Adding injury to insult

I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph. (Tom Wolfe)

Recreational cricket umpiring is a hobby –  whatever we are paid for expenses comes nowhere near the minimum wage. I reckon it’s about £3 an hour if you take into account the time we leave home (or if you are lucky, someone else’s home) and when we return.

There are moral compromises in doing the job properly. I get no pleasure in messing up the village blacksmith’s weekend with a close LBW decision and the subsequent muttered insults with a gerund thrown as he trudges back tio the pavilion are understandable. Back in the day, I was also the recipient of poor decision-making (some also went against me). Off the pitch other things that can compromise a good day’s umpiring include no hot water in the showers and weather that can’t make up its mind. Umpiring is already a tough enough assignment without factoring in the risk of injury.

With helmets and padding from head to toe, batters are well shielded from bowlers’ variable levels of accuracy.  Of course a batter being hit midships (the gonads, for the uninitiated) is the cue for much merriment – I particularly liked a comment from the non-striker coming to console the batter who was on his knees gasping for air (don’t worry mate, I’ll stand in for the weekly chore with your missus tonight). As with any sporting event you expect an occasional mishap. A broken finger here (spilled slip catch) a pulled hamstring there (gentleman carrying extra weight chasing a cover drive) and of course getting hit by the ball.

Thankfully, incidents of injury to umpires are extremely rare and our membership of the Association of Cricket Officials includes medical cover. In the last five years a cocktail of modern bats the weight of concrete slabs and players working out in the gym have combined to make umpiring potentially more dangerous. In my 12 years on the circuit I have been injured twice.

The first occasion involved a wayward throw from a fielder at mid-wicket who was going for glory in a throw-down-stumps pincer movement. After a  clean pick-up the ball missed the wickets by more than two meters and  found its way directly to my stomach. Fortunately there was no damage (or indeed any subsequent complaints from Mrs Umps) and hats off to the fielder who said: Umps, your missus is going to think you’ve been up to a bit of S&M. (I have indeed paid for many a slap-up meal over the years).

The second incident shook me to the core. In a tight encounter where all results were on the cards, a young batter was making a valiant attempt to win the match with some clean and hard hitting. The finger spinner from my end was taking plenty of tap so tried a different technique, lobbing up an inviting loop which the batter struck perfectly on the half volley. The only thing I remember is the ball cracking into my shin on the full.

The pain was excruciating and the noise alone was enough to convince me that there was a broken bone.  But the Great Controller of Umpires was looking down on me as there was a physio on the fielding team. After an exploratory feel around the area he was certain there was no fracture. My colleague took both ends for the remainder of the match (which ended in a draw) as I sat it out in the pavilion. Bruised and still in pain, I drove home with plenty to think about.

It was my inability to react that concerned me. There have been many occasions where I have had to duck or scarper to get out of the way of a straight drive. But on all those occasions I felt in control, especially where medium pace or fast bowlers were delivering because I tend to stand a reasonable distance back. But the shot on the day in question left me no time to react. I was caught in the headlights and could not move.

As much as I love all the players on the circuit (steady on, ed) I don’t want to be leaving the ground in a coffin (and I’m not referring to the rectangular treasure chests that hold the players’ gear, aka coffins).  I now stand further back to the spinners to give me an extra nanosecond to get out of the way. And  I always wear my football shin pads (it’s hard to get rid of them) and a box to protect the crown jewels (these days there are hardly any visits anyway).

There was nothing I could do to avoid these umpiring incidents but there is plenty that can be done to avoid injury. The simple mantra watch the damn ball should keep you out of trouble but some colleagues insist on watching the batters running between the wickets to get the perfect view of a possible run-out, rather than turn round to see the throw coming in.  Sure, ninety nine times out of a hundred the ball will come from the deep over your head to keeper or bowler, but on the one occasion it doesn’t….

I watch every ball that goes behind like a hawk and to be brutally honest, if that affects my ability to make a close run-out call, I don’t give a pig’s burp. I’d rather get flak from a disgruntled batter or keeper in the bar after the game and get home for Mrs Umps’ cottage pie than be waiting for an MRI scan in the local A&E.

 

 

All work or no play

The truth of the story lies in the details. (Paul Auster)

In our league, the majority of clubs have their own ground and are not reliant on municipal facilities which are usually found wanting in the sight screen, boundary rope and appropriate wicket departments. During my apprenticeship in the lower leagues I would arrive at a beautiful village ground which, from the car park, looked totally irresistible with its immaculately mown outfield and a groundsman putting the finishing touches to his master pitch. But as I imagine the homemade scones and jam and the rest of the lavish tea, I am greeted by the captain of the home team: Our firsts are on the main pitch today. We’re on the lower field. There’s a makeshift changing room down there so see you in a few minutes.

For field read meadow and for changing room read equipment outhouse. My heart sinks as I visualise the firsts and their opponents tucking into a culinary Michelin star tea while we are thrown a few Lidl scones filled with ungenerous portions of savers jam to be consumed in a room full of broken lawn mowers.

