Hamlet with the wince

It was a sign of low-rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor choice. (Tom Wolfe)

Before I became an official Level 1 Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) Umpire, my perception of a cricket club chairman was based on an actual post holder in a club I played for. A retired solicitor and average cricketer, this chairman sported a double breasted blazer (occasionally with a cravat) grey slacks and the finest leather brogues with tassels. He would attend all the home games of the firsts and seconds and nursing a G&T would talk lovingly about amateur football matches he attended with his father, including the 1951 Amateur Cup Final.

Perceptions, however can be a slippery slope. The reality is that the modern club cricket chairman is representative of a wide range of backgrounds and dress codes. I’ve seen chairmen in T-shirts and shorts firing up a John Deere mower before putting the finishing touches to a wicket. I’ve seen them get out of cars that are even worse than mine (although I do have the number plate UMP51; UR 0UT was unavailable). And these days a chairman is likely to be nursing a pint of lager and using the occasional gerund, especially when their prize Aussie import whose passage was paid for by Mr C has been sent packing with a marginal LBW.

What I liked most about my old club chairman was his use of the word winter as a verb. At the last match gathering when, even if we were playing away, we would return to the clubhouse to say our goodbyes, the chairman always said winter well in his end-of-season speech. And these days, at the beginning of an umpiring season, I am occasionally asked: winter well umps? Which, to quote the gentleman from the Fast Show, is nice.

The three seasons I spent in the lower divisions of the league learning the umpiring trade were invaluable. On the pitch it took me around three overs into my first game to realise that an absurd appeal for LBW was simply a test of how easy it was to be cajoled by the fielding side. Everything else fell into place quickly; a cacophony of noise from wicket-keeper, slips and long leg for a caught behind that missed the bat by around a foot; run-out appeal when the wicket-keeper broke the wicket with the ball nestling by his foot; an ex-pro well into his fifties asking me politely at the end of an over why I had turned down an LBW, when his view was from mid-wicket; the best is saved for last, an incoming batter telling me I was not standing behind the wicket as he looked on from the pavilion located at cover point.

But nothing prepared me for senior school more than the encounter with a club chairman in the middle of that first season. It was an away game for the club for which I was umpiring. We all know that this situation is by no means perfect, each side provides its own umpire and yes, given what I have written above, you might not be surprised that an occasional decision is given in favour of your team.

The chairman game (as I subsequently called it) was evenly poised when I gave out  a batter from the opposition who was going well. It was an LBW decision – close but perfectly legitimate to call (pitching on off, impact on middle and off and in my humble opinion, heading for leg stump). It is true that as I got more experienced and studied the profile of bowlers delivering wide of the crease with the ball missing leg, that I may not have given it.

The batter was unhappy and at the tea break he was waiting for me, presumably not to discuss the refurbishment of the pavilion. I was desperate for a cuppa and carbs, and politely told him I was happy to discuss the decision after the game (which, incidentally, his team won).

The player did not appear for the post-match handshake and for me today that would be an immediate Level 1 Unacceptable conduct felony. But after the shower and paperwork with my colleague I went to the bar where the club chairman invited me to step outside with him. In my misspent youth I had seen enough Edgar Wallace to understand what ulterior motive precipitated the request.

This chairman was a long way from Chairman Winter Well. For double breasted blazer and grey slacks read BHS sale; for shoes read one of those local high street outlets where you are overcharged at £12 a pair, and for demeanor read Hamlet 5- pack cigar, tie with stained shirt unbuttoned and – wait for it – a blue T-shirt under the said white shirt (that’s bound to get you swiping right on Tinder and it’s none of your business how I know about this).

But step out I did and the chairman took a deep breath.

Mind if I ask you a question? (As if my response would make any difference).

Are you a qualified umpire? 

Actually, yes, which makes me a rare breed at this level of cricket.

Then why did you give our guy out when the ball was missing the f*****g leg stump?

Because it pitched on off, impact was on middle-and-off and I judged it to be hitting leg.

(Lighting up Hamlet) You haven’t got a clue mate.

 

 

 

 

 

The bases of umpiring

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. (George Orwell)

I have a vivid memory of watching my first live baseball match at Shea Stadium, New York, in 1978. I had worked on a kids’ summer camp and it was the night before three mates from the camp and myself embarked on the famous Route 66 New York to Los Angeles road trip. Having grown up watching the sedate world of county cricket, here was an entirely different bat and ball proposition, a night of razzmatazz with hot dogs, a seventh inning stretch appearance of TV dog Lassie and the pitcher being transported to the mound in a golf buggy that resembled Liberace’s bathroom. That’s just not cricket, you may say. But forty-plus years on, it is exactly what cricket has become with IPL. And I believe the game is better for it.

