Umpire’s call : A story beyond cricket

“Everyone I knew was glued to the TV, or their phones

They had been waiting for this day for over three months.

I was going to be on TV during on one of the most awaited events of the year. For more than 3 hours, I would be seen with some of the biggest sports stars in the world.

But nobody would be watching me. They may see me but I would be swiftly ignored like I never existed. I was used to that for a while now.

After all, nobody pays attention to the Umpires during a cricket match.

Everyone blames us for our mistakes, but otherwise we don’t exist

Everyone in my hometown everyone would be glued to watch Akram Khan. The stadium would be filled with posters that screamed “My name is Khan”. This 21-year-old Akram Khan who lived less than 100 miles away from my childhood home had taken the cricket world by storm after being picked up for a $1M by one of the biggest franchises during this year’s IPL auctions.

He had not yet played for our state Ranji team. He had been spotted by a “Talent scout”. One of these scouts had watched Akram during one of the practice games between my district and our neighboring district. Then within a few weeks, his name had appeared as one of the players in the IPL auction.

Over the past few years some of the biggest names in world cricket had featured in these auctions and had been “bought” by the franchises for many crores of rupees (millions of dollars)

But something strange had started happening over the past year or so. Unknown players were also getting bought by franchises for a lot of money.

It was magical and illogical at the same time. In a matter of a few minutes anyone could become a multi “crorepati” in the IPL auction. Till these IPL auctions, the quickest way to become a crorepati for a common man was to win the Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) TV game show.

At least in KBC, you had to answer so many difficult questions, but in this auction, the players didn’t have to do anything.

I had seen in many English movies where they would auction old antique items to foreigners who had gathered from all over the world. There, the item being auctioned would be shown to everywhere present in the room.

But here, none of the players were present in the room.

This was the first IPL where they would show this auction process LIVE on TV!

A few minutes into the auction, came the moment that changed everything.

Akram’s name was called. The bidding started at $30,000. Then someone said $50,000, then another raised it to $75,000, then $100,000.

It was happening so fast, all in a matter of seconds.

How did these businessmen arrive at these numbers?

What could explain this?

No one knew.

Everyone in that auction room knew just one thing or rather had heard just one thing. That Akram can bowl consistently at 150 km/hour.

Then suddenly we heard a number that just stunned everyone.

$1 Million.

One franchise had bid $1M for Akram.

In a country obsessed with money and education, Akram Khan, a school dropout, became a Millionaire in 97 seconds.

If you had asked at that moment, how many zeroes are there in $1M or its equivalent of 7 crore rupees, I couldn’t tell you nor could most people in my hometown. But they all knew what 7 crores rupees can buy. It could buy the biggest house, not just in my town but possibly anywhere in the district and the state. You would still have enough money left to buy a foreign car and many Indian cars just to give the foreign car some company in the garage of the big house.

The next week Akram Khan came back home in a chartered flight sponsored by the richest man in India. Akram Khan had arrived and become the latest megastar of Indian cricket.

My hometown had burst crackers for a full week.

They were not celebrating an achievement like winning a World Cup.

They were celebrating a “7 crores”- a number beyond dreams.

10 years ago, when I was selected to the state’s cricket team, my hometown had celebrated. I was the first person from my district to play for the state cricket team.

But nobody knew how much I was being paid. The thought of how much money I would make never crossed my mind. I never asked anyone about it and frankly I didn’t know how to even bring up this question.

I knew that getting selected to play Ranji cricket guaranteed me a State govt job as part of the Sports Quote. That was enough for me and my family. A state government job was enough to have a good life.

But the pride of having played for your state was a big deal. Some Ranji players also got to play for India.

But I didn’t have such big dreams. No one I knew had ever played for India. Less than five people from our state had been selected to play for India. They had put up the photos of these people all over town when they had been selected. But none of them had really made a mark on the international stage. But we didn’t mind that. Just wearing that jersey that said “India’ was such a big honor. It was beyond words. I had seen one of these players during a special function in our town. We had touched that player’s feet when he had come to our cricket ground as a Guest, accompanied by the local Cricket Association President who was also the MLA from our district.

