The quintessential coolers, the bulging tummy, the white hat covering a bald (almost shorn) scalp and (in the last couple of seasons) a trimmed grey-haired goatee may not be as famous as Bucknor's ominous nod followed by the finger, the late David Shepherd's Nelson jump or class, Simon Taufel's poise or Billy Bowden's general antics. The "slow" left index finger however is unmistakable, idiosyncratic and a signature. And after the end of exactly two weeks (perhaps earlier if the test match ends earlier or is washed out), dated on the last day (July 25) of the cricket test between Pakistan and Australia at Headingley, the long left-index finger will be seen no more, not at least in the international arena.
In a game like cricket where players get the stick as well as the major chunk of limelight and the glitz, it is easy to forget umpires until one commits a howler which will be spoken for years to come. But Rudolph Eric Koertzen, known in cricketing circles as Rudi Koertzen (or Rudi Kirsten from the ever proper name-mangling Ravi Shastri's mouth!), who has always given me the impression of a rather brisk man with a blithe spirit even at 61, will be thoroughly missed. Koertzen, a South African who returned to the game after his playing days were over, has been in the international circuit for close to twenty years and has officiated in a world-record 209 one-day matches in addition to a staggering 106 test matches (a number second only to the West Indian Steve Bucknor's record of standing in 128 test matches !) to go with recent appearances in T20 touneys and the Indian Premiere League. And the South African along with Zimbabwean Russel Tiffin have both done umpiring a great service as the main men to have appeared on the international scene from the Dark Continent post-Apartheid.
Like all umpires Koertzen has had immaculate test matches, bad days and controversial phases. His profile on cricinfo, for instance, carries reference to a test match between England and Sri Lanka in 2001 where his umpiring errors beset and arguably contributed to one of the most "fractious" matches in the modern times. But in 2002, Koertzen was rated by players themselves as the best official on view during the Champions Trophy held in Kenya the previous year, which reestablished his credentials as one of the world's foremost umpires.
|The Slow Left-Index Finger!!!|
Umpiring apart, Koertzen has also been in the news over the years for right and wrong reasons giving one the impression of either a foot-in-the-mouth or of a man who spoke it as he saw it just as he "gave" it as he saw it. While his 2006 comments about the option of abandoning inconsequential test matches created some stir - in the aftermath of a terribly batsman-friendly series between India and Pakistan - his recent calls recommending full use of technology if it needs to be used speak of a discerning man. Rudi's comments against the behaviour of players of particular teams have also caused concern in the ICC camp what with world cricket's governing body always trying anew to ward of allegations of racism and discrimination. Yet Koertzen's apology to Sangakkara after giving the latter out wrongly on 192 at Hobart (in 2007) speak of a man willing to admit to his human vulnerabilities.
Comments and controversies aside, that Rudi Koertzen has been part of the ICC's Elite Panel of Umpires which sees (or has seen) names such as Simon Taufel, Daryl Harper, Srinivas Venkatraghavan, Steve Bucknor and David Shepherd for a fairly long time speaks volumes about the Cape umpire's credentials in the game and his respect among players and the game's administrators alike. Rudi might not have inspired the almost invincibly calm reliability that Taufel inspires, represented a certain giant-ness Bucknor built around him - based on his build and decisions - or the quintessential British propriety of a David Shepherd with his "Play Gentleman" etc but he has held his own amidst the bigwigs. It is arguable that Koertzen is a great umpire despite the statistical representations but he has certainly been better than just good most of the time. And as the slow left-index finger goes up for a few more times, although the Australians and Pakistanis would hope for it to happen while the opposition is batting, let us savour the final appearance of a nice decent man from the highveldt and chew on some of the sweet and bitter memories the delayed finger has left behind. Rudi will hope to spend more time with his wife and four children in South Africa once he is done with the madness that is the modern cricketing schedule.