At Shea Stadium that sweltering August night, I remember the packed house under floodlights, the moment where time stood still before the pitcher swivelled into action, the endless possibilities from each pitch and the uniforms that respected the traditions of baseball.

However much you love a particular sport, a referee or umpire is nothing more than a functionary and until I understood the significance of that word, I took some hard knocks.

Before and after a game there is much to do. I leave Umps Towers at 10.45am and return around 8.45pm. Around two of those hours are taken up with travel with a further two hours of umpiring duties before (checking the pitch, boundary, overhanging trees, captains’ briefing, toss) and after (paperwork, a drink and discussion in the bar).

Then there is the small matter of officiating six hundred balls. In the bad old days you would regularly get county and Test matches where two hundred represented fast going in a day’s cricket. With heavier bats and six-pack physiques the pace has quickened but there are times when there is not much action. While some of the younger players on the circuit like to tee off from ball one, most batters understand that watching from the pavilion is not as profitable as building an innings in the middle. I like these unremarkable passages of play – numbers on the scoreboard may not be cranking over but the tension is palpable. I can imagine a few bowlers desperate to accompany the look they give a batter who was ready to have a go but thought better of it with the immortal Dirty Harry line: Go on punk, make my day.

Those six hours on the field demand concentration, judgement and decision-making skills. The combination of Laws, League regulations and player management duties is a tough assignment and an umpire cannot afford a ball off duty (including at the striker’s end). I have developed a routine – it is interesting that the times I have been found wanting usually come when I deviate from it.

The bread and butter stuff is now hardwired into my system as I hear the bowler approaching. I’m watching for back foot; front foot; where the ball pitches; where it is going onto; is the bowler running into the protected area; is the ball legal; does it meet the criteria for a possible LBW or caught behind; is it a wide ball? Oh, and all this inside a couple of seconds – so no pressure.

Some balls are delivered, left alone and go through to the wicket-keeper. Others are defended and dribble out a few feet. Some are thumped to the boundary, others are nudged to a place where no fielder is in place for a single. Some balls ignite the action button so I position myself for a run-out. Others demand a judgement on whether a catch has carried to a fielder. Like the pitcher moment of truth at Shea Stadium, the list of possibilities from the ball leaving a bowler’s hand are endless.

Aside from the routine of remembering the weekly shopping list above, I also look over to my colleague after every ball (in case he has spotted something) and take a couple of paces out of my office while updating my ball counter and run clicker. And then at the end of the over, I fill in my scorecard while keeping an eye on the behaviour of the players as they cross for the next. (If you have been a follower of this blog you might have noticed that players sometimes have differences of opinions, and not only with the opposition).

Fans provide passion, players entertain and we umpires are functionaries that enable the game to flow. It is when umpires bring emotion into their work that problems arise. Failure is unforgiving. You can be on top of the minutiae with the ball counter, run clicker, scorecard and over rate. But a fall from grace can come from nowhere.

Such an incident occurred late in the season in a game where both sides had an outside chance of promotion. It was the second over of the first innings and the batter had hit consecutive off drives to the rope. He hit the next one straight and I triggered to jump out of the way. But in his follow-through the bowler got a finger on the ball and inadvertently diverted it onto the stumps. I gave the backing-up batter not out. It was a bad decision.

The batter only got a few runs and it had no effect on the game. But I had a bad day because I could not get it out of my mind. And here lies a truism about cricket umpiring. The magic of the moment from Shea Stadium is not a panacea of joy and poor decisions are accidents at best and bad judgement at worst, waiting to happen.  You have to be equally alert for every ball and base your judgement on knowledge of the Laws and your experience as a player and umpire. If you get wrapped up in emotion then you are simply projecting the role of spectator into the role of umpire.

