Two sides of the same coin

Exchanging agreeable remarks for no other purpose than to keep silence from closing in. (Richard Yates)

The pre-match toss is a ceremony I rather like. I always arrive earlier than the ‘one hour before play starts’ requirement in the league. There is a lot to see to before the first ball is bowled – check the outfield for overhanging trees; check the sight screens; the boundary and pitch markings; discuss with umpiring colleague our views on behaviour (when and how to intervene); receive the match balls from the home captain; ensure we have bails, bowler’s marker, scoresheet, ball counter and score clicker, pencils (sharpened) a hat and sun cream.

Before all that is done I leave my bag in the umpires’ room, saunter out have a look at the wicket and introduce myself to the various people assembling  on the square. My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion in which you know nothing about the topic. And that is the reason why I never get involved in the weekly pre-match league cricket debate: “How’s is the pitch going to play?” Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield play perfectly and those that resemble a newly laid athletics track play like a minefield. These days live coverage of Test matches involve at least 20 minutes of a posse of former captains giving a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and the occasional JCB digger into the surface. I don’t like this time-filling exercise which is why I turn on the TV as the bowler starts his run-up for the first ball.

I am obliged to check that the pitch markings are correct and that that the surface is fit to play on. I am  not interested in what the experts are telling me about uneven bounce and the gradient that the bowlers need to watch out for as they approach the crease. Post-match we are charged with giving an assessment on how the pitch actually played although the ‘carry’ and ‘turn’ sections may have more to do with the quality of the bowling than whether the soil should be put on the naughty step.

Miraculously, when we call the skippers for the toss, the people who had assembled earlier have dispersed  – I haven’t a clue to where, or indeed who they are – I usually find them lurking in and around the pavilion during the match. (More on these anonymous souls in a later blog).

Unlike football and rugby where the toss is a ceremonial ribbon cutting exercise to determine which team will kick-off, the cricket toss can have repercussions, particularly if the skipper who wins it decides to have a bowl rather than a bat, and then loses the match.

At the top of my long list of ‘out of order’ is people whose handshake is like a white bread cheese sandwich that has been in a goldfish tank. As if there are not enough problems in the world without limp handshakes. A firm grip is all I ask for (but do not necessarily get) despite the said skipper sporting a six-pack and looking like he could roll the wicket with one hand.

The pre-toss banter can give you an indication of how the afternoon is going to pan out as the captains exchange some meaningless chat concerning the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how they have literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season and the same old same old nonsense of how difficult it is to get a team together (apparently Thursday is the default day that the top batter and bowler cried off) ‘so we may not be that strong today’. Aha! The ubiquitous reverse swing psychology has finally made its way to the village square. And if I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian response: “You won’t get any problems from us, umps.” I’m reassured that I predict a riot is now apparently unavailable in the bar’s juke box.

The coin is flipped and lands on the hallowed turf and either it’s an immediate decision (often accompanied by a smug ‘we’ll have a bat/bowl’) or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer asks because he doesn’t know the answer.

Before heading off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fees. Call me old fashioned but I much prefer the fee to be presented to me in a sealed C6 envelope with the word ‘Umpire’ on the front. But I regret to say there is one skipper out of 10 (unscientific cohort) who looks like he enjoyed his Friday night out and who turns up slightly confused, emptying his pockets of accoutrements that include creased bank notes, coins and an occasional betting slip with the batting order on the back.

 

 

 

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The best, simply

Talent is an asset (Sparks)

A few years ago I was in a hostelry watching a football League Two play-off final with a friend. After about 30 minutes of this frenetic, route-one free-for-all, he made an interesting observation. “The laws are the same, the shirts are similar and there are 22 players on the pitch. But this is not the same game of football that is played in the Premier League.”

In an earlier posting I highlighted some of the talent challenged players to be found wandering around the lower leagues and how becoming a panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to officiate among – in the main – very good cricketers. Overnight, two decent balls an over in the lower leagues became a minimum of four decent balls an over; fielding became spectacularly better and batters understood how to build an innings.

