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Cricket news - Daryl Harper - Smiling because he means it

Daryl Harper officiated in more than 150 international matches

It took him nearly two decades, but Daryl Harper finally had his closure. It aptly came at the Adelaide Oval too, even if from an unlikely source. It was here at his home ground back in December 1999 when, in his words, he had gone from rookie international umpire to ensuring that one-sixth of the world's population knew who Daryl Harper was.

The 67-year-old South Australian ended up officiating in 95 Tests, 174 ODIs and 10 T20Is - only five umpires in history have done more internationals - in a career spanning 17 years. But it's for that one moment in his sixth Test that Harper will forever be remembered, at least in India anyway, a dismissal that has since become synonymous with his name. It was when he gave Sachin Tendulkar out - in that uniquely trademark fashion, where his index finger would follow a parabolic path in the anticlockwise direction towards the front of his face before being lifted over his head - after the master batsman had been hit on the shoulder while ducking into a Glenn McGrath bouncer. For those who came in late, let us allow Harper to set up the scene and the aftermath. And his memory is sharper than you would imagine, regardless of the brickbats that followed.

"I only got to umpire one Test in my home city, the one in 1999. And it was in the second innings, India were 3/27 chasing 396 and Sachin walked out, and second or third ball, bouncer (laughter) and you know what happened next. You don't stand there and think about the implications of giving someone out. You just focus on the job in front of you, and my hand was up. He'd taken 3-4 steps before I thought, 'aww gee that was Tendulkar. What a pity!' People met me on the way out and they said, 'Daryl, we came to see Tendulkar bat. We didn't come to see you umpire'," he tells Cricbuzz.

Nineteen or so years later, Harper still stands by his decision, referring to it as "unusual yet correct", despite the flak he copped from everyone except Tendulkar and the Indian team. He insists that the side-on shot showed that the ball would have hit the stumps. But though their paths crossed on various occasions thereafter, he'd always wanted to know what Tendulkar had actually felt about being given out "shoulder before wicket". He finally did on the opening day of India's first Test during the recently concluded tour (on December 6, 2018), when Harper spotted a familiar face at the Adelaide Oval committee room. No it wasn't Tendulkar, but another former Indian cricketer who'd been present at the ground on that fateful evening.

"When I heard that an Indian selector, MSK Prasad, was present in the room, I got to my toes and looked across and saw a guy flashing a very warm smile at me. I immediately went across and we shared a hug. I knew two things about him that I remembered immediately. I remembered that he was in Kanpur when I umpired my first Test in India against New Zealand. And I knew he was in Adelaide for that Test. And MSK actually said, 'Sachin knew he was out. He didn't complain'. I said, 'that's nice to hear'. It was reassuring to hear after all these years."

Harper, who currently doubles up as an umpiring mentor and match referee for domestic cricket in Australia, talks about then having made 10 trips to India -standing in 8 Tests and 12 ODIs, and during two seasons of the IPL and one CLT20 - and to have never been abused or criticised for his brave call except a few from experts who've gone, "what were you thinking?" But he does recall his maiden Test in Kanpur as having been a reality check.

"Those conditions were very demanding for someone who had grown up umpiring in Australia. I did one Test in New Zealand and Kanpur was my second overseas Test and I walked off at the end of the first day, and I told AV Jayaprakash, 'that's not the game that I've been umpiring in Australia'. There were four guys around the bat in the first session with India going in with three spinners and it was a thorough workout. But I loved it." It wasn't to be his only eye-opening experience on a visit to India though.

Daryl Harper has the unique distinction of being the only Elite ICC umpire to have acted in a Bollywood movie. He's not quite sure whether it was his popularity or his notoriety that got him the role. He does, however, shoot back, "I hope I'm more popular than Steve in India," upon the suggestion that the only other alternative for the movie director would have been Steve Bucknor, in terms of finding an umpire who didn't always create a good impression on Indian cricket fans.

Harper played himself in a 2009 cricket-centric movie called Victory, starring Harman Baweja and Amrita Rao along with the Australian's favourite Indian actor-Gulshan Grover. The movie also has cameo appearances from then Aussie cricketers Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Brad Hogg and Simon Katich, "along with a bunch of Lee's friends who were running around the ground for the cricket match scene wearing 'Ricky Ponting' jerseys". Harper remembers the day he received his maiden, and only so far, movie offer very vividly.