Of course these split-second judgements are difficult. We are not paid the big bucks (steady on, ed) to have a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. I wasn’t expecting the bowler to get a finger to the ball, I was off balance, I saw the backing up batter get back, but I didn’t see that his bat was not grounded. I thought he must have got back. And I learned an important lesson – when anything can happen, it will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heavy mettle

God, I hate judgmental people. They’re so mean…and fat.  (John R. Lindensmith)

One of my earlier cricket memories was watching the late Harry Pilling batting for Lancashire in 1963s. At around 1.6 metres Harry was a diminutive sportsman but in over two decades he knocked up over 15,000 runs. And let’s not forget the one Donald George Bradman was just 1.7m and he retired with a Test average of 99.9.

The Venezuelan baseball star Jose Altuve who played Major League with the Houson Astros said this: In baseball, it doesn’t matter if you’re tall, skinny, fat, whatever. If you really have talent and you really love to play, I feel like you can make it. And this is certainly true of a select group of players on the cricket league circuit who fall under the umbrella of carrying a few extra pounds.

When I was younger I played squash at club level. On one memorable occasion I played against an ex-pro in his early fifties who who was more portly than I suspected he might have been in his serious playing days. As this ex-pro peppered the four walls from the middle of the court, I was like a mouse in a psychology experiment scampering around in a meaningless pursuit of the ball. The guy’s hand-eye coordination more than made up for his excess weight, making the exercise a literal chaste experience.

I have written on this blog about the exceptional improvement in fielding over the past ten years. And even with today’s boot camp fitness and the younger players  strutting their abs, there is still good representation of XL cricketers around the League. And I believe this is something to be extremely proud of.

In my youth cricketers were more generously built than today’s players. You wouldn’t give much hope for the likes of Colin Milburn and Colin Cowdrey and later on Mike Gatting in the modern era. In their day fitness was measured in how many pies and pints could be polished off before, during and after a day’s cricket and I am sick of hearing variations of Gatting being spotted having a triple cheeseburger with large fries. I saw him get a county hundred once and I cannot recall a better example of the total humiliation of a fielding side. So who cares if Gatt liked a slice or three of Black Forest gateau?

These cricketing greats would never have countenanced the dieticians, psychotherapists and media officers on today’s county and international payrolls. Not for them a pre-match group hug or bonding week on an SAS retreat, a pre-season amble around the county ground with a Silk Cut behind the ear was the fitness modus operandi back in the day. And despite their wide girth – or in the case of Milburn possibly because of it – they still delighted fans with their immense batting prowess. But in today’s era obsessed with fat shaming, what would social media make of Australian cricket icon Warwick Armstrong nicknamed The Big Ship and weighing in at 133 kilos at the beginning of the 20th century?

It is interesting that I have yet to hear any XL player on my watch to be sledged about their weight although it has not stopped overt criticism of their batting ability. It may well be that in a League cricket circuit where everyone knows one another, that there is respect for the cricketing ability of these players. And make no mistake, as with my humiliation on the squash court, I have witnessed some extraordinary hitting from these stand-and-deliver merchants. Pressing home the point that the cricket text books are wrong and you don’t have to move your feet, these hand-eye warriors can thump a cricket ball a very long way. Accumulating singles, twos and threes is not for them. Aside from wasting their time with running,  this nickel-and-dime short change is not as profitable as the jackpot of the boundary rope.

It is not only acumen with the bat that raises eyebrows. The majority of the XL League cohort are posted at first slip or long leg where they generally remain for the innings. But it is not unusual to find a hefty village blacksmith patrolling mid-off and covers which can be a toxic environment when a batting side let loose in the final few overs of an innings. As a size-friendly sport this is where cricket comes into its own. Of course an overweight fielder is not going to have much chance in winning a race with the ball to the boundary. But with a knack of knowing where the ball is going as soon as a batter plays a shot, these canny fielders arrive at the point where ball meets fielder at exactly the right time to pull off some great stops. It has got nothing to do with weight and everything to do with a knowledge and feel for the game.

Which brings us to Rakheem Cornwall, who plays for Leeward Islands and West Indies as well as being a regular in the Caribbean Premier T20 League. Tipping the scales at 140 kilos, the talented all rounder was described by one of the all time greats Andy Roberts as ‘a real talent’. Yes, he will need to shed a few kilos to get to a better level of fitness but the only thing that really matters is that he is an international cricketer, not just a fat bloke. Like my League, Cornwall serves as a role model for young players who show promise and whatever their weight, will always be welcome in cricket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captains’ blog

I prefer to sail in a bad ship with a good captain rather than sail in good ship with a bad captain. (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Mike Brearley demonstrated that you don’t have to be a great cricketer to be a great captain and I am regularly surprised and impressed by the tactical acumen maturity of captains in the League. Unlike most other sports where captaincy is more or less a simple ceremonial call of head or tail, a cricket captain is required to juggle a number of plates (over rates, discipline, morale boosting and creative thinking) as well as perform with bat and/or ball. Cricket captaincy is an art, not dissimilar to umpiring where managing people is as important as knowing the Laws or having a feel and understanding of the way the game is going.