And on occasions, the match fee which covers petrol and around 10 hours duty is worth a lot more than the actual amount when I have had the pleasure of witnessing a special innings from a class batter or a match-winning spell of fast bowling from a young lad who can maybe make a name for himself. It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoning fours that stick in the mind, rather it is the leg-side nudges, the beautifully balanced cover drives, the shot selection (including leaves outside off stump) and a perfect judgement of runs that enhance the watching experience.

These nuances separate the bish-bash spear-carrying Romans from the few Charlton Hestons on the league circuit. Yes, cricket is certainly a hand-eye co-ordination sport and there are plenty of village blacksmiths who can clear a sight screen before getting caught (literally) with their hands in the Pick ‘n Mix trying to pinch a few more sweets. You can’t display hand-eye natural talent from the pavilion, but you can get to three figures if you know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leggie who is giving you a hard time knowing your partner has worked him out.

One such player immediately springs to mind. I have umpired two of his centuries, both of which were model innings. An opening bat, from the first over he took charge with a trademark ‘yes, one’ or ‘yes, two’, easing his way to 50 before pushing up the run-rate. I’ve also seen him get out early (on one occasion he got a ball that kept very low and played over it). His reaction was to walk off without the toys coming out of the cot, understanding that this type of incident is statistically rare and that next week his day may come, again. I have never seen him get out to a false shot – the guy is sheer class.

The same nuances apply to bowlers, particularly the opening variety who fancy themselves as the new Sir Wesley Hall. A five-over spell that has brought three wickets might look good in the scorebook but if 20 of those 30 deliveries failed to make the batter play the ball (not to mention the wides that pushed the count up to 35 balls) then the raw talent lottery win is not going to be a jackpot.

The key component that separates good from mediocre is time. I have seen former Premier League footballers in their last hurrahs playing in the lower leagues and despite carrying a few extra pounds of weight (not salary) they still orchestrate the game with closed eyes. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches here, a controlled drive for two there and an occasional smack to the boundary to one of the two badly bowled balls in an over. Time itself has nuances – the lethal batting cocktail to reach a century  includes waiting for the ball to come to bat and waiting for the ball that will get you four, or even six.

Good bowlers are also good waiters. If the usual run-up is not working, they try a different angle. If the nagging length outside off stump is keeping the run rate down but not getting rid of the batter who is now on 70, they bring something else out of the locker. And of course, any fielder, however much talent he has, can change the course of a 600-ball game with one throw at the stumps.

And yes, captaincy is also a talent, but that’s an article in itself.

 

 

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On the offensive

People, in my long experience, want to talk. (J. Robert Lennon)

Imagine the piano maestro Evgeny Kissin adjusting his stool before another magnificent rendition of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and the lead violinist leaning over and saying: “Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your fu*k-up in Salzburg two weeks ago.”

Welcome to the world of sledging, an art form that has filtered down from the dizzy heights of Test matches, through to first-class and minor counties, before landing on the squares of recreational cricket grounds. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease to a rousing rendition of ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ are long gone. Sledging is the new courtesy as club cricket seeks to gain an advantage at every opportunity.

Law 42 covers the issue of sledging making it a Level 1 offence (using language that, in the circumstances, is obscene, offensive or insulting or making an obscene gesture). But of course one cricketer’s obscene, offensive or insulting is another’s decent, complimentary or polite. One of the most interesting comments I have heard on a square in the last nine years came from an Aussie who at the end of a fractious game told me that no Aussie club player would make the kind of comments he had heard on England’s green and pleasant cricket land. (I certainly did not point out that the gentlemen sporting those rugged baggy green caps had been known to use some hi-tec industrial language).

I am reluctant to hand out a Level 1 – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I’ll be honest, I have stood with colleagues who revel in their authority, intervening at the slightest hint of a Law 42 misdemeanor. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than what I get from Mrs Umps and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays (and yes, she owns it the other six days).

I was at the bowler’s end when the second slip chance of the over was spilled by the same fielder. The bowler shouted ‘fu*k off’ and my colleague was ready to have the flat-pack gallows erected on the square. I stopped his march to glory in his tracks, explaining that the said bowler’s outburst was directed at himself as well as the fielder and we should do nothing. ‘But it was in earshot of the pavilion so we have to give him a Level 1’,  my colleague responded. I prevailed and gave the bowler a fatherly piece of advice on how to manage his justifiable anger.

