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.