Example 1: Sometimes a captain takes a punt and brings on a bit-part bowler who is only playing because one the regulars is apparently down with what I call SWIPS (Stag-Weekend-in-Prague-Syndrome). The makeshift bowler’s two wickets for few runs does not win the game, but it does check the spike in the runs conceded column. Example 2: Placing a fielder in a position yet to be covered in the coaching text books might bring a surprise catch. Example 3: Calling back the star pace bowler to clean up the tail becomes a nightmare as the blacksmith and a university undergraduate throw caution and their concrete bats to the wind hitting thirty-plus in a slapstick ninth-wicket stand. There are many more such examples in the Secret Umps vault.

Captains come in all shapes and sizes – lawyers, plumbers, teachers, estate agents, PR consultants to name but a few of the day jobs. From Hooray Henrys to firefighters, the skippers represent all rungs of the social and professional class ladder. Yes, the old Gentlemen versus Players fixture is a thing of the not so distant past, and I am pleased to report that in our League meritocracy defines captaincy appointment and long may that continue.

Over the years, I’ve had full and frank discussions over key decisions (including an unfortunate snub by a skipper at the post-match handshake following a protracted on-off-for-rain dispute). But I’m going to say this loud and clear. Every captain I have umpired knows the game of cricket inside out. Unfortunately, that quality alone does not make a good captain.

Rather than getting tetchy about losing the toss or a bowler serving up the occasional long hop, a good captain focuses on what he can control. Keeping up with the over rate, organising field placing, and keeping an ear on unacceptable banter.

A cricket captain is a player, tactician and mentor before, during and after a match. The best cricket captains think before they act and are not emotionally affected by decisions that go against their team. Bad captaincy includes straying into the role of victim (aka interpreting umpires’ decisions as a personal slant) and collecting incidents throughout an innings as a bartering tool for retributive justice. I’ve had the pleasure of being at the bowler’s end when a captain who is bowling screams howzat after he makes a right mess of the batter’s wicket. In the bar after the game he acknowledged that this kind of thing was unnecessary, but sporting an Emoji-style expression he reminded me that that a few decisions had gone against his team.

I like it when a captain uses us as a reference point for decisions to be made: How many overs has Blondie got left? Can the kid have one more in this spell? Are we behind on the over rate? And I like it even more when a skipper acknowledges the bleedin’ obvious. The lip (get at him Blondie; nice one Blondie) between balls is becoming tiresome so I have a quiet word in the skipper’s ear and it ceases for the rest of the innings. I note a player late for a game parks his car over the boundary rope and we have a quiet word with the captain – the car is moved back.

I know it’s hard to believe but occasionally Secret Umps has been known to make a mistake on the League Regulations, (but never on the Laws). The fielding captain pointed this out with the diplomacy of a Harvard-educated official presenting his credentials to the Court of St James. With the greatest respect umps, (I already like the cut of his jib) I thought we agreed on two drinks breaks.

The post-match bar is the perfect setting for improving. Back on Civvy Street after a decent shower and with a pint of soda water and lime cordial I regularly seek out the captains for an informal debriefing. It is the time and place where I listen and learn. I’ve seen captains become feverish about one delivery (out of six hundred) not being signalled as a wide while not being seemingly perturbed by an opposition refusing to walk when given not-out.

And here lies an important issue for umpires. Each captain brings his temperament to a game of cricket and reacts accordingly. Provided his and his team’s behaviour are congruous to the Laws of Cricket, I don’t care if his persona is chirpy or miserable. Umpires need to understand that we are dealing with human beings in stressful situations and not impose ourselves on them. In the post-match bar chats, captains who see a bigger picture on how we performed are umpiring gold. So when a skipper tells us we should have taken charge of the opposition’s continuous banter or us not giving enough feedback on over rates we can take that on board the next Saturday and beyond.

On the other hand, a captain who internalises a decision to the extent he reminds me of it the next time I saw him (a year later), are less helpful. But I still took the reminder in the best spirit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs Umps – just one more thing

An ideal wife is any woman who has an ideal husband. (Booth Tarkington).