For me, the so-called offence has to be ans obvious ‘Level 1’ (the three levels above 1 are so far up the Richter Scale they would be ideal for a Quentin Tarantino sequel to The Hateful Eight (The Hateful eight-for?) So when a close-in fielder greeted an incoming batter taking guard with ‘the next ball is going to put you in A&E’, we were all over it like a cheap suit. The fielding captain described it as ‘a bit of banter’ but I told him I had done jury service on cases that were one step up from such verbal threats and which had resulted in physical violence.

It is the ‘clever sledgers’ who I most admire. These agile cat burglars of sledging often involve keeper, slips and bowler working in unison and while they may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, they would certainly make a half decent repertory theatre that specialised in discovering urban talent. So a ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the keeper with a quiet-ish:  ‘Ooh, he doesn’t fancy it Mustard’ (the bowler ‘Mustard’ is presumably a gentleman named Coleman). In the next over (from the other end) the batter is getting bat on ball but not piercing the field as first slip enters (stage right) with: ‘Outside off Dave, he fancies it’ (again, not a hanging offence). Dave of course understands the message and bowls a leg yorker which the batter just manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As Dave walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker that his partner ‘should buy a lottery ticket, it’s going to be his day’ cleverly sowing another seed of doubt into the equation. More Independent than Daily Star, this type of sledging is both informed and more likely to bring success.

And that should be the point of sledging. The banter can add to the tension of league cricket where points and local bragging rights may be at stake. And I particularly like it when the captain of the fielding side understands why myself or my colleague intervenes and instructs his team to stop with the nonsense. A bowler who has bowled a rank long-hop and is dispatched to the boundary, and who then admonishes himself with a loud “Sh*t” does not deserve a yellow card dangled in front of him. Even if the expletive is in earshot of the pavilion, it is bad umpiring (

But F*S, you don’t need me to tell you that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Run-in with Law 38

What is leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason. (Robert Harris)

Law 38 (Run out) is the one that tests the limits of an umpire. Some of the worst decisions I have given were run-outs – I know they were bad because as soon as I gave them I knew I had got them wrong. These howlers were in my apprenticeship years in the lower divisions of the league when I would press the trigger or decline an appeal far too quickly. Since my elevation to the panel in 2013, I have got much better, mainly through the excellent training my association provides along with a forensic collection of nuanced examples that have helped me construct a run-out crime scene and act accordingly. But I want to make this point from the outset; judging a run-out is often a literal ‘too close to call’ exercise which is why umpires on the big money in sell-out stadia have an army of television engineers to do the job for them.

My run-out archive contains very few incidents where both batters end up at the same end with the ball casually thrown to keeper or bowler to politely nudge a bail out of the groove. Similarly, I am not interested in the three yards short of the crease variations. The ‘either way’ where the batter has or has not made his ground, is of far more interest.

Broadly speaking there are two types of close run-out calls; the pick-up and throw at the stumps from within the 12-yard ‘circle’ (whether imaginary or real) and a boundary field and throw that might break most laws of physics with a direct hit, or the more common thrown into the keeper’s gloves for him to break the wicket while the batters are trying to steal a second or third run. There is also the bowler in follow-through deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps leaving a batter backing up with egg on his face in his attempt to poach a run.

Humans are fallible, that is how run-outs occur. I’ve seen established partnerships of 70-plus runs come to a dramatic demise because one of the guys sees a run that doesn’t exist and ruins his partner’s weekend. Club level cricket is no different to any competitive sport, the folk that excel intuitively know how to walk the line of seizing the moment without taking unnecessary risks. Run-outs occur because batters are unable to concentrate at the required level all of their time at the crease.

