What’s the secret to being the best umpire in the world?
Cleaning your ears, according to Michael Gough.
The 40-year-old Englishman won praise for his near faultless judgement in England’s Test series wins over West Indies and Pakistan this summer.
In fact, he has been brilliant for longer than that.
Since 2018, Gough has a 93% success rate on decisions referred to the TV umpire. The next best umpire is Sri Lanka’s Kumar Dharmasena with 79%.
In an interview with the BBC World Service’s Stumped programme, Gough reveals why he makes so few mistakes, how retiring as a player at the age of 23 helped shape his second career, and the importance of keeping those ears clean…
Clean ears and strong eyes
“Probably the most important things to an umpire are your eyes and your ears,” explains Gough.
He says he makes sure “the little things like ears are always clean, so I can hear” and he does “a lot of work with my eye muscles”.
“I do that throughout the day, just to give myself every single chance – as some people would say, the little one-percenters that can make so much of a difference,” he adds.
Gough also reviews those decisions he got wrong, although there have been precious few in recent years.
He says: “Sometimes when I’ve made an error, I look at it and think: ‘How did I get that sort of decision wrong? What was the thinking? What was the thought process at the time? What was I actually seeing? Was I thinking about something else?'”
Gough also puts much of his success down to keeping fit.
“Fitness is a big thing for me, especially in lockdown now, so I’ve started a lot more running,” he says.
“It means I can concentrate longer; I don’t feel as tired at the end of the day. I feel as all my senses are a lot clearer – vision and sound.”
From captaining England to working in dad’s shop
A promising right-handed opener and useful spinner at Durham, Gough captained England Under-19s and played for England A.
In 2002, he averaged more than 50 in first-class cricket, but the following year, aged only 23, he quit a sport he had long since stopped enjoying playing.
After trying to make it as a semi-professional footballer -“there were some scouts coming to watch me but at that age – 23 – you tend to be seen as a bit of an older man” – Gough ended up working in his father’s sports shop.
“I didn’t know what real life was like. You don’t realise how much is done for you when you’re a professional cricketer. I had to go back and actually work for a living, which was a bit of a challenge,” he says.
Watching the famous 2005 Ashes between England and Australia was a “turning point” which reignited Gough’s love for cricket.
He remembers: “I thought: ‘I’ll just give the umpiring a go.’ It was one Sunday afternoon and I absolutely loved it. I just thought this could be something to make a bit of a career out of.
“I never really got the best out of myself as a player. I didn’t really work hard enough. I didn’t really motivate myself. I never dedicated myself enough to my profession.
“When I was fortunate enough again to get into umpiring and the world of officialdom, I just wanted to make sure that I gave myself the very, very best chance to succeed and do well at this level.”
‘Go with your instinct’
Gough has certainly achieved those goals.
He won the Professional Cricketers’ Association umpire of the year award – as voted for by county cricketers – an unprecedented eight years in a row from 2011 to 2018, made his international debut in 2013 and was elevated to the International Cricket Council’s elite panel of umpires in 2019.
With rules that prevent umpires officiating in Tests involving their native country relaxed this summer because of coronavirus, Gough was able to stand in four of England’s six Tests, and was TV umpire for the remaining two.
Asked about his thought process for making decisions, Gough says: “I always find that if I give myself a little bit of time and not rush into it, generally I make the right decision more often than not.
“Sometimes you just have to go with your gut instinct as well. That’s the biggest thing for me – if I go with my gut, nine times out of 10 I’m right.
“I just go out in the middle to do the job to the best of my ability. Sometimes the luck’s on your side.”