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England stars demand umpire shake-up amid Sri Lankan tour uproar

LONDON, March 11 (AFP) - England cricket stars Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart have called for a radical overhaul of international umpiring following the ill-tempered opening two Tests of their Sri Lankan tour.

Both players condemned umpiring standards on the current tour, which has been marred by a string of controversies and dubious decisions affecting both sides.

England levelled the series at 1-1 after winning the second Test by three wickets on Sunday.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Atherton said the series was the most ill-tempered he had ever played in, and called on the International Cricket Council to set up an elite panel of umpires to officiate in future matches.

"The situation has got so far out of hand during this series that the ICC will have to act to prevent serious damage to the game," the former England captain said.

Atherton said although increased technology had highlighted umpiring errors, he was in no doubt umpiring standards had declined during his career "to the point where some games, such as the two in this series, have become farcical."

The England opener - involved in a furious exchange with Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakkura during the second Test in Kandy - said a panel of well-paid neutral umpires should be set up to handle international cricket matches.

"Umpires need to be as prepared and professional as the players and put under the same scrutiny by their employers...those who have a bad run of games should be dropped as any player would be," Atherton wrote.

Atherton's team-mate and fellow former England captain Stewart said two neutral umpires should be appointed immediately to handle next week's potentially explosive third Test in Colombo.

"These have easily been the two most controversial and acrimonious Test matches I have played in," Stewart wrote in a column for the Sunday Times referring to the first two Tests.

"What has happened in Kandy and Galle has really shown up the problems which the game faces with umpiring," said Stewart, who described a decision he had received in the first Test as the worst of his career.

Stewart said having two neutral umpires handling Test matches would be "an important step forward."

"If the ICC is worth anything then that is what it should do," he said.

"It is not that local umpires are consciously biased towards the home side, but in situations where a few controversial decisions are made it is very easy for the visitors to get into the frame of mind where they think they are being hard done by, even when they are not...before you know it the two teams are at each other's throats," Stewart wrote.

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