On a close call run-out the batter who gives up on the chase lives in hope that there is no direct hit because catching or gathering a ball to break the stumps takes a surprisingly longer amount of time than you might think. The batter who uses the bat to make his ground (with or without a dive) at least gives himself a chance. It took me a few years to fully understand the dynamics of this race: the batter who is unhappy with a decision because he is three yards past the stumps does not realise how far the momentum of his despairing efforts has carried him, and more importantly the dive has absolutely nothing to do with where he was as the bails came off. Similarly, I have seen plenty of keepers give me ‘the look’ after I turn down a run-out appeal because of course, from their point of view, the bails were off immediately so the batter must have been out. And along with this ‘look’ comes a triumphant strut towards his teammates and high fives all round as if the umpire is abusing the keeper’s human rights by even considering a not-out.

In an earlier posting I talked about how much fielding has improved. And I am always impressed with fielders who emulate Ricky Ponting and Ben Stokes with direct hits. Interestingly, running between the wickets and communication between batters has not improved at the same pace. The lethal cocktail of ‘Yes, no, yes yes, noooo’ is on constant playback as batters are left stranded.

An imaginary prosecuting barrister would ask: ‘Why do you give different decisions on what looks like, from the evidence presented, the same situation?’ This is a pertinent question. These close run-out calls all look and feel similar. I reply: ‘I do not know. I give it as I see it. But I can tell you that I have had as many batters and fielders after a game telling me I had called run-outs correctly (for and against them) as those who said they thought the decision I had given was anything ranging from incorrect to incompetent.’

Let’s be honest, on a tight run-out an umpire is making nothing more than an educated guess, which, at the very least, is better than a guess made through ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

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One for the road

Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever (Paul Auster)

The medium pacer with the nagging line and length is getting on the batter’s nerves. The bowler is too good for him. The fifth ball beats him and right on cue the bowler follows through with the stand-and-stare routine while the batter practises the shot he really meant to play, but of course playing it properly was way beyond his pay scale. One ball to go and I’ll be at square leg thinking about what I have to do at work on Monday morning (bad practice, we are trained to give the same concentration while standing at the batter’s end as we do at the bowler’s end. But when the keeper is standing back I have found that square leg provides the perfect habitat for a spot of R&R).

As the sixth ball of the over is delivered, fate conspires against me. The ground is situated close to an A road and even on a Saturday there are enough wagons and testosterone-fuelled bikers to edge the decibel scale north. This ain’t no quaint village green, it’s a hardcore concrete jungle with a cricket ground.

There is a loud appeal for caught behind as bowler, keeper, slips, long leg, tea ladies and two old blokes walking their dogs go up in choreographed unison that could have been directed by Busby Berkeley. The problem for me is that a truck driver who is hurtling down the A road chooses that very moment of the alleged offence of bat on ball, to sit on the horn. If he had forgotten his lunch box when leaving home, or stopped for cuppa in one of those makeshift snack stops on the A road (usually with a corrugated roof emblazoned with the word ‘Tea’s’ – yes I am aware the apostrophe is misplaced), I would have been in the perfect situation to make a decision. But at this precious moment I was entrusted with making a judgement when the only evidence to give the batter out was the near orgasmic pleading of the bowler and keeper (with the greatest respect to the two fellows, hardly DNA material).

The batter stands and hopes and of course I’m having none of it. How the hell can I hear anything with the Grand Prix on the A road? ‘Not out. Over bowled,’ I announce. My colleague, walking in from square leg points to his right ear to confirm he couldn’t hear anything. Cue the the tiresome guilt tripping of the batter who is out for a few more soon after the incident and is given a less than polite send-off peppered with gerunds along with advice on how to get rid of the evidence on the edge of the bat.

The incident has no influence on the game’s outcome. But the same finger of fate is at work after the game. Approaching my car, I encounter the wicket keeper and team-mate about to set off. The wicket keeper eases the passenger window down. “Thanks umps, hope to see you later in the season,” he says in tone of voice that suggests he might not actually mean that he hopes to see me later in the season.

And purely for quality control purposes, I ask him with a faint smile: “Did he really hit it?”

“No idea umps, couldn’t hear a thing.”

At least Dick Turpin wore a mask.

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. I’ve always wondered how umpires can hear anything in a noisy ground. Must be giving faint edges the decision based on sight alone – hard.