I had a photo of the group photo we had with the former Indian cricketer. He told us about speaking to the legends of Indian cricket and sharing the dressing room. I hadn’t slept for a few nights after that meeting

Akram had experienced none of this but in less than two minutes he made more money than probably the entire state team’s lifetime earnings.

It seemed like he was an Alien or a God or a Devil amongst us. Somebody who didn’t abide by the rules that had been around for many years. For Akram, the world and the game of cricket had decided to change its rules and shower him with everything that entire generations of cricketer and their families pray for.

In that same auction, I saw many famous Indian cricketers and players from other countries going “unsold”.

These “unsold” players had scored centuries and had won many matches for India or their respective countries. But in this auction, they hadn’t been picked up by any franchise for even their “Base” price.

How would they be feeling? They had worked so hard and had done everything right to be playing for their country. But in this auction, they had some weird logic in their heads and that calculation loved Akram.

Akram hadn’t bowled a single ball in international cricket and yet he was making more money than many bowlers who were currently in the Indian team.

Back to the cricket match.

Akram’s team captain won the toss and elected to bowl.

Everyone knew that Akram would open the bowling.

This was also MY debut IPL game, but nobody other than my parents and some close friends were aware of that.

I walked to the field feeling more nervous than my Ranji debut.

I quietly took my position at the bowlers’ end.

Akram walked up to me to give his sunglasses and cap to hold. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t know my name or that we belonged to the same district or that I had also watched him become a Millionaire LIVE, a few months back.

After checking with the batsmen on the other end, I said “Let’s play”.

It felt like the entire stadium and everyone on the field was waiting for this moment: to see an Indian bowler bowl at 150 km/hour to one of the most dangerous batsmen in the world.

As soon as he started his run up the crowd start shouting “Akram….Akram”

The words stung my heart instantly as though they were mocking me, and laughing at my petty jealousy.

I checked for the no-ball and in a flash the batsmen had missed the in swinger and the ball crashed into his pads.

Akram and his entire team turned me towards me in unison as they shouted “Howzaat!” with their arms up in the air, praying for this miracle.

I replayed that ball in my head 2–3 times . It was very close. I knew they would appeal my decision if I didn’t give him out, because Akram would be creating a world record of getting a wicket with his first ball in the IPL.

In that moment, I decided that I would NOT give him that pleasure.

He is NOT a God to get everything HE wants, I said quietly to drown out my conscience that didn’t agree with my actions.

So, after what seemed like a eternity to Akram, his team and for the billions watching on TV, I shouted back — “NOT OUT”!

With his hands still on his hips and his face and entire body crestfallen, Akram just stared in disbelief and then straightaway looked at his skipper who reviewed it immediately. As soon as he made the “T” sign with his hands for a DRS review , I knew it would be very close.

I asked Akram to hand me the ball, while we waited for the decision from the Third Umpire. This time he made eye contact, and I stared right back.

On the big screen at the stadium, they showed the replay with the projected trajectory of the ball. The ball was very narrowly going to clip the top part of the bails. In such cases, the decision is said to be an “Umpire’s call”. The Umpire gets to decide if it’s Out or not out because the ball tracking system cannot predict with certainty whether the ball would have hit the bails.

The Third Umpire announced on air “You can stay with your original decision of NOT OUT”.

The crowd booed the decision and me, very loudly.

I handed the ball back to Akram and he began the long walk back to his bowling position. As I saw him walk back, I wondered-had I taken away his dream? Had I really stooped so low?

Would someone know, I did it on purpose. I knew no one would have questioned me, if I had given the batsmen out. Had it been any other bowler I would have definitely given the batsmen OUT and the decision would have still been upheld as Umpire’s call.

Akram ended the over wicketless and conceded 16 runs in the over.

At the end of the over, as he took back his sunglasses and cap, Akram looked at me, and said

“Bahut close tha na Sir” (“Wasn't it very close, Sir”)

My lips smiled but my eyes didn’t as I handed back his belongings that felt heavier than when I had taken them a few minutes earlier.

“All the best” is all I could manage to say in response and made my long walk to the leg umpire position for the next over, with a heavy heart.

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Trying to write 200 words a day, everyday. Exploring ideas that are entertaining and socially relevant.

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Abhijit Bharadwaj

Trying to write 200 words a day, everyday. Exploring ideas that are entertaining and socially relevant.