"I was watching a game at Football Park in Adelaide, when my phone rang. I had to get out because it was noisy. I came back and my wife said, 'What was that about?' I said, 'This guy asked me to come to India to be in a movie. They want an umpire whose face people might remember'. I said to the guy, I would love to come and do it but I've got to be in Launceston the Sunday after because my wife and I have planned a short holiday there with her sisters. And my football team, the Adelaide Crows, is playing the next day. So the guy said 'You can do it'. I left here on a Monday, went to Jaipur, three nights shooting, back to Launceston on the Sunday, saw my team lose very badly, and two days later went back to Jaipur for a briefing for the first IPL."

Harper also recalls each of the three days of shooting in Jaipur - from 6 pm to 5 am - having been longer than the duration of a Test match day. The scene that included all the Aussies was the climax of a typically Indian sport movie, where as the lead umpire on set puts it, "a young cricketer beats Australia single-handedly" under lights in front of a packed stadium. There is of course a scene where the merciless Lee knocks Baweja down with a deadly bouncer - only for the hero to then rise like a phoenix and win the game for India. But unfortunately for Harper, the director wanted him to react with all the melodrama he could muster at the sight of the lead protagonist hitting the floor holding his head.

"The director said, 'Daryl we want you to react when he gets hit at the other end'. But he wasn't actually getting hit when I had to react. So I said, how about someone stand there with a ball and at the proper time, chuck it at the stumps and the bails come off, and Brett and I'll see that and react. That's what we did eventually, and the director was impressed with my inputs. But there was no dancing, I was very disappointed."

Harper though was the only one among the overseas talent to attend the movie premiere. It luckily coincided with a trip to the Caribbean, and he booked his flight from Adelaide via Dubai, so that there would be a stopover in Mumbai. After having sat through the first half of the movie nervously, waiting for his part, he recalls how he counted the number of shots he was in, the few solo appearances on screen with him signalling boundaries or towards the third-umpire, but without ever getting to give anyone out the Harper way - "India were thrashing Australia after all." But his only-ever red carpet appearance also provided a fan-boy moment when he bumped into Grover in the toilet.

"I waited till we went out and had a selfie with him. I said to him, 'how many movies have you been in now?' He said, 'Well, over 400 now'. He asked, 'what about you?' I said, "This would be the first if I get seen.'" Harper would also have the awkward task of having to inform Lee that they'd dubbed his voice with a very "high-pitched substitute" in the final take of the movie.

Harper doesn't remember when he came up with his symbolic out signal, "maybe it was just my first reaction in my first game". But he's all about wanting umpires to develop their own styles, not just in terms of their signals but also with their personalities.

"You don't want to see robots out there. You want people to show they have a personality. Do the job professionally but enjoy it. I love to see umpires smiling. I love to see them having conversations because one of my early criticisms was that I talked too much. But I ignored that. I moved forward."

And he takes pride in having been an umpire who players felt comfortable too having a chat with while he was at square-leg, regardless of whether he was considered a great "decision-maker"

"Irfan Pathan is a good example. At some stage, we're on the field and are having a chat, and he asked me about family and I asked him about family. And it turned out at that stage he was single. And I had a daughter, who's still single by the way. For the next 5 years, every time we would see each other in any part of the world, the first question I would ask was, 'Are you still single?' and he would say, 'Is your daughter still single?' So I was very shattered when he got married. I was trying to get some (IPL) money into the family," says Harper, guffawing.

It wasn't the only time a player felt obliged to discuss players' marital status. There was an ODI in Kolkata around 2005 where it was then South African captain Graeme Smith's turn.

"As he ran past me from first slip to have a word with Makhaya Ntini, he said, 'Oh Daryl, did I tell you I'm single again?' I said, 'No, what happened?' He said, 'I'll tell you at the end of this over.' Imagine in an ODI. So it was nice to have a relationship where people would share that sort of news with you." Harper believes his experience of being a school teacher for 23 years before he turned to umpiring - and then set a record for standing in more Shield matches than any Aussie ever prior to doing a Test - helped him greatly in developing these friendly bonds with the players he spent long hours with on the field. To the extent that he even ended up giving Bangladesh pacer Shahadat Hossain a lesson on 'how to sledge a batsman'.

