"It's how I make a living. In these COVID times I haven't umpired a lot so any opportunity to get some work, you take it."
These were the words of Paul Reiffel, former Australian Test cricketer turned umpire, now officiating at the cash-rich IPL.
Like most businesses and jobs across the world, sport has been brought down to its knees in light of the pandemic. And when competitive sport ceases to function, the out-of-work umpires and referees bear the financial brunt - unbeknownst to most.
"To knock back work, you just can't afford to. You have to look at everything and try and weigh it up," said Reiffel, reflecting on having accepted the IPL project in India despite the global crisis.
The IPL is indeed lucrative, not just for the players, but for the umpires involved as well.
Umpires on the 'Elite Panel' that officiate in the IPL reportedly receive INR.1.98 Lakhs per game.
It's easy, therefore, to understand to the reason behind Reiffel's perilous journey from Australia into the IPL bubble, in the midst of what is now the global COVID epicenter.
Fuelled by the millions pumped in by innumerable brands and shielded by the powerful BCCI, the certainty of the IPL is a foregone conclusion and thus, a major relief to the umpires officiating at the tournament.
However, the same is not the case with umpires at the state level and those working in the first-class cricketing ecosystem in the country.
Take for instance the scenario in the Karnataka cricket circles.
When COVID cut short the 2020 season, out of the 2,300 to 2,400 matches that normally take place across multiple divisions, the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) was only able to conduct about 800 to 1,000 matches.
"A KSCA umpire gets paid about Rs. 1,500 per match-day and each umpire officiates an average of 30-40 match-days across a 3-4 month-long season. With games not happening, the umpire's receive no remuneration and their ability to take care of their families is severely dented," he said.
Last year, with the onset of COVID, the KSCA conducted just it's annual T20 and One-Day tournaments. This year though, with Karnataka reeling under the dreaded second wave, hopes for the season to unfold is fast diminishing.
On Wednesday, the BCCI did give their go-ahead for Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Saurashtra cricket associations to conduct their respective IPL-styled T20 tournaments.
That said, Ravi is not too bullish about these corporate-backed T20 leagues playing out this year.
"BCCI can spend money in booking hotels and creating a bio-bubble, but it is not easy for a state association or a local franchise in the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) and the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) to do it," he said.
Sure enough, news emanating from each of these states indicates that these T20 tournaments are indeed being shelved this year.
Needless to say, this translates to an additional loss in remuneration for the umpires.
For umpires officiating at the first-class level, the loss in income is far greater.
The top umpires in the country earn between Rs. 30,000 and Rs. 40,000 per day for a first-class and List-A game.
Last year, the Ranji Trophy season was called off and the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the Women's Senior One Day Trophy were the only major domestic tournaments held by the BCCI.
Like most working professionals, umpires too have EMIs that are periodically fulfilled in keeping with their umpiring schedules. With the numbers of matches now dwindling by the year, their personal finances have taken a beating.
No relief in sight
And it's not just the state association conducted matches that were a source of income for the umpires. A city like Bangalore, the proverbial 'silicon valley' of the country, witnesses several corporate tournaments every year.
Employing a state association accredited umpire enhances the credibility of these events and thus, several umpires receive lucrative offers.
"Umpires officiating at these events sometimes earned up to Rs. 3,000 per day and there were several of these tournaments all through the year. With COVID, no such tournaments are taking place," said Ravi, with a touch of anguish in his voice.
Adding to the umpire's woes is the fact that a relief plan for these professionals is non-existent.
For a long time now, the Association of Cricket Umpires Karnataka (AUCK) has been mulling a benefit scheme for the umpires in the state. They had even called upon the state association to roll out a relief plan.
While the latter does acknowledge the issue, a solution is yet to see the light of day.
"Some of us do coaching during the summers, but now with COVID around, we have to close the camps and that source of income is also gone," says Ravi.
Meanwhile, the umpires, several of who have to now scour for other sources of income, struggle to make ends meet.
In a game where the maximums are celebrated and franchise victories hog the limelight, the umpires are a forgotten species, often vilified for decisions that send national heroes back to the hut.
For now, though, the dreaded pandemic has cast its verdict and the umpires find themselves in the doldrums.