Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI: He commands the best seat in the stadium; and knows how to enjoy his cricket, having played the game at the first class level. For Suresh Shastri, former left-arm spinner and current international umpire, it has been a wonderful year of officiating.

He stopped playing in 1986 and soon took to umpiring. “I couldn’t stay away from the cricket field,” was his honest submission. Seven years later, he strode to the middle with K. Parthasarathy as fellow umpire and took the first step towards realizing his goal to become a competent umpire.

As a player he had often seen decisions going against him, umpires erring in making judgment. Shastri, TV umpire for the recent India-Pakistan Test at the Ferozeshah Kotla, understands it well. “It is human to make mistakes but the best umpire is one who makes the least mistakes. I try to learn from my mistakes and that has helped me improve from the time I first stood in a first-class match in 1991,” said Shastri. He was in the first batch of players-turned-umpires with S. Venkataraghavan, an illustrious member of that elite group.

When he made his international debut as an umpire in the match against Zimbabwe at Pune in 1993, Shastri knew the task was going to be tough. “Those days we would get just one match in one year,” he remembered. From 1993 to 1998, he stood in a mere four matches. Since last November, when he returned to the international panel, Shastri has officiated in 15 one-dayers and two Tests.

Umpiring is a challenge and Shastri has learnt to live with the pressures. “You can’t imagine the decibel of the noise when you stand in the middle. It is very difficult to concentrate,” he confesses. But his ‘pranayam’ helps Shastri bear the pressure and his good work on the field has earned him respect from the players, with Sachin Tendulkar leading the list.

Mental strength

Umpiring, like playing, is mental. “You have to be fit, healthy and mentally very strong. The agility has to be top quality. You hardly get a second to check the foot of the bowler and follow the line of the ball. One has to be at his best all the time. There are 16 to 20 cameras at various angles keeping an eye if you err. It is a nice feeling when someone praises you (on the field or in the media). It used to be a thankless job once but it is good to know that appreciation is coming from various quarters these days for good umpiring. There is an incentive to win the best umpire award too now.”

Shastri is a man of few words. He can be tough when a bowler asks why his appeal does not find favour with the umpire.

“I answer but it depends on how the question has been asked. If it is a request, I explain after the over. If the bowler tries to be smart, I too snap and tell him to come at the end of the day’s play. But nothing is ever personal.”

The 52-year-old Shastri takes good decisions and bad decisions in his stride. “You must introspect but not to the point where you get depressed or carried away, depending upon the decision.”

On his job, he just smiles and concludes. “It is the most demanding vocation. An umpire is giving a decision every ball of the match. Even when I don’t call a no-ball, it is a decision.”

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