It is because I always arrive early at a game (remind me to tell you about the time the umpires’ controller sent me to the wrong ground) I get to see how much work goes into preparing a league cricket match, some of which is done by the groundsman – often a player’s relative. The amount of unpaid work undertaken by players and club officials to get the ground ready for a match, and league officials who oversee hundreds of matches a season, are disproportionate to the hundreds of millions of pounds generated by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in sponsorship deals.

Let’s start with the boundary rope. In the absence of a vehicles to drive it round the perimeter, the home team players do it manually.  And if there isn’t one, then small bunting-style plastic flags are spiked into the grass to make a boundary shape that  resembles a zigzag at a pedestrian crossing. Then you have a wicket properly prepared with very short grass and as flat as possible with appropriate markings at bowlers’ creases and protected area (a rectangle running down the middle of the pitch, two feet wide, and five feet from each popping crease).

And without an industrial mower there is no way the outfield can be cut. I’ve umpired games where fielders in the deep struggle to gather and return the ball (at least they can prepare for competitive orienteering). And I have a special aversion for inadequately secured sprinkler boxes and rabbit holes that should have a Break my leg sign for fielders entering a zone anywhere near.

When we have a summer without rain, a baking sun can turn an outfield into the perfect set location for a Western (title suggestion, The Magnificent Seven-For).  Then comes the preparation of the tea and drinks breaks, often produced and managed by players’ partners and whose efforts are covered here.

The better the club, the better the attention to detail – clean showers with a decent water tank that works; toilet paper and soap in the rest rooms; a suitable vantage point and table for the scorers, along with a fan if they are spending a minimum of six hours inside a scorebox oven; on rain-threatening days, a large bag of sawdust; sight screens ready for action (and that really does not mean two fielders doing the honours as we call play); two match balls presented to the umpires ahead of the game along with a box of spares with different stages of usage given to the scorers; going the extra mile includes providing a small bowl of water next to the stumps to ease the effort in putting them in.

And of course, we assume that appropriate changing facilities are available for the umpires. I have changed in rooms that remind me of ten people squeezing into an old phone box in order to realise an ambition to make The Guinness Book of Records. However much I want to have a professional and friendly relationship with my colleague before, during and after the game, I draw the line of having his gonads in my face as I sit down to tie my laces. I have changed in a school that is inside the car park of one ground, we’ve been given a room behind the pavilion kitchen (handy if you fancy an Aldi sausage roll on the sly) and I’ve changed in my car when there is no changing room.

And if you think the workload on match days is enough, think again. The majority of clubs cannot afford state-of-art CCTV security so thousands of pounds of equipment is vulnerable. There is no chance of catching thieves and vandals ransacking a remote cricket ground on a cold February night. So weekly visits to the ground to check on the state of the square and pavilion the only deterrent throughout the winter.

A word too for the league officials who put in hundreds of unpaid hours administrating matches and dealing with results, finance, registration, umpires, facilities, welfare, junior players,  complaints and behaviour. Every one of these players, club and league officials work tirelessly to keep the tradition of league cricket thriving. I have maximum respect for their work. They are the heart and soul of cricket

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catcher in the wry

Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss. (George Orwell)

A quick calculation. I’ve umpired around one hundred and thirty league games, most of which have gone into thirty-plus overs and beyond in the second innings. I reckon I am called on to make a close decision around three to six times an innings (and here I mean a difficult decision, not one where the noise off the bat to the keeper can be heard in the next village). So a conservative interpretation of these unscientific stats suggests I have made around eight tight decisions a game – one thousand in total.

Among the one thousand, I can only recall one that that has stayed with me. There have been many occasions when a batter or bowler has displayed various levels of dissatisfaction with a decision – that is all part of the umpiring experience. But the very fact that I never think about any of these hundreds of instances while occasionally looking back on one confirms that I have an element of doubt on its veracity.

It involves a player for whom I have a lot of respect but on this occasion, I think he may have conflated my decision to give him out caught and bowled with a change in the dynamics of the team’s innings. Batting first, they started the afternoon with a whirlwind opening partnership of over one hundred that suggested three hundred was on the cards. But a middle order collapse left them on around two hundred and thirty with seven down and around five overs to go. He was steering the innings back towards a very decent total when fate conspired against him.

An innocuous finger spinner was trundling away at my end. There was little turn and given his ability, very little danger. He decided to try something different – always a good option – and gave the ball some air. The the ball pitched on a length, the batter hit it back and the bowler caught it and turned round to appeal. I should point out (against myself) that the appeal was not like a real appeal where a hysterical bowler goes down on one knee and like Tom Jones coming on stage gesticulates and screams (in this case without holding up a lady’s lingerie). But there was an appeal and I am charged with making a decision, in this case whether it was a bump ball (hit into the ground by the batter and caught by a fielder, or a proper catch. I had already made my mind up that it was a catch, but to be completely fair to all concerned I went to get a second opinion from my colleague who told me he couldn’t see properly from square leg but he thought it could be out because of the way the ball looped back to the bowler.