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Cricket’s Village People – Macho Macho Man

I became as hard as whipcord, but with a brain like cotton wool. (Derek Raymond)
The visitors are batting second and are around 40 runs away from chasing down around 250 with plenty of wickets in hand. The game is in the bag. A right-hand-left hand batting combo need a sight screen moving. It’s a nickel and dime situation normally dealt with immediately; a couple of fielders get the screen moved, and on we go.

But once again, the psychopathy of a league cricketer determines that a polite request can become a potential heated incident. As fortune would not have it on this occasion, there is a perfect storm of no fielder being near and a posse from the batting side enjoying a stroll who happened to find themselves next to the screen.

The captain of the fielding team shouts a polite request to the posse paraphrased as follows: “Guys, would a couple of you mind moving the screens.” No response. The captain, moving a tad nearer to the posse, tries again – still no response.  The head honcho of the posse then crosses the boundary rope and in a ‘this-town’s-not-big-enough-for-both-of-us’ posture declares: “Come and fu*king make me.”

At that point I had a vision of my missus asking me to pass her a ball of wool for her latest handicraft project while I’m watching Match of the Day and me saying ‘come and fu*king make me’ before I am impaled by a single point needle while the missus is telling the ambulance service ‘there is a lot of blood….but take as long as you need to, I appreciate how busy you guys are’.

It took a few seconds for the fielders to digest the situation which gave me a enough time to hot foot it over to the posse and tell the head honcho that if he wanted to play further games this and next season, he should move the screen and apologise to to the fielding captain, which he did, saying they were only ‘having a larf’.

While noting the absurd reaction and comment of the head honcho, the fielding captain could easily have calmed the situation by instructing a couple of fielders to move the screens. By choosing not to, the captain agreed to enter the potential conflict with the danger of the situation ‘unravelling’.

Captaincy is a crucial part of a cricket match’s dynamics. I have noticed that the captains who take what might be described as a poor decision by the umpire (never from myself, of course) on the chin and carry on with the game, tend to lead teams that are more successful. A case in point happened in 2016 in a game I remember well. I turned down a marginal LBW decision from the skipper. The batter went on to make another 40-plus runs so it could have been costly. But instead of throwing his toys out of the cot, the decision stimulated the captain to rally his troops who bowled and fielded better in the latter part of the innings and comfortably chased down the target. The message is clear, think before you act – especially where you are minded to react.

The shock element was not so much that the sight screen incident took place, rather that it took place in the context of the match where the head honcho’s team are winning by a mile (and win they did). The issue here is what turns a perfectly decent guy outside the boundary rope into one with concerning personality issues as soon as his right foot lands inside the playing area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No logos

Price. You’re priceless. (Bret Easton Ellis)

There are many reasons why I enjoy umpiring, but the one that gives me most satisfaction is the support provided by my local association of umpires. From training to advice, from camaraderie to caring, every time I cross the boundary rope with a colleague, I feel I have a wonderful association behind me. The courses they run are superb and they have helped me no end.

I am also generally happy with the English Cricket Board (ECB) Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) the national body that represents umpires and scorers. For a £30 per year membership, I am fully insured and enjoy receiving a well presented monthly magazine.

But to be brutally honest, I have some reservations about ECB, most of which revolve around its ‘provision’ of on and off-field gear where I think the Board is  taking the proverbial urine sample. Let me start this finger wagging by stating that no umpire I have met is doing the job for ‘the money’. Yes, we are remunerated for leaving the house at around 11am and returning around nine hours later a sum, that when you factor in petrol or train fares, amounts to around £3 an hour. I think we can safely say that money is not the reason we do the job.

So it is with some angst that I present you with the following delicacies available in the ECBACO online catalogue.  For £95 you can proudly sport ECB, ACO and supplier Duncan Fearnley logos on a woollen sweater (just what you need on a hot July afternoon, of course). Fancy a holdall to carry your stuff from the jam jar to the pavilion? At Sports Direct (my personal outfitters) you pay £10 with the SD logo, in the ACO catalogue you pay £60. (But of course, you have the honour and privilege of carrying the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos on your hike of 15 metres).

