The first national woman cricket umpire from India, Vrinda Rathi raised many eyebrows as she broke the glass ceiling to qualify as an umpire who will now be able to officiate men’s first-class matches. Rathi’s grit and determination are unmatched and her love for the game simply unparalleled. Securing the second rank in BCCI’s Level 2 umpiring exam, she set the ball rolling to live her dream of being a match official.
Her journey from a cricketer to a scorer to an umpire is unequivocally exciting. Female Cricket got in touch with this former Mumbai cricketer turned umpire, to know more about her and her rise as a professional umpire.
Excerpts from the Interview
1. With no cricket being played for over three months now, how are you keeping yourself busy in this lockdown?
The greater part of my BCCI assignments was over by the time the lockdown restrictions were imposed. The news of my appointment to the ICC Development Panel came through during this period. I was excited and looking forward to the possibilities of those assignments. So, in that sense, the lockdown came as a dampener. But it was necessary for the greater objective of public health and we must accept the things as they come. Though on-field cricketing activity has come to standstill, the preparation never takes a break. I have been engaging with my coaches and colleagues in sharpening my professional skills.
The parent bodies ICC, BCCI and MCA have been proactive with their quizzes for revision of cricket laws and playing conditions. Besides, I squeeze in some physical fitness drills here and there to remain match fit when the season resumes.
2. You played cricket as a medium pace bowler for Mumbai University. So when did you decide to get into scoring and umpiring?
When I represented Mumbai University, our coach Surekha Bhandare was insistent on the overall development of players. She recommended as players we must also know the fundamentals of cricket laws and keeping scores. I passed the MCA Scoring examination in 2008 and then in 2010 successfully cleared the BCCI Scoring Examination specifically conducted for women scorers.
While working as an official scorer in the 2013 Women’s World Cup in India I came across and was deeply influenced by Kathy Cross, a woman umpire from New Zealand. Since I had stopped playing by then, I reckoned umpiring is another way of staying in touch with this beautiful game.
I must tell you it wasn’t an easy task. It took two attempts to crack a stringent examination conducted by Mumbai Cricket Association and finally I was empanelled with them in 2014.
3. What was your family’s reaction when you decided to hang boots as a cricketer? Did they support your dream of becoming a scorer/umpire?
My family has been the greatest support system. They never imposed their opinions on me. They trusted me to make my own decision and backed them. With them I never had to bother about the usual issues like grades, career, marriage, etc. and that’s where I owe them whatever I could become. They have enjoyed and appreciated every small step I have climbed and at the same time, they kept me firmly rooted in the family values we believe in.
4. To stand as an umpire for long hours, you need a lot of stamina. How do you keep yourself fit and alert?
The umpiring job warrants continuous traveling, long-standing hours under scorching heat, and dealing with challenges of making correct decisions. So, it is a combination of physical as well as mental fitness that you want to achieve. I am not a fitness freak. But I have fixed a routine of my physical fitness drills such as jogging and few bodyweight and mobility exercises. You have to keep yourself match ready at any given time.
On the dietary front, I have been well assisted by Sayali Naik, a Certified Sports Nutritionist who chalks out my diet plan and follows up with it. Besides that, having a set routine helps. The thing I have learned is your body has a biological clock and you can’t let it go astray. So a well-planned and consistent routine keeps it well serviced.
5. Along with umpiring, you started your scoring journey during India’s ODI against New Zealand at Wankhede in 2017. How was your experience?
An international debut is always special and it will stay very close to my heart. What makes it more special is this was the first time in Mumbai that all women scorers’ team was appointed for an international fixture and all three of them were making their debut.
I along with Varsha Nagre (now a BCCI Match Referee) and Sushma Sawant put up a decent show as debutants. The feeling of gradually stepping up from School-College matches to junior cricket to Ranji Trophy and IPL and finally a One Day International was surreal.
It was like ticking boxes one by one. It would have been great to tick another box and add a test match under my belt. But life had some other plans and trust me, I am not complaining.
6. Last year, you got a chance to umpire in the Mumbai T20 league where players like Shreyas Iyer, Prithvi Shaw, Suryakumar Yadav, etc featured. How was it umpiring in that tournament?
One question I always encountered within my friend circle; “When do we see you on TV?” This tournament settled it for once. On a serious note, this was a marquee tournament for Mumbai Cricket Association and was greatly followed in the stadium as well as on television. For me it was first ever experience of a live to air game.
There were some excited butterflies and some nervous ones. With some sound preparation and good fortune, I managed to settle in within just about a couple of overs. I witnessed some great cricketing action and on-field banter and more importantly had a smooth game. For players, yes there were big names. But these are very professional and goal-oriented individuals on the field. So, rather than being put under pressure, I learned a lot about keeping the pressure at bay and going about your business with a professional and focused approach.
7. You have been umpiring since 2014. How has the experience been so far, considering you have graduated from umpiring in inter-school cricket matches to state-level junior boys matches?
From a complete rookie to a full-time professional umpire, it has been an exciting journey when I look back. Every match I officiated taught me some or the other lesson and enriched me in skills and experience. I have had some great days and some terrible days on the field. But more importantly, I have always cherished every bit of these experiences.
