Nitin Menon on Monday was included in the International Cricket Council’s Elite Panel of Umpires for the 2020-’21 season. At 36, he is the youngest ever and the third Indian after S Venkatraghavan and Sundaram Ravi to make it to the prestigious panel.
Hailing from Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Menon represented his state cricket team across age groups and even played zonal one-dayers for the MP senior team.
Lack of performances as a cricketer, though, robbed him of motivation for the game when he was 22. But that’s when his father offered him a piece of advice which turned his life around for the better.
Narendra Menon, Nitin’s father, played 51 first-class games for MP before switching to a career in umpiring. He officiated in four One-Day Internationals during his two decades as an umpire in domestic cricket. It was Narendra’s passion for umpiring that prompted his son to give it a shot as well.
“My father encouraged me to attempt the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s umpiring exams in 2006,” Menon told Scroll.in.
“I started enjoying the job instantly. By the end of my first season as a full-time umpire, I was convinced that I wanted to make a career out of it.”
Menon’s rise through the ranks has been rapid. Coming from a country that has produced a surprisingly low number of international umpires, he has made it to the Elite Panel in quick time with three Tests, 24 ODIs and 16 T20Is under his belt. But for him, this is just the start.
“I’m extremely happy. I have worked very hard for this. Ultimately, every umpire wants to make it to ICC’s Elite Panel. This means a lot since it’s the result of all the sacrifices I have made,” said Menon.
Here are excerpts from an interview with Menon where he talks about the challenges faced by match officials, the measures taken by the BCCI to improve umpiring standards in India, his outlook towards DRS, and more:
Domestic cricket can be a tough grind. Away from the limelight, it offers a stern test of character. What is the key to succeed as an umpire at the first-class level?
Domestic cricket is really challenging. But if you want to reach the highest level, you have to take everything in your stride and keep working hard. Our domestic system is very good, though. You are rewarded for good performances. And once you start climbing the ladder – from domestic matches to the Indian Premier League and then to international cricket – your motivation keeps growing. You just need to keep working on your skills and improving with each game.
How has umpiring in India changed over the years?
Our Indian umpires have become very professional over the years. Earlier, many of them would take it as a side job. It wasn’t a full-time profession for them; just six-odd months of umpiring each year to gain some extra income. But now that isn’t the case because umpiring as a career is rewarding. It’s the other way around now, people leave their other jobs and focus only on umpiring. You see your contemporaries grow and that motivates you. Umpires these days are a lot more focussed. They work much harder than umpires of the past in every sense be it physical fitness, keeping updated with the laws or simply being well-informed about everything that’s happening in the game around the world.
What do you think is the reason for India having such few names in the ICC Elite Panel over the years?
I have closely seen the work of our senior umpires like Shavir Tarapore, Amiesh Saheba and several others who were part of the international panel. They were all very good, too, and performed really well. But the issue earlier was that there simply wasn’t enough space for Indian umpires. That was because the umpires who were a part of the ICC’s Elite Panel were extremely good at their job. I feel it was unfortunate that some of our highly talented Indian umpires couldn’t get a chance when they were at their peak. There just wasn’t any vacancy for them. Luck plays a big factor. They were really good but, perhaps, they weren’t in the right place at the right time.
What measures has the BCCI taken to help improve the standard of umpiring in India?
The BCCI has put in a great amount of effort to improve the standard of umpiring in Indian domestic cricket. The facilities that they give to the match officials have improved drastically. The smaller details matter as well. Our travel, stay and everything else is taken care of really well. And all that adds up to improve the performance of an individual. When you’re comfortable off the field, you automatically perform better during the game.
Then, of course, there are all the training facilities they have developed over the years to help us improve. The academy for us in Nagpur has been a great addition. Simon Taufel and Denis Burns have contributed immensely in the development of the match officials in India. The biggest influence they had is the change in mindset. They focussed a lot on being professional, on being proactive at all times, and how to manage different situations. The BCCI has made great investments and the results are starting to show.
How has the IPL helped improve umpiring standards in India?
The IPL is the best opportunity to shine. It has been a huge factor. Everyone is motivated because they know they can make it to international cricket if they perform well in the IPL. The elite international umpires are very encouraging and they’re always willing to share their knowledge. These interactions – not just with umpires but other officials as well – are a great help to the Indian umpiring structure as a whole. Because when you interact with these international officials, your understanding of things improves drastically.
What was the biggest difference for you when you progressed from domestic to international cricket?
The only difference is that you have to be a lot stronger mentally to do well in international cricket. The game is the same, it’s just about handling the pressure... the big players, the big crowd, television, DRS. Someone who handles all that pressure better will more likely survive. There isn’t much of a difference in the standard of play in domestic and international cricket. As an umpire, it’s just the mindset that needs to be changed.
The introduction of DRS has been a game-changer for cricket. While the technology does help get more correct decisions, it also highlights the incorrect ones. Does that add to the pressure for umpires?
When we step onto the field, we never think of whether the game is being covered by DRS or not. At the end of the day, our job doesn’t change irrespective of DRS’ presence. We give each decision as it comes. Honestly, there’s no time to think of anything else. We have to make decisions in an instant and all you can focus on is what you have seen. There’s really no scope for any other thought or external pressure when you’re making a decision in that moment. We just go by our instincts.
Umpiring is often called a thankless job. From players to experts to fans, everyone is critical of officials. How do you deal with criticism?
It’s part and parcel of our job. If we make nine correct decisions and get one wrong, people will only talk about that one wrong decision. We make our peace with that fact. We’re used to all this and don’t bother with it. We know that we’re doing our job to the best of our abilities, just like the players. We know we’re only human beings, just like the players. So our job is to just give 100%, the rest isn’t in our control.