But the mother of all offers is the staggering £475 (I repeat, £475) ‘offer’ in the ‘Match II Ultimate Pack’. This pot-pourri of goodies includes the big hitting on-field jacket, trousers, shirt, sweater (nope, not the £95 woollen one, rather the one that will give you an afternoon of electric shocks to help you concentrate harder with the sassy leg-spinner at your end), ball counter (from 0.99p on Amazon), bails (from £3.22 on Amazon) and a towel to keep the ball dry (free from home, but without the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos).

I have cosied up to colleagues (some of the umpires’ changing rooms are really cosy, believe me) who come bedecked from head to toe with the three logos. That’s fine, people can spend their money how they want, but I am happy to take the field without logos and savings that will go a long way to paying for a fortnighlty trip to the cinema.

I took this issue up with an extremely jolly fellow manning the Duncan Fearnley stand at the ACO’s annual meeting at Lord’s some years ago. There were excellent keynote speeches from famous cricket doyens that day and we got a tour of the Lord’s pavilion along with posh sandwiches and biscuits that you can usually only find in Waitrose. Back to my jolly friend – he agreed the prices were high but said that the ECB demanded a high rate for use of its logo on the merchandise (an interesting point for an organisation that turned over around £172m in 2018-19).

So to the ECB I say this. Given that your 2020-2024 broadcasting deal is worth £1.1bn and you are charging around £100 a day per ticket to watch the World Cup and Ashes (and if I want to watch the World Cup and Ashes live on TV, I have to stump up a few hundred a year to Sky, who are the main payers of the above broadcasting deal), how about a little gesture to the men and women who ensure every game of cricket is properly officiated. For the effort we put in; for the lip and flak we take; for the courses and training we do (and pay for); for the intense concentration over around 600 balls a match; for our dedication to the great game of cricket – for all of this and a whole lot more, how about getting on the dog and bone to Duncan Fearnley and instructing them to provide free of charge a once-only ‘Match II Ultimate Pack’ to every qualified umpire in the country.

I’m sure the good folk in the Finance Department of the ECB can arrange a good deal on the usage of the ECB logo.

 

 

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The field-good factor

People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering… (Richard Yates)

When I first started playing league cricket in the 1970s you would turn up to the nets in April, have a bat and bowl ready for the first match in May. There was no knowledge or perception of ‘match fitness’, indeed the newspaper representing the county I supported would run a pre-season photograph of the pros jogging around a wet county ground outfield in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits accompanied by a headline like ‘Ready for action’.

In those days there were a number of top players whose girth would merit an automatic disqualification in today’s game. The likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe carrying all those kilos would never have made one of those sliding stops a few metres from the boundary or been one of a double act tag-team catching card trick beyond and inside the rope.

In all the years I played league cricket the level of fielding was generally poor from the slippers to the cover fielders and beyond. It seemed to be a given in league cricket (and indeed in some first class quarters) that average fielding was something you just put up with. Sure, there was an occasional great run-out as the cover fielder gathered the ball cleanly and ran out the striker with a direct hit, but those kinds of incidents were as rare as a camel wandering onto the pitch (I must tell you about that incident in a later blog). My memory of league cricket as a player was seeing regulation catches spilled, shots hit directly to a fielder sailing over the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the keeper.

And it gives me great pleasure to report that league cricket fielding is so much improved today it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game as I did.  At each game I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stars with arms like tree trunks and the kind of strength you see on reality shows where people are dragging trucks across the Sahara. In my day, the pre-match warm-up was a quick Silk Cut in front of the pavilion followed by a couple of catches in the outfield. Today, it’s an SAS-style pot-pourri of sprints, squats, ballistic throws to the keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket. In play, I am regularly called on to judge run-outs where the chance of one happening  goes from impossible to probable as a fielder dives and throws down the stumps. Balls that are hit like a tracer bullet are plucked off the ground with one hand and catches to the deep are rarely spilled. I regularly do a crude calculation of runs saved by fielding in an innings and it can amount to 30-plus.

Clearly clubs are working on their fielding as much as their batting and bowling. And it is good to see that cricket TV coverage (if you can afford it) is giving the right kind of role model message with the magic powers of today’s top players in the field. I will come onto sledging in a future blog – that kind of nonsense is not a good role model for club cricket, and it has made its way into the recreational game. But to see a team of amateurs successfully emulating IPL billionaire fielders is brilliant.