I returned to my position and gave the batter out. Being the excellent cricketer that he is, he trudged off seething with rage and I could hear the ensuing gerunds from beyond the boundary rope. But credit to him, unlike many batters and bowlers I have disappointed over the years, he was experienced and wise enough to keep his cool until reaching the pavilion.

The innings ended with around two hundred and fifty on the board and the side batting first won the game by some distance. At the handshakes, the batter gave me a stern look but he shook my hand – another plus to him. After showering and the post-match paperwork I sought him out at the bar. In a very polite tone and with no ill feeling he told me that in twenty-plus years of cricket it was the worst decision he had ever encountered.

Going over it frame by frame I think am satisfied I got it right. I believe he got under the ball rather than it popping up after it was hit into the ground. There was a high backlift but no intent to hit the ball hard and I think he misjudged the length and followed through more than he intended and the ball looped up. But of greater importance was the speed and trajectory of the ball after impact. With quick bowlers, a bump ball often squirts at speed to the slips or gully. But with a slow bowler, the ball-hit-into-the-ground shot regularly pops up and dribbles its way to point or the covers. In this case the combination of a high back lift and mistiming the contact conspired against the batter.

This explanation did nothing to assuage him in our post-match chat. And here is the important point. The fact that I respect the player for his ability and demeanor actually sowed a seed of doubt in my mind which I carry beyond that game.

In a different game my colleague gave a young batter out LBW and it took him a long time to walk, and as he left the field there was some TV watershed language directed at my colleague, and for these profanities we reported him. The young batter is one of the most talented players I have seen on the circuit and when he is on song he is great value to watch. But his explosive personality does him no favours – he belongs to a cohort of talent-with-attitude cricketers who see a close LBW or caught behind decision that goes against them as a personal slur.

Compare and contrast the reactions.

 

 

Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now?

All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are. (Paul Auster)
 

Profiling league cricketers (first in a series)

The Pundit

Chasing a modest 190, the opening partnership is building nicely. I have The Pundit at my end as the last ball of the over smacks his partner on the back pad in front of middle and off on a straight delivery. After a brief survey of the crime scene I send the batter packing. I know what’s coming.

The batter is not perturbed, he’s been caught with his fingers in the till but The Pundit will have none of it. This is a guy I respect as a cricketer, a gritty, no-nonsense opening bat and very useful slipper. But over the years he has got on my proverbials with his whispering punditry at the non striker’s end. And right on cue, as the batter makes his way back to the pavilion I get the action replay: Missing off umps, you got that one wrong.

To be fair The Pundit is consistent. On one occasion, his partner’s call for a second run left him with some ground to make up as the ball came back to the bowler’s end. Safely home, he gave a full and frank appraisal of the incident to his partner (throwing in a gerund or two to add weight to the argument). And from the kindness in his heart, he then proffered me an opinion: I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell him about running between the wickets. He doesn’t listen. He’s got something missing up top.

Then there was the caught-behind where I gave him out. The keeper was standing back, the edge was faint but obvious and as he passed me he muttered to the bowler: Only decent ball you’ve bowled all afternoon.

And indeed it was.

The Professional

I’m standing at the batter’s end when a fielder approaches me to take up his position at square leg. A nodding acquaintance is the normal protocol but this chap needs to talk. Between balls I get the full CV: I played a first class games for Xshire (I imagine a pre-season jolly at The Parks for Xshire against Oxford University –  more like a blind audition for The Voice than a headline slot on Later with Jools Holland). I’ve played Premier League but it didn’t work out (That would be worth discussing further but I stay well clear of delving). I love this level, I get a lot of time in the middle. (True, he batted vwell).

The Reputation

The openers come out to start the second innings – with 240 to chase it could be an exciting late afternoon and evening. My colleague asks me if I had seen the heavy guy before, he’d apparently been making runs at a fast pace and was one to watch. With little foot movement he relied on hand-eye coordination leaving most of the balls to go through (judging those to perfection) while dispatching the ones that took his fancy to the boundary and beyond. The heavy build and bat were useful additions to his arsenal and his entertaining knock (a few more than fifty) set the scene for the more traditional batters to see his team through. A team player through and through, I miss him on our circuit (he moved with his work to a different part of the country).

The Joker

It’s the day after the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The captain gives the ball to his opening bowler. The batsman is taking guard, the wicket keeper shouts Come on Will, you know where to put it and gully follows with That’s what Kate said last night. Yup, we have a Joker.

There is a big difference between a Joker and an Asshole (there are more of the former than the latter, thank goodness). I have heard some cracking material over the years: Bowler to slip fielder after a second catch is dropped in an over – I bet you didn’t even catch an STD with that woman I saw you with last week. Bowler to batter (in a non-confrontational way at the end of an over, and the batter took it in the right spirit) Would you describe your character as ‘edgy’? Captain to colleagues at the fall of a wicket – He batted like sh*t and we gave him the runs (probably not meant as a joke).