"I was proactive with sledging. Shahadat was batting against New Zealand, and he got an inside-edge for a boundary. Iain O'Brien the medium-pacer stood there with his hands on his hips, and Shahadat asked him to F-off. O'Brien turned around and said, 'you hear that Daryl?' Next time he said something similar. So when Shahadat came down my end I said, 'You can't say those words. You can get into trouble. What you've got to say is, 'Is that the quickest you can bowl? Are you struggling with an injury? Why are you so slow?'"

He also reveals having had to play cricket coach to some players in particular during the course of a Test match.

"I always enjoyed umpiring Gautam Gambhir. I always knew that when he came to my end, at some stage, he'll ask, 'Is my front-foot across far enough?' He always liked reassurance. And I would tell him, 'yeah it was perfect, beautiful'."

There was also the one time when Harper had to conjure up his school-teaching experience to help New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori make the right decision, in terms of upholding the proverbial spirit of the game.

"They were playing England and Kyle Mills bowled to Paul Collingwood, last ball of the over and his momentum took him forward, and he just came down the pitch to do some gardening. I was at the bowler's end and had my mouth open about to call "Over" when Brendon McCullum picked up the ball and threw down the stumps down with Collingwood out of his ground. My partner was Asad Rauf, who was looking at his ball-counter when the bails were removed. He called the third-umpire. I went to Vettori and said, 'At the moment, you are loved and admired all around the sporting world. Here's your chance to mess it up.' Now his teammates were 5-6 steps away and they were saying, 'Don't listen to Daryl.' This was right after Ryan Sidebottom had collided with Grant Elliott and they'd run him out, and the Kiwi teammates wanted payback now. I told Daniel, 'You're going to look even better if you'll wait for the red light to come on, everyone will know he's out and then you withdraw the appeal'. And Daniel did exactly what I asked him to do. Collingwood went on and made 40-odd but NZ still won."

There was no language barrier holding him back from on-field chatter either, with Virender Sehwag having been among his favourite people to indulge. While it was Harper's way of switching off and switching on, and to relax, he also reveals it made it easier to talk to a player in case he'd made an error if there was a relationship between them.

"It's only a small number of us. We keep seeing people all around the world. You can't hide anywhere."

*****

For all the happy memories that Harper accumulated during his lengthy stint as a leading umpire, it's the incorrect decision that he remembers most vividly. For, in his mind, it was a case of him letting a batsman down. Like was the case with Stephen Fleming in his 100th Test when Harper adjudged him caught and bowled off Makhaya Ntini at Centurion in 2006.

"I thought it went back off bat-pad. But in hindsight, I discovered his bat hit the pad and the ball only hit the pad and it wasn't LBW so, and this was his milestone match. But Stephen Fleming being Stephen Fleming, didn't flinch. He didn't grimace or hold it against me. He was an exceptional man. But I felt worse than he did."

Harper also admits to the two incorrect decisions against Indian batsmen in what would eventually be his final Test at the Sabina Park in Jamaica. It was a game, which for once Harper doesn't remember very fondly, and it also ended up in the Australian receiving severe criticism from the Indian media and the team. Skipper MS Dhoni would go on to tell the media that "if the correct decisions had been made, I would've been in my hotel room a lot earlier". The backlash of the episode would lead to Harper retiring prematurely, with the 100th Test milestone only five matches away.

"There were moments where you had to lay the law down. But sometimes, people are offended by the way you do. I'd given Praveen Kumar a couple of warnings, two more than what I should have and then he eventually just ran straight down the danger area, and I had to give him his jumper and his cap and say, "That's it." What was unusual was that, it happened off the last ball of an over. So it was probably unnoticed on the field. So I had to tell MS (Dhoni) what I'd done and that he couldn't bowl again, and MS's first comment was, 'We've had problems with you before Harper'. I suppose I was a little bit disrespectful because I just laughed it away because I don't think India had had too many problems with me. I think I did 27 Tests with India and I think performed better in games involving them than I did with other countries. I don't know whether it was the intensity or the following brought the best out of me. I was always proud of my record with India."

He then brings up giving Harbhajan Singh LBW when the ball might have been going over the top of the stumps, and missing a no-ball when Devendra Bishoo cutting the side-crease, and having Dhoni dismissed of that delivery.