So while I take my hat off to modern league cricket fielding there is one area of the art that really annoys me. These days, the most innocuous drive played directly to a fielder at say mid-off or cover point is greeted by a cacophony of ‘great fielding Jonesy, Smithy, Big Al’ when even in my day that kind of regulation fielding was within the capability reach of a bloke the size of a person today featured on Britain’s Fight with Fat.

So ‘give it up’ for the UK’s league cricketers and their meteoric rise to fielding fame. As I watch your acrobatic dexterity I recall how I wasted my years standing in the same spot as you. As you all know, I am neutral so cannot possibly shower you with praise. So please do not pass this on, but I really admire you all.

 

 

 

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Baby you can drive my carbs

Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting? (Tom Wolfe)

Go into any league cricket club and you will find a well stocked and equipped bar serving a variety of beers and spirits. So why is it that what you drink after the match can sometimes be given more importance than what you digest in the tea interval?

The quintessential club cricket tea image of a steaming tea pot (note, not an urn), home-made scones, jam tarts, sandwiches generously filled with an assortment of egg, tomato, cheese, chutney and ham – all washed down with a proper cup of tea is embedded in cricket folklore. But as with much of modern life, for some clubs, the tea interval has become transformed from a delightful half-hour break of rest and merriment into a cricketing dystopia involving a 20-minute binge of comfort food purchased from the local supermarket at best.

It is extremely rare to come away from a league match feeling satiated after treading extremely carefully around a minefield of sausage rolls, mini rolls, imitation Kit Kats and miserable white bread sandwiches which, had they been served in prison, would have precipitated a riot. And to compound the felony, some clubs feel no shame in presenting a cup of tea as some kind of capability test consisting of a tea bag, urn, plastic carton of milk with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class – stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.

Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I hear time and again from club officials)? Actually, no. There are some clubs who know how to do it right, and by that I am not only talking about the food. For me, the ceremony and organisation are equally important.

So when I am dispatched to a particular club that understands the difference between a Wetherspoons’ gut-wrenching curry and a Michelin Star pub lunch, I eagerly anticipate the assignment, because tea there is an experience to savour. After the delicious (and bountiful) rounds of sandwiches, the tea ladies (two or three mums of the players) come round with trays filled with an appealing melange of scones, cakes and buns. “A slice of jam sponge umps? I made it myself.”  The frisson is tangible as I hold out my plate: “Well if you made it yourself my dear, it would be impolite to refuse. My goodness, that’s a generous piece.”

As a bare minimum, every tea should allocate a table for umpires and scorers. I don’t particularly mind the queue for the smorgasboard  but it’s a tad awkward sitting next to the village blacksmith half an hour after I sent him packing with a close LBW (especially if  I am also savouring the delights of a Poundland custard cream). The cost of plastic tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the Tesco in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. Can we also dispense with the paper or plastic plates and cups typically found and used in fast food outlets and replace them with appropriate cutlery and crockery? Do we really have to put up with chemically induced supermarket pizzas or sausage rolls? Why are salads and fresh fruit regularly banished from cricket pavilions? And what is the obsession with cheap crisps and Hula Hoops? As it stands, cricket teas are winning the arms race carbs war by a distance.

There are simple ways to improve the cricket tea. And it needs to start at the top. Just as there are guidelines for sightscreens and boundary markings, so there should be minimum standards for what constitutes a decent tea. Clubs could promote an initiative with a College and invite students on a Professional Cookery Btec to provide teas; a local restaurant could provide ideas for a tea in return for catering a club’s AGM.

I am not looking for PR gimmicks, rather I am looking for some clubs to raise their catering game so that there is a level playing field and standard that makes all the cricketing stakeholders happy.

4 Comments

  1. This also alludes to the amount of wasteful, single use, packaging that no doubt accompanies these horror offerings. A no-ball to all of that, my son.

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Able was I ‘ere I saw LB

It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. (JD Salinger)

The human mind is capable of orchestrating the juggling many balls at the same time (search jugglers on Britain’s Got Talent, or just take my word for it). Most ordinary Joes would find juggling balls a difficult enough task but those same Joes when donning the whites have little truck with my contention that interpreting Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) is almost impossible if accuracy of decision-making is the main criteria.