The old-timer

The time first time I went out to bat as a 16-year-old in a league match my captain said: We need the points for a draw. Don’t hit the ball off the square, don’t give your wicket away and don’t take it personally but I don’t want to see you until you come back to the pavilion with a draw. The mission was accomplished and I got the nickname Stonewall. It is rare to see such heroics in modern league cricket

Occasionally, you get a player in his late forties or beyond who can teach the youngsters a thing or two about survival. Playing spin on a turning pitch by working out a defensive strategy is a real talent. In this situation, you can’t hit your way out of trouble. And far from sending these players out to bat at nine, ten, Jack, captains should consider moving them higher up the order.

The stand-in

Every cricket captain’s nightmare – Friday 8pm, the text comes in: Missus unwell, got to see to the kids, can’t play tomorrow. You’d think with a well-known club like his, the captain would make one call and  job done. At 9.30pm the matter is finally resolved, the guy in question has played before but he is not going to contribute much. On the other hand he is on a list of possibles and he is willing to turn out.

As an umpire you have been blessed with superb vision (be serious, ed) to realise there is a stand-in on the field. Sure he’s made an effort on the dress code with a white polo shirt (nice to see Ralph Lauren sponsoring the team), white jeans (possibly a tad tight around the midships) and white trainers (basketball style). I’m also not sure about the sunhat (Ayia Napa stag weekend attire).

But the great thing about stand-ins is their effort and sense of duty. Unlike some players, who provide a derisory bending of the shoulder in an attempt to field as if posing for a village green picture postcard, the stand-in will throw himself at the ball, miss it and then go hurtling after it and still be going strong as the Laws of Physics have escorted it over the boundary rope. True, you don’t want to watch the stand-in fielder position himself for a regulation catch in the deep – it usually ends in humiliation.

 

 

 

Wet Wet Wet? Take That

English rain feels obligatory, like paperwork (Maureen Johnson)

It is rare that a game is called off before I leave the house but occasionally the home captain calls just in time. I know what is coming: There’s no way we can play in this umps, the square is literally under water (and with your incorrect use of literally, you should be too). No Saturday fix and it’s cold turkey for lunch followed by a hike across the tundra of Ikea with Mrs Umps. This is God’s punishment for all the batters I’ve sent packing caught behind when the ball clipped the pad, not the bat.

In our Association we have an agreement that if the umpire has left home and reaches the ground only to find it is unplayable, the full fee is paid (especially as umpires, like any driver, should not be picking up calls behind the wheel). On the few occasions this has happened to me, I never take the full match fee, I just ask for my petrol to be covered. Similarly, on the one occasion where I had to do both ends of a game (my colleague called in sick too late to find another umpire) I did not take two sets of fees.

The spirit of hope springs eternal in the league cricketer, never more so than when the clouds open. The forecast had predicted rain all week but despite the Saturday cloud, the ground is dry and it’s certainly light enough to start on time.

I’m making my way to the middle to greet my colleague and pass the players on their pre-match warm-up. The banter is as expected: You never know umps, we may get a full game, I’ve seen a lot worse; I wouldn’t want your job in this weather umps (bring me a tissue); Could be a few ducks today umps (no comment) and rounded off with the finger in the air pointing 30 miles westwards comes the eternal classic: It’s looking much better over there umps. 

For an hour and a half everything has gone swimmingly (rewrite, ed). Then the fielding skipper points to the mass of dark cloud above us. The storm’s outriders announce their presence with a few friendly spots and we manage a couple more balls to end the over. And then we run.

You can tell when a club has got serious money with Test Match standard mobile dome-shaped covers distributing the rain to the outfield. The cabin class flat sheet covers are around four grand cheaper and once they are down, they do a pretty decent job.

It’s too early for tea and anyway Brenda (for some reason I am on first-name terms with all the tea ladies on the circuit) hasn’t even arrived with the Aldi sliced white and sausage rolls, so the players get comfy in the bar. My colleague that day is one of the best on the panel and we are busy keeping an eye on the rain, calculating overs lost and revised schedule while getting back out into the middle every 15 minutes to inspect the damage.

The rain gets lighter but there’s no evidence of it stopping. An hour after we have come off, we agree on an early tea. The damage is done, the strip is damp but not drenched but the unprotected bowlers’ run-ups are under water and even if they are cleared the ensuing mud heap is too much of a risk. The captains agree and it’s handshakes all round, a quick shower, post-match paperwork and drink (always soda and lime when I’m driving) and I’m on the road with the wipers working overtime.

These downpours are the exception. The usual rain-stops-play suspect is the borderline drizzle/light shower. I have a stoical approach to rain. Charged with ensuring the safety of the players, I am more inclined to come off in a borderline situation, particularly after this incident in 2015 which ensured every member of the ECBACO (the umpires’ representative body) pays the £30 subs a year the moment the reminder comes in. If my name and photograph must be splashed on the front page of a tabloid, I’d rather have the paparazzi ambushing myself and a middle aged celebrity outside Tiger Tiger than an irate village blacksmith with a broken leg suing me for negligence in my duties as an umpire

In these borderline situations where a no-result could send a team down there is a lot at stake. Playing on in light drizzle is a problem for both teams but I will only come off when it is necessary. It’s not easy defining a line that separates uncomfortable and dangerous but on most occasions it should be obvious for all concerned that the correct decision has been made.