A few months ago while having dinner with Mrs Umps and our younger 20-year-old son I recounted a telephone conversation I had that day with someone I knew through work. He told me he had a relation who worked for the Donald Bradman Museum in Bowral, Australia. My son asked: Who is Donald Bradman? I politely placed my cutlery on the plate, digested a piece of Mrs Umps’ delicious flan and answered: The greatest cricketer of all time, to which my son replied: That’s why I’ve never heard of him. 

Despite originating from a distant land with no cricketing culture (although there is a thriving recreational League which I played in), Mrs Umps did know something about Bradman. Maybe she had looked at  our bookshelves or picked out vignettes from my cricket banter with mates. You know the moral-high-ground warriors I am referring to here, railing against Sky Sports getting the rights to broadcast but happy to watch the action on someone else’s TV, conveniently ignoring the fact that I had been donating a monthly fee to the Murdoch clan. And being a far kinder soul than myself, Mrs Umps always provides a cuppa and plain chocolate Digestives for the guys (I draw the line on her sharing her sumptuous apple crumble).

Regularly featured in these missives, Mrs Umps has deserved this posting dedicated to her. And this particular baton has been passed onto me by Lieutenant Columbo and his iconic television detective dramas in which Mrs Columbo was always lurking, but never actually seen.

It became the joke of the neighbourhood. If the umpire ruled me out on a bad call, I’d take the fake eye out and hand it to him. Peter Falk, who played Columbo, was of course referring to baseball with this quote. But I sometimes wonder if the cranky detective with his grubby raincoat and clapped-out car would have made a decent cricket umpire. I imagine a blouson that had never been washed, a white shirt that was allergic to irons and six cheap cigar butts as ball counters. But despite his floundering persona, I am confident that the Lieutenant’s umpiring decisions would be forensically watertight with him adding his catchphrase just one more thing as he gives a disgruntled bowler his cap at the end of the over: Sir, with the angle you’re bowling from, no LA cop is going to give you an LBW.

Unlike Mrs Columbo, who in my humble opinion should have been more proactive in improving her husband’s unkempt demeanour, Mrs Umps understands the connection between a scrubbed-up official and good decision-making. She ensures I turn up to each murder scene (calm down, it’s a club cricket match, ed) looking like a dapper George Sanders with a pressed shirt and slacks. Given the number of times I have forgotten a watch, extra bail, ball counter, sun cream and scorecard, she has instigated a pre-match checklist (not having a clue what each item actually is, let alone what it is used for). And because she is a stickler for these things, she will also make sure that the blouson pockets are emptied after the game. (I have nothing to hide, and anyway, would I be stupid enough to put the telephone number of the racy tea lady from a certain club in my blouson pocket?) The Lieutenant would see right through that kind of ruse.

As I prepared for the Level 1 ACO examination all those years ago, it was Mrs Umps who navigated the Holy Bible of Umpiring  to ensure I was preparing the right answers (and while I am at it, the LAPD would be all over the lousy graphics that came with the test). Post qualifying,  in the early days when I’d get home after a fraught session with a touchy captain, Mrs Umps would be fussing over the cottage pie after pouring me a glass of the very best white purveyed by Aldi’s top sommelier. Why do you put yourself through it?….Because I love the game….Sometimes I think you love cricket more than you love me. (Long pause).

I would hazard an informed guess that ninety-nine per cent of the umpires on the panel are in the fifty-five-plus age bracket. The largest cohort are made up of umpires like myself who have done a lot of marriage time so anything said in the changing room (think broom cupboard) comes as no surprise.

One hearty soul I occasionally stand with has no post-match cottage pie and wine welcome – his  regular Saturday Night Fever is a  Chinese takeaway purchased with a portion of his match fee. Other umpires have stories about having to do the cooking themselves with their wives trotting out the ubiquitous If you’re out all day enjoying yourself then I’m going out to enjoy myself (as if anyone would dream of stopping them). I never get wound up by that kind of thing.  I love cooking anyway, but if Mrs Umps is out, I can be sure something enticing is waiting to be heated.

So thank you Mrs Umps, the intelligent, creative and cultured woman I married all those years ago. Like Mrs Columbo, you are not seen or heard but without you and thousands of other cricketing wives, League cricket would simply not survive. As for my younger son, the apple has fallen in another orchard and it was when I chauffeured him and his mates to a gaming exhibition that I understood my life had become totally meaningless.

