to suspend Hair for bringing the game into disrepute. He had to stand down from the tri-series involving England, Australia and Sri Lanka as the Lankans refused to participate if he was one of the umpires in the tournament. In reaction, Hair threatened to sue the Sri Lankan board president for ‘smear campaign’.

A year later, in 1999, he got involved in an altercation with Indian coach Kapil Dev. It was triggered when Ajit Agarkar exuded disappointment at a decision and Hair reacted in his usual manner by taking him to task.

The following year, he called Grant Flower for throwing at Bulawayo in the Test against New Zealand.
Ruffling too many feathers

Finally, in 2002, Hair was omitted from the ICC elite umpires panel.

But the joy was short-lived for the cricket world. In 2003, he did get in when the panel was expanded. The very same year, the South Africans were upset with some of the decisions he gave against them during the series in Pakistan.

In 2004, he experienced another first. Hair became the pioneering umpire to inform ICC about his absolute refusal to officiate in a particular country. The nation chosen for this stroke of luck was Zimbabwe.

In the winter of 2005, Hair made another fundamental error in umpiring basics when England toured Pakistan. He referred a run-out decision to the third umpire even as Inzamam-ul-Haq took evasive action to avoid a return throw. In the same Test, he warned Salman Butt for running down the middle of the pitch, sent him back to the striker’s end and gave him out leg-before the very next ball. And during the same series, he reported Shahid Afridi for scuffing up the pitch with his spikes.

That year was perhaps his trial run with the Pakistanis. Soon the team was going to be a significant part of Hair’s biggest bombshell on the cricket world.
The Oval fiasco

The Pakistanis were far from happy when Hair was appointed umpire for the third and fourth Tests during the England tour of 2006. At Headingley in the third Test, it did not help matters when he refused to give Kevin Pietersen out to a definite edge off Shahid Nazir. The batsman went on to score 135.

And then came the fateful fourth Test at The Oval. On the fourth day, after 56 overs had been bowled in England’s second innings, it was discovered that the ball had gone out of shape.

And as Trevor Jesty, the fourth umpire, ran in with the set of replacement balls, the batsmen — Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood were given the privilege of choosing the cherry. It was an indication the ball had been doctored by the fielding side. And then umpire Hair, with a great sense of occasion and history, slowly tapped his left shoulder with his right hand. Five penalty runs were awarded to England. Pakistan had been charged with cheating, and they had neither been warned nor given an opportunity to defend themselves. Neither had Hair thought about the consequences. He had remained Darrell Hair, the man empowered by almost divine right to turn a cricket match into a farce, all due to some personal whims.

Play continued, and Inzamam, shocked and rather confused, seemed to have moved on. And then the players retired when bad light stopped play at 3:47 PM.

Darrell Hair: One of the most high-handed and controversial umpires in the history of cricket

Darrell Hair (left) speaks to England cricketer Paul Collingwood (center) on Day Four of The Oval Test in 2006 © Getty Images

With the light having improved, the umpires, Billy Doctrove and Hair, took the field after an hour. The not-out batsmen Collingwood and Ian Bell appeared on the balcony. However, the Pakistan team did not emerge from the dressing room. Manager Zaheer Abbas was seen talking urgently on his cell phone.

At 4:55 PM, the umpires emerged on the field with the batsmen. Darrell Hair now reached the pinnacle of his controversy ridden career by uprooting the stumps. It signalled the first forfeiture of a Test match in the history of the game.

After another half an hour of heated discussion behind the closed doors of the dressing room, Inzamam and the other Pakistan players came out to take the field. But, the umpires did not join them. The spectators kept waiting without a clue. At 6:13 PM, they heard that play had been called off for the day. It was four hours later that it was announced that the match had been awarded to England.

The two boards, both teams and the referee, Mike Procter, had wanted to resume next morning, but Hair and Doctrove had objected.

The joint statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and ICC said, “In accordance with the laws of cricket it was noted that the umpires had correctly deemed that Pakistan had forfeited the match and awarded the Test to England.” However, the incredible result created a stormy furore across the cricket world.

Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer reacted saying: “The team is upset that they have been accused of tampering with the ball and therefore ‘cheating’. It is a no-win situation as now Darrell Hair has refused to umpire.”

Imran Khan did not mince words when he wrote, “Hair is one of those characters when he wears the white umpire’s coat, he metamorphoses into a mini Hitler.”

And it was not only the Pakistanis who were disgusted. Britain’s The Sun reported: “An 18-stone Aussie called Darrell Hair trampled his feet all over the name of cricket with an astonishing display of pig-headedness.”

And Geoff Boycott wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “Pakistan regard Hair as an officious umpire and they don’t like his style of man-management. It should have been obvious to the ICC that appointing him to this series created a situation like a volcano waiting to erupt.”

And Hair’s old foe Ranatunga observed, “Hair is a misfit in today’s cricket because he acts in a high-handed manner whenever he officiates.”

Till this day, Hair remains unapologetic. He says, “All the excuses came out. That the scratches were caused when Kevin Pietersen hit the ball over the boundary. But he didn’t. ‘There was only one boundary scored and that was a mishit that dribbled over the rope.”

A month later, Inzamam was acquitted of the ball tampering charge, but received a ban from four One-Day Internationals (ODIs) for bringing the game to disrepute. At a press conference after the hearing it was announced that Hair would not be umpiring at the 2006 ICC Champions Trophy because of security concerns. However, with growing pressure from all quarters, even ICC was moved to act and Hair was finally banned from officiating in international matches following a two-day meeting of the ICC.

Ranatunga welcomed the decision, saying, “Hair had a prejudice against Asian teams. I am happy that he is finally out.” Most of the voices from the subcontinent echoed the same thoughts.

And yet, Hair was voted the Umpire of the Season in a poll carried out by The Wisden Cricketer. We can perhaps discredit the poll since notoriety implies popularity, and that in turn guarantees favourable public opinion through the power of recall. However, it was surprising to note, as stated in the leaked reports in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Hair received an excellent rating from the ICC immediately before the Oval Test. The ICC report ranked Hair as second best in the world.

Three months after his suspension, Hair announced that he was suing ICC and the PCB on grounds of racial discrimination. His line of argument was that his West Indian colleague Billy Doctrove, his fellow umpire in The Oval Test, had been allowed to continue while he had been banned. PCB Chairman Dr Nasim Ashraf reacted saying, “It is crass for him to say a black West Indian was let off [whereas] he was a white man and therefore he was charged. Mr Hair was removed because of his bad umpiring and poor judgement.”

However, in October 2007, Hair dropped his discrimination case. The ICC declared that he would undergo a development programme over the next six months, understandably with the goal of placing him back into top level matches. Hair was back in the Elite Umpiring Panel in March 2008. However, it smacked of a face-saving move carried out on mutual agreement. Hair stood in only two more matches, between England and New Zealand. On August 22, 2008, he resigned from the ICC in order to take up a coaching role.

In 2009, Hair was honoured for his contribution to the game by being made a life member of Cricket New South Wales.

However, it will perhaps take considerably longer before a similar honour is bestowed on him by any of the nations of the sub-continent, or in South Africa — or pretty much anywhere he has raised his finger.

In photos: Darrell Hair’s career

(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://twiter.com/senantix)