I don’t spend too much time arguing the toss on this – we make a judgement without prejudice. We don’t care if the batter is on 90 or the fielding side need one more wicket (preferably the batter on 90). We are guided by the Laws of Cricket, specifically 3.8 (Conditions shall be regarded as dangerous if there is actual and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire) as well as the training from our Association.

For disappointed players, a decision we make at 5pm to call a game off can look questionable at 6.30pm as the sun provides a great drying act on the square and outfield.

Fortunately, on occasions like this, by 6.30pm I am well on the way home.

 

 

 

 

Evidence for the forward defence

You want life to be like in the movies, full of excitement. That’s how a child’s mind works, but the adults accept regularity, tedium, frustration. (Ed Bunker)

The captain brings on the leg bowler at my end (I don’t like the term leggie which is more suited to the Tiller Girls). The batting side are around 140-4 chasing north of 270 with enough overs left for them to win the game. I decline two raucous appeals for LBW in the bowler’s first over. I know this guy, he’s not one to induce panic in the opposition dressing room but he is difficult to get away. He’s got accuracy and length to keep the run rate down and I can’t recall any batter giving him tap. But he has a chronic borderline condition of pitching the ball outside leg stump (or close enough to outside leg that I am going to decline an appeal).

He bowls eight overs on the bounce and aside from two long hops in the same over that are sent packing to the rope, he is as tight as a duck’s ar*e in water. The end result is a draw with the chasing pack around 30 short and the bowling side unable to clean up the last two wickets.

The said bowler appeals for LBW 12 times in eight overs. I give the one that pitches on leg, turns a fraction and impacts on pad below the knee-roll. The rest of the appeals do not even make the final edit – the guy’s got form. So why doesn’t someone work on the problem in the winter nets? Because it’s not my business.

As I pointed out, the main difference between lower divisions of the league and the level I officiate is the ability of bowlers to deliver a minimum four good balls an over. By good I mean making the batsman think about what is about to arrive in front of him, play the ball and not concede runs. In the lower leagues, you get the occasional good ball mixed in with a melange of long hops, leg-side wides and deft Charlie Cairoli impersonations. This makes umpiring more difficult because you never knew what might be coming next. A medium pacer who has been hit for 12 in the previous five balls then somehow delivers a straight yorker that hits the batter’s boot on the full and he is on his way before I raise the finger.

Umpiring on the Panel – the League’s roster of umpires who do the top four divisions – is a better standard. The medium pace foot soldiers may lack the raw talent of professional cricketers but this is more than offset by their ability to hit a nagging line and length around the top of off stump. Stock bowlers like this are invaluable to a club – a typical seven over spell with figures of 1-30 may include the occasional ball that is thumped to the rope but most deliveries are in the zone and any captain would be delighted with such a return.

This kind of military medium also provides an opportunity for umpires to build an identikit profile of how a bowler operates – with seven overs you get 42 samples for the research. Of course, each ball is always judged on its own forensics, but profiling gives you a collection of similar outcomes from bowler and batter which can be to be used as extra evidence for LBW or caught behind. And it always good to see the bowler bring out the occasional X-factor delivery with wrist behind the ball to make it move sufficiently and deceive the batter. Older club cricketers with a wise heads and a vault of thousands of balls, are particularly adept at this sting.

Profiling is also useful for the cat-and-mouse spinner-batter encounters. The regular right-arm finger spinner makes the ball break from off to leg to the right-hander enticing him to smother the ball with his bat in the hope of him missing one or getting a pad-before-bat impact (always difficult to identify at real speed). But decent batters are canny enough to pitch their tent outside off stump where, provided he is playing a shot, he cannot be out. This is the soul of cricket with  bowler and batter jousting for dominance as the scorers join the dots.

The other scenario is the batter going on the back foot to play the ball, missing it and the impact on pad is in line with the stumps. But whether it would have hit one of them is another matter. Sometimes the turn is too sharp and seeing the wicket-keeper appealing outside leg stump is enough for me to keep the finger down. But I’ve given plenty as well.

And it is both surprising and disappointing that in the comfort of the club bar after washing away the tension of a match with a hot shower (delete adjective to describe some showering facilities) the topic of conversation always turns to specific decisions made by myself and colleague. The accepted post-match practice is for the skipper or club to buy you a drink (the tradition suspended if you have sent the overseas player packing with a tight run-out). These brief encounters usually consist of variations on Not sure why you didn’t give that LB umps, it looked like it was hitting all three….from here.

It would be good to have a natter about That battle with their off spinner and our number four was great to watch….from here.

But that kind of chat doesn’t sell newspapers.

 

 

 

 

Bat out of Hell

Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. (Peter Drucker)

It was in 2008 when I first realised what all the fuss was about. It was my first season umpiring. I had arrived at the ground earlier than normal. On my way out to have a look at the wicket a few guys from the home team were warming up and I picked up one of the bats I saw laying around. As a player I’d done a fair amount of time holding a bat – in 1978 I achieved my only half century, opening for my university in a pre-season friendly against a technical college. It was my best sporting achievement until I ran a marathon in 1986 (which I managed to finish last week).