Before the bowler delivers the ball, I am watching out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, bowler action, follow-through keeping out of the protected area of the pitch, trajectory of ball, where it pitches and its journey after pitching, how dangerous it may be, whether the batter at the bowler’s end is trying to steal a cheeky metre. And with all of that neatly stored in my consciousness, was the impact on the pad direct or was it a bat snick onto the pad?

With all of these stipulations you might think wonder whether deciding on the village blacksmith’s fate after going through the above list in a few seconds is a less preferable way to spend a Saturday afternoon than an  expedition to the tundra of Ikea with the missus. Judging an LBW is not an exact science, it is a judgement based on evidence, knowledge and experience of Law 36 and its caveats.

It’s interesting how bowlers, batters, fielders (even those with a perfect view of LBW at long leg) have wide interpretations of Law 36. The bowler thinks he has caught a burglar running out of his house carrying a 50-inch TV but with so many mitigating circumstances, LBW is is a defence barrister’s Shangri-la and if there is any doubt, it ain’t going to be out. In the few seconds I have to ruin the blacksmith’s weekend, I run over the forensics in my mind:

  1. Did the ball pitch outside leg stump? If so, the batter is not out.
  2. Was the impact of the ball outside the line of off stump and was the batter playing a shot? If so, the batter is not out.
  3. After impact of ball hitting pad (assuming 1 and 2 are sorted) is the ball heading for the stumps?
There are other factors that mitigate in favour of the batter,  the main one being the prevalence of some league bowlers’ inability to bowl a ball that would make the LBW director’s cut. The same Law 36 apply to Shane Warne and the village shoesmith but Warney bowling to Sachin Tendulkar would tax Aleem Dar more than the shoesmith bowling to the blacksmith taxes me.

The only way to deal with an LBW decision is to ignore the screaming bowler, wicket keeper, fielder and tea lady (and of course the batter examining the edge of his bat) and take a few seconds to reconstruct the crime scene before delivering your verdict.

Reactions from batters given out are worse than from bowlers who tend to take a rejected appeal as part of their shift on the coal face. Sometimes a wicket keeper backs me up, telling the skipper: “It was high” or “going down leg”. Quite. So why appeal if you know it was not out? (I think we know the answer to that question).

Batters of course are never out LBW. It wasn’t me guv; I wouldn’t get on the back foot to that kind of delivery; it pitched a mile outside leg stump; if you couldn’t hear the nick of bat onto ball then you shouldn’t be umpiring; way too high umps (defiant in his belief the impact was just below the left nipple).

I am rarely kept awake worrying about umpiring decisions but out of the 40,000-plus balls I have been in charge of at the bowler’s end in league games, I occasionally muse over certain judgements.

An LBW decision I am now sure I got wrong came during my first season as a panel umpire where I gave the batter not out on a strong appeal. A useful right-arm medium-pace bowler was all over this middle order batter like a cheap suit, beating him every other ball. It was one of those appeals that came with all the trimmings – wicket keeper screaming with both arms pointing to a superior force in the sky and the bowler, having examined the damage, turning round, going down on one knee and beckoning me Pavarotti style.

My initial inclination was to give it as it met all the criteria (legal delivery, pitched on off and impacted just below the knee roll of the front-foot pad). But in the few post-impact seconds my thought process determined that something was not quite right and I persuaded myself that the impact may have been just outside the off stump and the batter did attempt to to play a front foot defensive shot. I had allowed myself to find a reason not to give it. For some reason, I didn’t have the balls and that is a more important part of the umpire’s learning curve – understanding why you make certain decisions, rather than reflecting on the decision itself.

One I got right stayed with me for my own most unprofessional reaction. In my first post-qualifying apprentice season in the lower divisions of the league – before I became a panel umpire – I gave a batter out LBW (impact on back foot heading for lower part of middle stump having pitched on middle). As the batter reluctantly trudged away from the crease he said: “I hit it.”

“Get the local paper on Friday, sonny,” I replied. And you’ll see that you didn’t.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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