The word ‘superstition’ entered the conversation seamlessly. Simon Taufel, the former Australia umpire was narrating a life-changing incident to Harbhajan Singh during the latter’s book launch ‘Finding the Gaps’ in New Delhi. Like most cricketers, Taufel, too had a superstition. Whenever he was on duty, he would never change his bus seats. On March 1, 2009 — in Lahore to officiate the second Pakistan-Sri Lanka Test match — he decided to take an exception to his superstition, when he found fourth umpire Ahsan Raza perched on his designated spot.
Moments later, terrorists sprayed bullets that killed the bus driver and injured Raza. “There were a lot of things that were happening. The vehicle we were travelling in was shot at and killed our driver. One bullet razed past Raza’s shoulder, and the other was lodged in his stomach. To imagine that if I had not taken an exception to my superstition that day, I would have had to cop that bullet. I remember sitting in that vehicle holding onto Peter’s (Manuel) arms, not knowing what to make of the situation,” Taufel recounted.
Harbhajan, like the rest, was in rapt attention, and fired a question: “How did you find courage to walk back on the cricket field again?” Taufel paused for a moment before responding: “It’s interesting that you asked me this because two weeks later, after spending time with my family, I was travelling to New Zealand, which back then I thought was great because it would still be closer to my home. But the important thing for me was to debrief, unpack and share that incident to as many people as possible. I realized that trying to suppress or withdraw would not help me move forward.”
Despite Taufel’s best efforts to move on, the after-effects from that heart-wrenching incident would persist. During a flight to Sydney, the five-time recipient of Best Umpire Award, had barely settled into his business-class seat, when the attendant came up to him to offer her support. This brought back horrific memories of the Lahore tragedy. As the plane roared up the runway for takeoff, Taufel remembers holding the pillow on his face and bursting into tears.
What makes the Aussie unique, according to Harbhajan, is his ability to do things differently. “He was the only umpire I remember who used to wear spikes onto the cricket field. When I asked him the reason, he told me that if I wore spikes, chances are that I would not slip and fall. In turn, it helped me keep focus on everything that was happening on the field,” he recounts.
Terming umpiring as a thankless profession, Harbhajan says it’s a job that requires skill and tremendous concentration. “With so much technology around, everyone thinks they can be a good umpire. Out in the middle, you only have a split second to make that decision and it’s really tough. As players, we are allowed to play one bad shot or bowl one bad delivery and still get away with it. But imagine these guys. One bad decision can change the outcome of the match.”
Taufel admits his years in the international arena have taught him a fundamental lesson: the grim acceptance that umpires are human, far-from-perfect creatures and prone to mistakes. This realization helped him swallow some of the several howlers he had committed during his 12-year career. “When I began as an umpire at grade cricket in Australia as a 20-year-old, I thought that I would never make a mistake. One of the great things about being young is that you can feel indestructible and that nothing is too hard or impossible,” he points out.
With time, however, these opinions changed In his debut Test — Australia-West Indies Boxing Day Test match at MCG in 2000 — he admits he made two mistakes. Four years later, England-New Zealand Test at Trent Bridge was probably his worst by all accounts. His error-count in that match was six by the time the match wound up on Day 4. “My standards were so high that anything less than perfect was unacceptable. The cameras don’t lie. Suddenly, the youthful concept of confidence and bravado was blown away with a feeling of helplessness,” he explains.
Taufel would overcome this despair by adopting a more prosaic, yet an effective ball-by-ball approach. Another remarkable trait he managed to imbibe was the ability to desensitize himself from the game. “There are so many of my own little challenges I have to look into that I really didn’t care if a batsman was approaching a personal landmark or found time to appreciate if someone played a great shot.”
He was also blessed with a keen sixth-sense, what he describes as “gut-feeling” that helped him get some of the most difficult decisions spot on. “The India-Pakistan ODI game in Karachi in 2004 was probably the noisiest venues I had ever officiated in. I don’t remember the Indian spinner who had elicited a faint edge from Inzamam-ul-Haq There was no way anyone would have heard anything in that stadium. But my gut instinct told me that there was an edge and I went by it. I stood vindicated as replays later suggested there was a deviation,” he recounts.
For Taufel, one of his biggest takeaways as an international umpire, was his ability to forge long-standing bonds with vastly contrasting personalities ranging from a Steve Bucknor, David Shepherd to a Billy Bowden and Steve Davis. “The relationships I have forged with these guys is something I will always treasure. I saw Shepherd as my mentor. During the 2004 India-Pakistan Test match in Multan that both of us officiated together, I remember doing warm-ups after the first day’s play and David would be sitting in the dressing room having my ice-cream,” he says with a chuckle.
Spending two consecutive Christmases alone in distant Durban and the constant yearning to be with family — wife Helen and kids Harry, Jack and Sophie — hastened Taufel’s retirement. His last international outing was the 2012 World T20 final between Sri Lanka and West Indies. For the audience assembled in the national capital, this was a nostalgic trip back into the 90s and noughties, with a timely reminder that even seven years after Taufel’s retirement, his popularity in India is still undiminished.
The discussion ends with lines from ‘Finding the Gaps’ that aptly sum up the affable 48-year-old.“Don’t try to be perfect, you’ll only disappoint yourself. Don’t expect others to be perfect, they will only fall short of your expectations. Strive for excellence every day and celebrate little wins and achievements of progress along the way.
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