I stopped playing cricket around 30 years ago because I was regularly working Saturdays. And other than a few basics in a municipal ground with a less than serious pub team, I had not held a bat for 20 years. Lifting that bat was a real eye opener. I could barely hold the damn thing such was the weight. It was like carrying a slab of concrete around with you.

It’s quite easy to spend £700-plus on a cricket bat. The marketing guys at the likes of Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra and Gray-Nicolls  list some of the world’s best players as users of the top end of their ranges. To pay Ben Stokes to endorse these bats, the league cricketers are going to have to stump up money that in some cases is way beyond their pay grade. The fact that the world’s best batsman Steve Smith is happy to use a relatively modestly priced New Balance DC 1080 which retails at around £250 tells you everything you need to know about marketing techniques.

Some Asian players in the league regularly travel to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to visit family and buy locally manufactured unbranded bats. After a match around five years ago I was invited to a demonstration in front of the pavilion where a captain showed me a range of bats that looked and felt similar to the £200-£300 bats that are popular among league cricketers. The only difference was the price tag, the bats from Asia were up to 70 percent cheaper.

From the best view in the house I see and hear these non-branded manufactured bats making the same cracking sound as the Ben Stokes-endorsed version. And when a batter finds the sweet spot in a glorious cover drive and the ball arrives at the rope in a flash. Branded or unbranded, today’s bats are operated by seriously strong guys and this combo of muscle and bat weight send the ball a long way further than in my day.

Yes, how people spend their money is not an umpire’s business, but if your level is second or third tier league cricket (the level I played at) then a cap of around £150 is more than enough. The one and only bat I ever bought (£15 in 1973 and probably  worth around £120 today) was more than enough for a bit-part cricketer like myself. As the greatest batsman in the history of the game demonstrated, a decent batsman can score runs using a cricket stump.

I like it when a 9-10-Jack batter, who at the 40-50 age range still turns his arm over for a five-over spell, comes out to bat carrying a piece of wood that looks similar to my Gray-Nicolls objet d’art. It takes me back to the era when you would be served by a shop assistant wearing a brown cotton work coat and where off-white cricket trousers, shirts and sweaters would be neatly folded and placed inside a wooden drawer. The shop assistant would have knowledge about the product and would take pride in representing this one-branch family sports shop on the high street. And for five months months of the year (including pre-season nets) that bat would be an important part of your life. One week you would be holding it but not using it as your off stump cartwheeled towards the next village. The following Saturday you would arrive home excitedly recounting the thirty-odd runs  facilitated by your trusted piece of willow, gently caressing it as if you were greeting a loyal Labrador Retriever.

The slabs of concrete are rewriting cricket’s laws of physics. Today’s defensive prod to point is yesterday’s firm drive. The only injury I have suffered to date while officiating was the straight drive that connected with my shin on the full, missing a bone by not much. By the time I reacted I was down and out.

Proper batters (the ones who shines in Divs 2 and 3 and who may have an occasional outing for the firsts in the Premier League) need the concrete slab protein fix. These guys are in the gym five times a week to build up muscle to not only carry a weight that Precious McKenzie might have struggled with, but also to ensure that if they are paying north of £400 for a cricket bat, they may as well get the full value of the train fare.

Because that is how cricket is played today.

 

 

 

 

 

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Carry on umpiring

It’s eighty degrees and I’m down on my knees in Brooklyn. (Al Stewart)

I always turn out for duty in a pressed white cotton buttoned shirt, black golf slacks and if it is not too hot, my Association blouson (a word I had never heard until I started umpiring). For maximum comfort I sport rubber-studded trainers, an inexpensive Panama hat and when the sun is in a good mood, an expensive pair of shades. I always take a post-match shower, even when cold is the only option. (We’ve been waiting for the plumber for a couple of weeks, umps….Check your calendar, I was here a month ago and the hot water wasn’t working then). I’m surprised at how many colleagues do not shower after a match, especially when they take the trouble to change back into Civvy Street garb. Poor form.

League cricket was less complicated when I started playing in 1973. A bowler would ask an umpire to hold onto a sweater and/or cap and that was the extent of the housekeeping assignment. Today’s umpire now needs to be a paid-up member of the Magic Circle as he makes the bowler’s myriad of accoutrements re-appear at the end of an over. Try these for starters: Sweater(s), cap, sunhat, sunglasses (never saw a pair of those on a cricket field in the 1970s), watch, asthma peak flow meter, changing room key, oven-ready roll-your-own cigarette (quick blow when a wicket falls, umps), smartphone (just for today, umps, I brought it out by mistake), bracelet, silicon wristband (it’s my bowling arm, umps), plastic water bottle (no way, try King’s Cross left luggage), energy bar, credit card (sorry umps), hand towel (no way, that’s for your mid-off), lip balm, full-rimmed framed eyeglasses, hay fever tablets (thanks, but I bring my own). And as I stagger around in the twenty-eight degree heat like a human corner shop, a fielder requests that I find a place for his club cap (hot out there umps, I need need to wear a sun hat….What extraordinary powers of observation you possess young man, get yourself an astrology column in one of the tabloids).