 

Covid Cricket – vaccine lyrical in the Summer of Love

Summertime will be a love-in there. (Scott McKenzie)

It was good to get a few games of cricket during the pandemic. (Note to self, possible opening line of a novel?) Forgoing a post-match shower and drink in return for officiating eight matches was an easy compromise. With a spring in my step I arrived oven ready for each of the assignments.

I was impressed with how the clubs ensured the safety of players, umpires and scorers before, during and after matches. The cricketing community pulled together to defeat the Covid invader and ensure pavilion bells rallied players and umpires to take up their positions on village greens.

Throughout the truncated season, an atmosphere of reconciliation over conflict prevailed. So good was the etiquette on and off the pitch,  I wondered if a passing spectator might actually be the editor of Debrett’s scouting for punters. And while I prefer the real deal of tension and attrition chronicled in most of these posts I am cognisant of American comedian Jackie Mason’s line: When you get a bill for twenty five thousand dollars from your heart surgeon, you are in no position to argue. And anyway it was good to have a few games of Gentlemen versus Gentlemen.

The additional new edicts for Covid Cricket included how batters should run between the wickets. It was obvious from the first over of the first game that the plan was not going to work. Persuading a batter whose Pavlovian trigger over the past ten, twenty and thirty years had been to run on the off side of the wicket and  suddenly requiring him to run on the leg side is like asking Mrs Umps to give up a Netflix rom-com so I can watch America’s Toughest Prisons (I would think twice before no-balling those guys). Resourceful batters who couldn’t kick the off-side trigger habit conformed by going very wide of the bowler. With the appropriate distancing achieved, by using this common-sense batting and umpiring approach there was no need for reports, fines, suspensions and other deterrents.

Sanitation breaks (which I announced as sanity break) were taken every six overs and it was good to see the batters and bowlers gel (I’ll get my blouson). Umps did not handle the ball; wicket-keepers did not rebuild the castle after a run out or stumping; at the fall of a wicket fielders settled for an elbow nudge rather than a high five; the post-match handshake resembled a masonic initiation ceremony and home clubs did not provide food or drink. I rather enjoyed not having a club tea – on Friday evenings I prepared a healthy alternative spread to the usual carbs feast (although I could not resist including a generous slice of Mrs Umps’ lemon drizzle).

For me the most positive aspect of Covid Cricket was not having to act as an on-field gentleman’s butler. We were instructed not to carry players’ items, passing this burden onto fielders who would balance their bowling colleague’s cap on top of their own and manage the other paraphernalia. A less than scientific estimate suggests it might have saved around ten minutes per innings in not having to go through a Laurel and Hardy routine of accommodating and returning sweaters, sun hats, caps and glasses.

The behaviour of players was exemplary during this cricketing summer of love. On one occasion, after coming off for rain and not going back, both captains displayed a consonance of mutual affection I had never previously encountered. There are a few players on the circuit who should put Picking fights in an empty room as a quality on their CVs but this season’s pandemic brought out the very best human traits in our charges. I found myself physically and spiritually liberated in this parallel cricketing universe where umpiring became an out-of-body experience. By the third Saturday I had swapped the blouson for a caftan and replaced my ball counter with six incense sticks. But I refused to say groovy when placing the bails onto the stumps.

With pavilions out of bounds (save for the lavatories) players got changed outside.  This gave us respite from the Glastonbury-like sound systems pumping out grunge  (the poison of musical choice that occupies contemporary cricket dressing rooms). If in years to come they take up umpiring, I would doubt the veracity of caught behind decisions after their ears have been pummeled by that racket.

What this summer has taught me is that you can take the sweaters and caps off the Umps, expect batters to run down a parallel street, sanitise hands with gel and not touch the ball. But whatever apocalyptic virus is sent to test humanity, League cricketers are hardwired to enjoy a pint or two after a game. So while no player entered the pavilion bar, post-match pails were ordered and quaffed outside. It was indeed a very British queue.

And despite the more genial vibe prevalent during Covid, a raging bull did occasionally crash through the pen to remind us what League cricket is, and indeed should be, all about. My favourite moment of the summer came on the penultimate Saturday. A heavily built quickie bowled a yorker which hit the batter on the front pad. The bowler’s humongous LBW appeal sounded and resembled an elephant’s orgasm, the stampeding frenzy continuing for a good few seconds after I turned it down. But the bowler eventually picked himself up from his begging position and as he walked past me he confirmed what myself, the wicket-keeper and the editor of Debrett’s already knew: Going down leg umps?

