Umpire Koertzen — one of SA’s unsung cricket heroes

2009-05-10 00:00

LIKE choirboys, the finest are unnoticed.

One standing at one end, one at the other, two mature men barking “play” and “over” at regular intervals, sporadically making time-honoured hand signals (straight up for a bye, sideways for a wide and decisively shaking their head or raising their index finger etc.); they are cricket umpires.

SA has produced one of the best.

This weekend in London, Rudi Koertzen is standing in his 100th Test match, presiding over the second Ashes Test between England and Australia at the home of cricket.

His landmark achievement was noted by the public address announcer before the start of play on Thursday morning, prompting Ricky Ponting to run across and warmly shake the hand of the swarthy, tanned, soft-spoken 60-year-old from the Eastern Cape; each of the players followed suit.

Koertzen became only the second umpire in the history of cricket, after Steve Bucknor of the West Indies, to stand in a century of Tests, and he reached this extraordinary milestone a mere five days after becoming the first umpire to officiate in 200 one-day internationals.

“It’s been a while now,” he smiles gently, looking back on a Test career that began on Boxing Day 1992, the third Test between South Africa and India at St George’s Park, SA’s first Test series after readmission and also the first series where television replays were used to inform run-out decisions … Hansie Cronje scored 135 in the first innings, Allan Donald claimed match analysis of 12 for 139, SA eased to a nine-wicket victory and very few people noticed the local umpire giving the first of very many exemplary performances.

Longevity is not necessarily an indicator of quality — people, institutions, restaurants and businesses sometimes just seem to hang around, existing without excelling, yet Koertzen’s skill, ability and judgment has been admired by generations of international cricketers from Calcutta to the Caribbean.

“He’s certainly among the top three in the world,” says AB de Villiers emphatically. “I’ve known Rudi for a long time, and he exudes authority, and that gives everybody confidence.”

Born in Knysna when DF Malan was prime minister, Koertzen played league cricket while working as a clerk on the SA Railways. He started umpiring in 1981, entered the international game a decade later, was appointed as a full-time ICC umpire in 1997 and then joined the elite panel in 2002.

Through so many seasons, so many famous grounds, so many brisk walks to the middle, so many matches and tournaments, so many flights and hotel rooms, so many yelled appeals and marginal decisions, he has mostly managed to avoid the limelight and headlines … mostly, but not completely.

In September 1999, he was praised for instinctively and immediately rejecting a bribe before a Coca Cola Cup final between India and the West Indies in Singapore, refusing to place his snout in cricket’s crowded trough; eight years later, standing in the 2007 World Cup final, he became entangled in poorly drafted regulations relating to bad light and embroiled in controversy as the showpiece descended into chaos.

However, season in, season out, he has managed to keep his errors to a minimum and become renowned for his distinctive “slow death” style of giving a batsman out, a mechanical, super-slow raising of his index finger from somewhere behind his back to the fully extended, final judgment.

“I’ve been lucky to have so many opportunities,” Koertzen says, “but the real heroes are my wife Hyla and our four children — Yalali, Eumelda, Rudolf and Luan. I haven’t been able to spend so much time with them in the past 17 years because I have been away for an average of 210 days per year. My absence has been a burden on them, but they have handled the situation nicely and allowed me to do my job.”

Just before eleven o’clock this morning, Koertzen will emerge from the famous Victorian cake of a pavilion at Lord’s, stride out to the wicket and prepare for another two-hour session of intense concentration and unrelenting scrutiny from players, media and supporters; and he’ll get almost all of his decisions exactly right and, again, he’ll reflect great credit on himself, his sport and his country … impeccably unnoticed.

Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby and CEO of SABC sport, and has been involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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