Reading these pages you will be thinking what a thoroughly decent fellow I am with my tolerance, empathy and dedication to the umpiring cause. I appreciate these kind thoughts, but between ourselves, there have been occasions when I get into my car after a match and speed off like a driver from a bank heist.
I never leave bad vibes on the field of play or pavilion. Whatever has happened inside the boundary rope is left to be swept away by the groundsman as the players make merry in a post-match bar. There are many untold stories of emotion left on a cricket ground – beautiful cover drives, superb catches, spells of bowling that have kept the run rate down, acts of heroism bringing a team back into a match that had looked lost. There is also no shortage of disappointment, remorse and at times, anger.
Quality batters return to the pavilion and contemplate how they played that shot. Bowlers make the trek to long-leg having been pummelled for a few boundaries. Captains mis-field a straight ball at mid-off, their concentration hampered by winning the toss, deciding to bowl and then spending half the afternoon retrieving balls from the boundary.
All of this is food and drink to myself and my colleagues. We coast in neutral with no influence on which way the game’s wind is blowing. It’s not our intervention that causes a batter to aim for a church spire in the next village, a reliable slip fielder to drop a simple catch or when dark clouds conspire to rob a team of victory.
In one game, the meteorologists keep their promise and it’s raining hard enough to come off. We get back to the pavilion and the visiting captain is waiting. And that is when the genteel and stoical umps is at his his most vulnerable as someone lights a fuse that surges through his body.
In a method acting voice borrowed from Marlon Brando, the captain says: No worse than when we stayed on in the first innings umps. So why have we come off now? We’re in the UK, not the Sahara. It’s a joke. We don’t rise to that particular bait, particularly as it is now raining hard. We are in and out looking at the wicket, the square and outfield and twenty minutes later we shake hands.
After completing the paperwork, we shower and out of politeness to the blameless home team, we have a quick drink in the bar, and then hit the road. The visitors probably would have won but in the League regulations, there were not enough overs completed in the second innings to constitute a match. There was no need for the repertory cameo from the captain, but all it meant was that the team’s behaviour was marked as satisfactory, not good.
Well over ninety percent of League cricketers are decent folk who play hard and fair and behave perfectly. But I’ve noticed a trend among League cricketers that have played at a higher level (like Minor Counties or even at the First Class level) to test my patience.
A regular club cricket bowler will happily plough a furrow for scant reward, but once a season he’ll be bursting with pride as he relates every detail of a five-for to his devoted colleagues in the bar. But there is something about former semi-pros – starts with the very definition of their previous status – I played two pre-season warm up games for [insert county] eighteen years ago. But such is their self-regard, that even in the third tier of a recreational League, they strut around the ground as if they were hailing the Maitre d’ at La Gavroche.
Every time a ball hits a pad, the ex-pro is down on one, or even two knees with an aggressive appeal. Pitched outside leg stump? Impact outside off stump? Ball hits bat onto pad? All irrelevant. It’s out because only he knows what proper cricket is all about. If he were a London cabbie he’d be telling an unsuspecting passenger that he’d had the Krays in the back of the cab.
I handle the situation of excessive appealing in a conciliatory manner. I don’t report it as Level 1 offence because I know the captain well enough for him to take ownership of the problem, and it’s quickly sorted. On the journey home I think about this player and others like him. I imagine them being that close to a county and even a Test career only to have it cruelly ended because even though they are in the top one percent of cricketers in the country, they are still not good enough. All they have left is the third tier of the League.
However much blood, sweat and tears have been spent on the ground, the post-match handshake ceremony is not up for debate. Whatever a player’s feelings about this or that decision, he shakes my hand and then we can have the arbitration talks in the bar.
There has only been one one occasion where a player refused a handshake. I have umpired this guy a few times over the years and despite his age (mid-forties) and sporting a generous girth, he is a decent finger spinner with Premier League experience. He’s fielding at first slip and I turn down a caught-behind. The wicket-keeper tells me he isn’t sure so what is this guy’s problem? But the fielder just can’t let go with mutterings between overs and looks to kill from the Mrs Umps vault, and then refusing to shake hands with me after the game. I keep my cool, politely entering the dressing room and holding out my hand. And to be fair, he accepts it.
Every decision I make involves a winner and loser, that’s the nature of cricket. It took me a few years to realise that disappointed and angry players can infect umpires when their temperatures are rising. But they will only succeed If we let them.