Now that’s more like it buddy. Great to have you back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Days I’ll remember all my life

What was our life like? I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly. (Richard Ford)

From an early age I had grabbed the football and cricket baton from a sports-mad father who spent many a car journey talking about the two occasions he saw Donald Bradman bat, how he blagged his way into the 1951 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Blackpool and how he was offered a trial at the age of seventeen as a goalkeeper for a Second Division club – but apparently he wasn’t good enough.

In the summer of 1967, at the age of eleven, I went with my parents to Bude in Cornwall for our holidays. We stayed in one of those grand old seaside hotels that provided a resplendent afternoon tea with a resident pianist, followed a few hours later by a hearty four-course dinner (different pianist) and a B-list maître d’hôtel sporting a stained tunic.

The hotel boasted a snooker room with a full-size table. At that time I had seen snooker a few times on our black and white television (yes I’ve heard Ted Lowe’s comment a thousand times) but I had never seen a table live. My dad hung up his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and chalked a cue before rattling off a fifty-something break. I was enthralled as he potted the reds and colours with perfect control of the cue ball. You never told me you were any good at snooker, I said. You never asked, he replied.

I was okay at football and cricket and at sixteen I persuaded a local cricket club to give me a few games that became three seasons before I left home to make my way in the world. I got some runs, wickets and catches and it was in one of my earlier matches that I got on the wrong side of an umpire for the first (and last) time. I nicked the ball to the keeper but instead of walking, I waited (you never know you may get lucky). After a few seconds the umpire shouted Are you walking sonny, or are you going to make me give you out? This act of humiliation stayed with me the rest of my cricket career and from that day I understood the rules of engagement  (which of course have no connection to the Laws of Cricket).

Nearly fifty years on, and with the boot on the other foot, I give an LBW in which the impact of ball on pad was middle and with the straight delivery continuing its merry way to halfway down middle stump. I get a look from the batter that suggests that my decision will ensure I spend the rest of my life in a dark, windowless room spending all day and night swapping six pebbles between the pockets of a white coat. Someone is angry.

In my playing days, a game of cricket was a liberating experience, an afternoon and early evening full of promise and camaraderie. I always remember the captain’s poignant advice the first time I went out to face the music: If you and your partner are still there, we can’t lose the game. So don’t even think about hitting the ball off the ****ing square. With my head over the ball and allowing bad deliveries to go past the bat I earned the nickname Stonewall Jackson for my ability to grind it out at the crease and earn a draw. I look back on those days as a privilege – the changing room banter, tension in the middle, post-match revelry and smutty jokes on the way to matches. I knew my limitations but I was desperate to jump over the enticing one hurdle that mattered, scoring a half-century.

It happened in 1978 in a pre-season friendly, batting for my university against a local technical college. I was playing well and had reached twenty-something when a finger spinner came on. Ignoring the words of wisdom from my previous captain I got greedy and mistimed a straight drive. I was ready to embark on the long trudge back to the hutch but fate was on my side as the bowler somehow contrived to drop a fairly easy catch. I accumulated another twenty-plus and completed my fifty with a straight off drive for four and repeated the same shot next ball before holding out at mid-off. I can tell you more about that knock than what I had for breakfast today.

If space wasn’t limited I would also tell you about running a marathon, scoring some cracking goals in five-a-side football (I’m still playing at sixty-something) and regular squash matches at club level. I also tried golf but I was completely useless, save for another holiday snapshot. Playing with Mrs Umps on a pitch-and-putt in Norfolk I only went and hacked a seventy-yard three-bounce hole in one. When returning the clubs, the guy from the leisure department of the local authority was not impressed with my demand for a Toyota Avalon, or failing that, a tailored Green Jacket.

My love of sport is confounded however by an insignificant cohort of doom-mongers on the League cricket circuit who choose despair over joy. We come off for rain – Come on Umps, it’s nowhere near bad enough to come off (an hour and a half later they win under a cloudless sky). We call (or don’t call) a wide and out of the bottle jumps the overused term consistency as evidence of an umpire’s alleged incompetence. Then there is the anger displayed over just about anything; a run-out call, dropped catch, batters talking too much between overs, lousy balls that last five overs, scoreboard two overs behind. If only Carlsberg did picking a fight in an empty room….

