Slow Death - Memoirs of a Cricket Umpire
Author: Rudi Koertzen
Publisher: Zebra Press
Rating: 3 stars
By Martin Chandler
02 Mar 2011
With Slow Death Rudi Koertzen joins the small but growing number of umpires who have published autobiographies. Generally these are not the most memorable pieces of cricket literature, although that is not to say that they necessarily achieve poor sales. Harold "Dickie" Bird is the obvious example of an umpire who has sold many copies of a number of books. "Dickie" is, however, a professional Yorkshireman as much as a former Test umpire so he is an exceptional case.
Umpires are faced with two major difficulties when it comes to setting their lives down in writing. The first, increasingly significant, is that they dip in and out of individual series. Rudi has never umpired a full series, and no one is likely to again. At least some of the old timers such as Australians Lou Rowan (Ashes 1970-71) and George Hele (Ashes 1932/33) could tell the story of a series from the perspective of being out in the middle throughout (in Hele's case) or almost throughout (in Rowan's case - he stood in six of the seven Tests). Poor old Rudi could and did find himself umpiring on different continents in successive matches and this lack of continuity prevents the writing of a conventional cricketing biography. The other major problem is that the better an umpire performs the less he is noticed. No one wants to read about a match where Rudi got every decision right - if there is interest in an umpire's performance it will either be because of his mistakes or because he has become embroiled in something controversial. There is simply no umpiring equivalent of Ian Botham's 149* at Headingley in 1981 or of Bob Willis' 8-43 that followed.
As Rudi never played cricket to a high standard, and has lived a relatively unremarkable life, he swiftly gets through his first four decades. As an outsider looking in I would have liked to have known more about life with apartheid, and then without it, but Rudi is not a man to court controversy and we learn little about that. He then runs through some of the Tests and ODIs that he stood in over the years. This is done as well as it can be but as Rudi didn't make too many mistakes, and those that he did make he readily accepts, there is a lack of spark in what appears.
The best chapter in the book is that dealing with match fixing. There is nothing new or controversial in what Rudi has to say but this is a subject it is difficult to write well about. Most writers simply spend too much time on explaining all the ins and outs with the result that their narrative becomes tedious. Rudi clearly knows the subject inside out and his explanation over just ten pages is an excellent summary. In much the same way the history he gives of, and his views concerning, the availability and use of technological aids is both informative and authoritative.
There are opportunities for Rudi to couch his memoirs in more sensationalist terms. By way of example he could have elaborated on the issues that arose out of the telephone conversation he had with Darrell Hair in the course of which Hair later claimed that Rudi had described the Pakistanis as "cheats". The fact that he chooses not to do so might mean a few less copies will be sold, but ultimately it would not have been in keeping with Rudi's character to make anything of the conversation beyond what he explains here.
With the best will in the world I cannot describe Slow Death
as an essential purchase, but it is an interesting and thought provoking book and one which anyone with an interest in umpiring, whether as a coat wearer themselves or just an avid viewer of the international game, will enjoy reading.