"But in the big scheme of things I always wound up more with India. It was my favourite destination really and history has it that I was in a Bollywood movie."

Harper also reveals to have had a tough initiation with another former Indian cricketer, but this time while officiating alongside him. It came in his very first Test at Perth when Srinivas Venkataraghavan was his senior partner.

"That was an education. I remember trying to get the signal 'two balls to go' out of him, and that was hard. I told Venkat, I have done this for 15 years, I need to keep my habits and routines going. He wasn't able to provide that service for me. So in the most important game of my career, I felt that I was out there alone. It wasn't a good feeling. I did see a lot of Venky over the years, and maybe even did some of his last Tests with him."

There are fonder memories of other colleagues, especially the late David Shepherd, and Mark Benson, who did more than half his 21 Tests with Harper. He still keeps in touch with fellow Adelaide man, the English-born Steve Davis, even if in Harper's words you wouldn't find two more different people.

"He was a very ordinary bowler. I was a very ordinary batsman. He likes beer. I like a glass of wine. He was like a caterpillar plodding away; I was like a butterfly, looking for a mate. We were always great friends despite at some point being competitors."

Harper doesn't seem to have aged a day since he hung up his umpiring coat some 8 years ago. He's as stocky as you recall him to have been, and as full of life as those close to him have always known him to be. But as recently as last year, Harper had lost 20 kilos, and as he says, "I didn't think I was going to be here".

He'd been diagnosed with bowel cancer, which led to him 6 months of chemotherapy and the insertion of a power port near his chest, which thankfully has now been removed.

"That's where they pump the chemo in. You do that for four hours and then they join a line to it and you walk out with a plastic container full of chemo. It takes two days to drain into your body. It was quite a routine."

"At one stage, I lost 6 kilos in 4 days. And I sent a message out to my friends saying, 'if I keep this up, I'm going to completely disappear on the 19th of July. I'll be gone'. Fortunately I turned it around. CA supported me and the whole cricketing community supported me, and put me on the job the next summer. I survived, and got through somehow."

Harper talks about having lost count of his well-wishers from the cricketing community who got in touch with him during the treatment, with a special mention to former South African pacer Vince van der Bijl, who wrote him a "letter full of encouragement".

It was again Harper's affable personality and his great sense of humour that kept him going during the tumultuous cancer phase. And like on the field, he made a promise to his wife that "every time I leave the clinic, I'll leave someone with a smile or a laugh".

"I used to go to this clinic, which had some 30 chairs. On my first day, the guy next to me said he had to come every two weeks for the rest of his life. He was on a downhill path. The guy on the other side had been coming monthly and he'd been doing it for 6 months. I said to my wife, they were like dead men walking. To see the sadness in some people in their last days, it's pretty overwhelming and I wasn't ready to join them."

He then breaks the brief spell of solemnness during our conversation saying, "By the way, I have found all of those 20 kilos back, and a couple extras."

*****

Harper might have finally found closure over the Tendulkar decision, but that doesn't mean he'll ever be allowed to get over it by every Indian he meets. And he's very aware of it.

"I haven't umpired in 7 years, but if I get into 10 taxis in Adelaide, 9 of them will be driven by guys from Mohali or Chandigarh. Four of them will look me in the mirror and say, 'I know you'." And he hasn't yet given up on his movie career either, especially after being unable to make much of a mark with his intense role in his epic debut. "I bought 5 copies of it from Bangladesh for a dollar each. I brought them home, my friends weren't interested. I showed them a little clip and that was enough for them."

He's instead setting his eyes on a possible move to Hollywood, as "a double for Bruce Willis". It was a doppleganger comparison brought to the fore by former English seamer turned commentator Robin Jackman, as it turns out in that Kanpur Test in 1999, which as he reminds you, "had MSK behind the stumps".

"It was my birthday too. Dion Nash picked up the ball and hurled it in, and I thought I'd got into a good position, but the ball got me on the back, the fleshy part. I was wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, with those cooler bands around my neck, a life-saver in that heat. And Jackman said, 'He won't rub this. He's too cool. He's umpire Bruce Willis from Australia.' I don't know what prompted him but from then on it caught on."

There is a only one way Bollywood can still hold Harper back. "If they give me a speaking part next time," and you'd agree it won't be such a bad idea either.

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