Post-match, as you are sorting out your own miscellany of bails, bowlers mark, six  coins, run clicker, scorecard, ECB guidance on junior players, Laws of Cricket handbook, watch, pencils, sharpener, mint humbugs, hay fever tablets and hand towel you realise that the bowler has not collected his more-expensive-than-mine branded sunglasses. So off you go on a trek to the changing room or bar to reunite the goods with its owner (thanks umps, they’re expensive shades). I’ve even had a captain phone me during the week (I know this may seem a bit strange umps, but did you find a club cap in your bag after the game?…..Yes, I found it in one of the inside pockets of my blouson). Fortunately, the car park of an aircraft-hangar Tesco was a convenient lunchtime rendezvous and I extracted full value from the assignment by getting a meal deal.

It is rare not to have a designated umpires’ changing room but occasionally we have to change with the teams, or as I call it, turning right as you board a plane (as if I have ever experienced the delights of turning left). It is crucial not to engage in friendly banter in this situation (how did it go last week umps?) and after the game it is best to wait until the team has packed up before showering and changing, one of the main reasons being it is not good for morale to hear a player who wasn’t told we were changing with the team describe your performance as sh*te.

These days there is a thriving market in team branded kits which I rather like. It is good to see the guys warming up in their pre-match outfits and take the field with club badges on the caps, shirts and sweaters. I like it when I am umpiring the cadre who come out for the toss wearing a club blazer, but the Beau Brummel ambience is a tad compromised with pre-match practice shorts (albeit with the club badge) and a pair of beach shoes lurking below the waist.

Not all the players buy into these branded kits. There are guys who turn out once or twice a year when the captain requires a filler and may not even have appropriate whites or cricket shoes. One such chap came in around the fall of the fifth wicket and hit a brisk thirty-something wearing trainers without studs, a pair of khakis and a customised polo shirt with (name) and (40) on the back (I’ll wager  that was some weekend in Prague). In the bar after the game I said: That’s not the first time you have picked up a cricket bat. He told me had played top division cricket up to the age of around thirty but marriage, kids and work combined to put a day out with the lads on the back burner.

It is a script I have heard many times on the circuit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Line dancing

You can waste your lives drawing lines. Or you can live your life crossing them. (Shonda Rhimes)

Applying the ubiquitous Law 21 (No balls) is a similar experience to erecting an Ikea flat-pack. You have a vague idea of how the work desk will be assembled but when faced with the instructions you may panic as you keep putting round pegs in square holes. The definitive cricket book is a great help in understanding this and other Laws, as is winter training. But nothing compares to testing your umpiring ability than being out in the middle with match points at stake.

The wording is clear but occasionally umpires are too quick to to reach for the holster in implementing a decision without reference to nuances and mitigating factors. A match from 2012 (my second season on the panel) reflects such a dilemma of the No ball Law. It was at the back end of the season and featured two mid-table teams who were going to be neither up nor down when the snakes and ladders were calculated ahead of Prize Day.

An 18-year-old was opening the bowling of the second innings of the match. Up to that match I had never seen an illegal delivery. The Law states that for a ball to be legal, the arm must be straight at the point of delivery.  The opening delivery of the youngster’s first over looked like it had come out of a mechanical bowling machine such was the position of his elbow as the ball left the hand. Then came four deliveries that were borderline and the final ball was similar to the first. I called Over and went to consult with my colleague and we both agreed I was right in not calling the bowler.

If I called the youngster he would endure a difficult winter thinking and hoping he could modify his action. At the end of the game we had a chat with the captain who said he was aware of the issue. My path with the same player crossed two years later – his action was fine and he bowled with accuracy and pace. All it took was a few winter nets with a coach and the problem was resolved. I know umpires who would have taken a different approach, this situation required a more nuanced approach.

Certainly, the most common No ball infringement is the front foot. I have developed a strategy over the years to unravel the labyrinth of the bowlers’ line dancing around the popping crease. In my head I validate back foot, front foot and protected area landings before moving on to the business end of the action.

Most bowlers accept overstepping with a cursory nod, occasionally asking me to point out the margin of their error. It is particularly difficult to judge No balls in the second innings where the popping crease line colour can resemble an organic parsnip, but even with wearing strips there is usually enough evidence to make the call.

I’ve had a few exchanges with non-strikers whose vision is so good that not only can they see a definite No ball on delivery but less than a second later they are experts on where the ball pitched for an LBW (just saying, and all that, but they do not have the benefit of standing directly in line with the stumps). An incoming batter to the non-striker’s end less than politely informed me that the bowler from my end had been No balling adding that I had not called him. I more than politely pointed out that his view from the pavilion (long-on for a right-hander facing) must have given him a perfect vantage point for ascertaining whether none, some or all of the front foot was over the popping crease (not to mention an-80 meters distance).

Again there are nuances to consider – a spinner’s foot lands in front of the popping crease but the back of the foot is in the air behind the crease, so a valid delivery. Then there are pace bowlers who want to make the most of their armory and flirt with the line almost every ball, adding to an already crammed umpire’s to-do list. While I respect the intent of these guys I doubt they return the unsaid compliment when I call No ball just before the batter’s leg stump cartwheels towards the pavilion.

