Having played more than 50 first-class cricket matches, umpire Suresh Shastri recently adjudicated his 100th match

He made what he terms a “compulsory” debut. He was 16, leading his school in Mumbai, when he was asked to report at Birsingpur for playing in a Ranji Trophy match. Suresh Shastri had no idea where Birsingpur was. He had a colleague, Mahipendra Singh, who accompanied him on the train to Birsingpur in Madhya Pradesh.

“How we boarded the train, travelling sleeper class, was a story by itself. But the toughest part was to stay awake because the arrival time was close to midnight,” remembers Shastri. When the train halted, he heard his name being called by a gentleman on the platform. “I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears.” The man who had come to receive him was the captain of the team and India batsman Hanumant Singh.

“That gesture by Hanubhai remained ingrained in my mind. Such a senior player (of royal lineage) coming to receive a member who was not even a first-class player. I will never forget that cold night. We stayed in a dormitory with players taking turns to keep the logs burning,” recalls Shastri, who officiated in his 100th first-class match as an umpire when he stood in the Hyderabad-Kerala Ranji Trophy match at Uppal in Hyderabad recently.

The Mumbai-based Shastri, whose first-class career as a left-arm spinner lasted 53 matches in which he took 155 wickets and made 968 runs, had begun his umpiring vocation, in a bizarre co-incidence, in 1990 when Hyderabad met Kerala at the Gymkhana ground in Secunderabad. “I remember that game vividly. It’s been a long journey actually,” says the 58-year-old Shastri.

Having made his debut in the company of stalwarts like Salim Durani, Hanumant, Suryaveer Singh, Kailash Gattani and Parthasarthy Sharma, Shastri retired in 1987 but could not stay away from the game long. He returned as an umpire. He has since stood in two Tests, 19 ODIs, one T20 International and was part of the ICC Umpires Panel from 2006 to 2009. He has also officiated in South Africa as part of the Umpire Exchange Programme between the two Boards.

“I’ve been on the field for almost 40 years as a player and umpire. I dedicate my 100th first-class match to my brother (Devkumar). He passed away last year. He was the one to motivate me to play cricket. He also stood as an umpire in some local matches in Mumbai,” Shastri strikes an emotional note.

Self-analysis and criticism only makes an umpire grow, insists Shastri. “No one is perfect. I learnt because I struggled in my early stages. If you struggle early, you definitely learn. Also, you should be prepared to admit mistakes. There is no harm in revoking your decision. I have done it twice this year after having given the batsman out. You are good if you make the least number of mistakes.”

Veteran umpire S. K. Bansal assesses Shastri aptly. “I have followed his career both as a player and an umpire. I must say that he has come across as a most dedicated and devoted umpire. A very sincere man, he has succeeded because he has been a fearless umpire. Being a cricketer certainly helped him,” says Bansal, who stood in six Tests and 30 ODIs.

In Shastri’s opinion, patience is the most important element in an umpire’s growth. “We have some very good umpires and I’m sure they will make it to the Elite Panel some day. They need to be patient.”

But why was his debut “compulsory” at Birsingpur? “Well, we only had 11 players at the toss. Some players had managed to reach by train but others, who chose to drive, lost their way. So they had to play me,” Shastri can afford a hearty laugh. He has a century to his credit.