It is still the same excitement and spring in the feet while taking the field for any match which is perhaps the best indicator that I am doing exactly what my passion is. Besides, with extensive traveling, meeting different people, friendships, and camaraderie you improve as a person as well. I think I am a more versatile person now than when I started off.
8. What do you enjoy more; scoring or umpiring? Why?
Umpiring. It throws you right in the middle of all the action. Is there a better seat in the house to watch the game you loved all your life? The atmosphere, tempers, pace of the game, momentum, it all rubs on to you. There is a greater sense of involvement and that’s what I enjoy more. Having said that scoring has its own charm and challenges and I have a lot of happy memories.
9. In March 2020, you were included in the International Panel of ICC Development Umpires. How did you feel?
You dream of this when you start off. You don’t plan for these things. Certainly not when you are just about two seasons old in this profession. So this came as a surprise and a real pleasant one! I was thrilled and excited to see the e-mail communication of this elevation.
I had to read the e-mail quite a few times to actually sink it in. I am really happy and honored to have this opportunity coming my way. At the same time, I realized that I have been bestowed with a great responsibility to do justice to my ability. I realize my every effort hereafter must be channelized to make the most of this opportunity and bring the best out of myself.
The pandemic did act as a damp squib but it is also a blessing in disguise as it gives me some more time to get my acts together and prepare.
10. You also got to interact with Denis Burns, a veteran umpire coach. What was the key learning?
Denis is our dedicated coach under ICC’s Umpiring Training initiative. What strikes you about this man is that he is full of positivity and never ever believes in highlighting negatives. He keeps your morale high and is full of encouragement. With his ideas and anecdotes, he manages to make any learning exercise great fun. We have a weekly call with him where he works on my TV Umpiring skills through video simulations.
He ensures that we are thorough with the TV umpiring protocols and gives great feedback. He also focuses a great deal on non-technical aspects like mindset, body language, correct usage of phrases in communications. He is extremely patient with us and is relentless until we get a thing correct to his satisfaction. It’s just the beginning and more interaction with him will certainly enrich me not just as an umpire but also as a human being.
11. Since you have had the experience of scoring and umpiring, can you tell us what the challenges are in each of the roles?
Yes, each role has its own challenges. As a scorer your concentration levels have to be up all the time because as compared to umpires the scorer hardly gets time to relax, it’s like when the ball comes into play we see the action, and once the ball is dead our work begins as we start noting the effects of that delivery, and by the time it’s done the bowler is ready to bowl the next ball.
From the umpiring standpoint, it is a strenuous job. It is equally demanding mentally as well as physically. Standing for long hours and ensuring that you are mentally tough to deal with the pressure that a hard-fought cricket match exudes. Also with traveling to different places you need to quickly adapt to the change in climate conditions to keep yourself fit and healthy for the match. Different roles and different challenges, but the seamless coordination between them ensure smooth conduct of the match.
12. How was it getting accepted as an umpire which is typically a male-dominated role?
It was indeed a novel experience for me, more so for players. They were often dumbfounded as I walked in for the match. It took a while for them to get used to a girl standing as an umpire. Then there were unsubstantiated apprehensions about the quality that a woman umpire may bring in.
You cannot address them in any other way but by your performance. I managed to put a satisfactory performance and the acceptance naturally followed. At the end of the day, everyone expects you to ensure smooth conduct of match and make consistent decisions. If you stand up to these, gender doesn’t matter.
Further in Mumbai, I was also fortunate to have good support from the Board of Umpires with respect to encouragement, opportunities, and match venues. So yes, I would say there were challenges initially but they aren’t the deal-breakers if you have the perseverance to reach your goals.
13. How has technology like DRS helped the game of cricket?
I haven’t worked under the DRS regime yet. So, I will answer this according to my perception. If the technology helps to make the correct decisions or sets aside a human error of judgment, it is in fact helping the game and thus has to be welcomed wholeheartedly.
In fact, a lot of senior umpires have expressed that though a revoked decision isn’t a happy feeling but it gives them mental closure. So I believe DRS is the order of the day and of course for the betterment of the game. Having said that there’s a lot with match and man-management in umpiring for which you need those gentlemen (oh yeah ladies too!) in black and white.
14. To be a good cricket umpire you need immense concentration. How do you build your concentration levels?
By concentrating I simply mean keeping my mind at the same place where my body is and making my mind do exactly what I want it to. It’s easier said than done. So I break a session into hours, overs and balls.
When you start focusing on a ball at a time and slowly get used to it, it starts working more often than not. It’s important you do as many match days and repeat your routines till they become programmed in your body.
As I said earlier, our body is like a clock and you have to keep it well serviced. I also have some meditation and mindfulness exercises on the to-do list but haven’t dedicatedly pursued them yet.
15. Finally, how would you guide the people who are interested in being a scorer/umpire?
Cricket isn’t just a game in our country. It’s a phenomenon. With its ever-increasing horizon, there are opportunities to take up scoring or umpiring as a full-time profession. But realistically these opportunities are few and far in between. So passion, grit, and perseverance are a must. I wouldn’t assume the worthiness to tender advice as yet but would like to pass on the age-old wisdom passed to us by our seniors and mentors.
You start scoring or umpiring or just about anything in cricket for the love of the game. Keep that love and passion always alive.
Don’t ignore processes in the quest for results. So start your journey for the pure joy of serving this great game and the game is gracious enough to reward you.