The other main No ball issue is the ball that does not pitch (aka beamer) which arrives at the batter above waist height (Law 41.7). In the lower divisions this kind of ball occurs more often that you would expect or like. But honestly, I have never seen a beamer bowled deliberately and in Panel games the players are good enough to control the trajectory of the ball.

But even the best bowlers can lose control (damp ball or problem with run-up are common reasons). The bowler always apologises, we call a No ball and move on. The law was modified in 2019 and a warning is now only applied if the umpire(s) believe the ball was dangerous. When this point is discussed at umpires’ training it reminds me of my misspent youth waiting as as a quickie ran in like a train to inflict damage on my stumps or my chest. Dangerous? Nearly 50 years on I can still smell the fear.

But with my life flashing before me, at least I didn’t have a helmet to adjust.

 

 

 

 

 

Strangers on a train

I’m afraid to move for fear of getting some of the world on me. (Sergio De La Pava)

I’m at the batter’s end in the first innings and the ball has been smacked over point for a one-bounce four and landed in the heavy rough beyond the boundary.

I like to get the housekeeping sorted around the issue of where to stand early on so as not to compromise the view of the square-leg. fielder. When a pace bowler is on duty and the keeper is standing back, it really is no problem for me to accede to the fielder’s request that I move back so he can have some space of his own for a catch or run-out.

Over the years I have exchanged pleasantries with many square-leg fielders, mainly about the weather, the fortunes of the England cricket team and occasionally in the second innings a Trip Advisor-style rating of the tea.

The search party for the lost ball was on and as I was about to consult with my collegue about the time to add on when my young co-actor sidled over and said: Mind if I ask you a question umps? You are more experienced in life than me. I’m thinking of proposing to my girlfriend, what do you think?

So the umpiring training I had gone through, the exams I had passed, the three seasons in the wilderness of the lower divisions perfecting my technique (steady on) and subsequent postings on the league Panel had now reached their zenith as I am asked by a player to advise him on one of the most important decisions of his life. Up to that point I thought my role was to control a game of cricket, give 22 guys a great afternoon out and interpret the 42 Laws according to my experience and expertise. Now I am an Agony Uncle.

I was certainly capable of giving such advice – assuming Mrs Umps is not reading this I may for instance have said: Imagine, young man, you were facing the raw, hostile and brilliant fast bowling duo of Sir Wesley Hall and Sir Charlie Griffith without a helmet on a wicket that was doing a lot. And as he pondered the analogy I added: At your age, I would advise you to keep your library card rather than make a one-off purchase in Waterstones. As luck would have it, the ball was found and as it was making its way to the bowler I gave the entirely professional response: I’m not the person you should be asking a question like that. Let’s concentrate on the game.

Fast forward a couple of years to the day after the 2016 EU Referendum. We had just finished a drinks break and my batter’s-end co-conspirator had barely said a word to me despite our paths crossing for around eight consecutive overs. And that’s the way, aha aha, I like it – a courteous professional relationship that may occasionally cross a line with a discussion on the England cricket team.

We were walking back to our little office around square-leg when the guy (mid-thirties) said: Bloody mess [the Referendum] umps. They are never going to be able to sort out these negotiations. And it’s going to cost the country billions. Again, my response was to-the-point saying we were both standing where we were in order to play and officiate a game of cricket. But I did have a lengthy chat with the guy in the bar after the game and went home to explain the intricacies of legal negotiations as Mrs Umps served up a delightful cottage pie. (I should add that she has no knowledge of cricket and has never been to a game but like myself, she was greatly disappointed with Referendum result).

Then there was the day Mrs Umps had the car and I made my way to the match by walk/train/walk. I enjoy this way of travelling as I can have a pint after the game or read a book, or just go through the key decisions without the intense concentration demands. My umpiring colleague did me a turn by giving me a lift to the station, thus saving me a mile’s walk.

I boarded the train and was immediately confronted by another difficult umpiring decision. A player whom I had sent packing with a caught-behind was in the carriage. I could tell from his expression that he hoped I would sit with him and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation about the decision and umpiring in general. I often get a feeling about whether a decision was right or wrong in the manner a player who I may have given a marginal decision against shakes my hand after the game. Over the years maybe five players have refused to shake my hand which is a pretty good record for the three thousand players I have umpired in 10 seasons.

This player (whom I had not umpired before) was disappointed with the decision but he walked off without incident and shook my hand with grace after the game. On the journey home we discussed the decision in some depth. He was sure the ball had clipped his pad going through to the keeper (who was standing back) and I heard and saw an edge, as had my colleague who confirmed he thought it was out.

What I particularly liked about this guy was his ability to construct an argument while understanding and respecting an opposing viewpoint. He also gave me important feedback regarding inconsistency of decision-making regarding wides, no-balls and the criteria for coming off for bad weather. This was not relevant to me personally but I have often remarked to colleagues that we can only get better if we listen to what players think and say about us. We know about this in our association and we are given excellent training each year to ensure we are striving for consistency.