Compare this with a growing number of gifted teenagers who get regular games with their clubs in the League (some of them also playing representative age-group county games). Talented and driven, their eyes are dancing as they savour every moment of the match experience. Emulating their mentors with bat and ball, they have no bone to pick with Umps; they’re having such a good time, they’re having a ball, just as I did all those years ago.

They will carry the baton for at least thirty more seasons, accumulating runs, wickets and experiences that they to pass down to their children on car journeys. They will tell their young teammates to enjoy every moment of every game and respect everyone on and around the village green. And when they raise their bat for the last time, they might consider giving something back to the game that has given them so much. They may even choose to train as an umpire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The satis factory

I think people make way too much of ratings. (Walter Cronkite)
 

It has been a long and enjoyable season. I get home from the final game, tuck into Mrs Umps’ legendary broccoli and cheese quiche (our children are called Tarquin and Icarus) and reflect on the fifteen Saturdays I have officiated over the past four months. I do my post-match analysis on the journey home from matches – a recurring theme for the Umpires’ couch (if I could afford it) would be to own my recalcitrance to give LBWs and too many miscounting of balls in overs. I guess these and other peccadillos make up the reasons I am not invited to do courses that would get me on the elite panel and get assigned to Premiership and Championship matches.

I’m happy with my place in the umpiring pecking order (Divisions One and Two of the League). I do not aspire to join the top guys at the Premier Inn although it would be good to have a Full English with Lenny Henry. As I have often said to players after a game where the sanctuary of the bar allows for some post-match banter: If you want Aleem Dar it costs five grand. You get me for half a tank of petrol.  I admire the guys at the top of the pyramid who can rattle off the nuances of every Law and calculate the booty in a supermarket trolley before they get to the till. I know they are great umpires because I have occasionally had the pleasure of standing with them when they have been assigned to officiate with the riff-raff outside of the top two tiers.

That said, I have done the courses, taken the exams and qualified to the level below Premier League and Championship in recreational cricket. Umpiring is a hobby, not a vocation and that is one reason why I only officiate Saturday League games. Umpiring friendly games and Over Fifty, Sixty and Seventy matches (Umps, can you hold onto my dentures?), Schools, Universities, Corporate jollies et al are not for me.

A week or so after the season ends, an email lands with the captains’ ratings of umpires’ performances. The options on offer are synonyms of Satisfactory, Good and Unsatisfactory. A cursory glance tells me everything I need to know: Twenty two Satisfactory, two Unsatisfactory, and four Good with two naughty skippers not even bothering to send in a score. And would you believe it, each season the harvest is remarkably similar. We are not informed which games the scores relate to but I sometimes ask. The answers do not surprise me.

Given there are around six hundred balls in a match, you might think a captain would take a few minutes and cast his mind over our overall game management; our interaction with captains and players, our overriding concern for safety, how we have kept the banter to an acceptable level and whether we have enabled twenty two guys to have a good afternoon of League cricket.

Imagine the League captains forming a union where procedures would dictate that if the skipper is given out caught behind, LBW, run-out or stumped and his team have lost, then mark the umpire down to Unsatisfactory. What I like about this methodology is that one ball with one borderline decision magically overrides the other five hundred and ninety nine. (It’s fortunate for Planet Earth that Captain Kirk did not take that world view into the Starship Enterprise).

I wonder what the said captain would think of me if I marked down as Poor the behaviour of a team where one player had used a gerund or two a tad louder than is acceptable. He need not worry because I would never invoke a collective punishment to humiliate one minor parking offence. Nor would I mark a pitch as Poor if three out of the six hundred deliveries kept a tad low. And if a home captain forgets, or is not around to offer a drink after the game, then I would not tick Poor under hospitality (although I may consider Satisfactory rather than Good).

Umpires make mistakes: inconsistent decision-making (leg-side wide called one over, similar ball next over not called), imposing himself on the game (something I have never done), miscounting balls per over, telling the skipper the wrong number of overs a junior player can bowl in a spell. All these events are extremely rare when compared to the amount of stuff we get right. I do not understand how Unsatisfactory even makes the shortlist.

For the captains, Satisfactory is the easiest box to tick. I have a feeling that some captains take a perfunctory approach to the pre- and post-match administrative duties and not pay too much attention to rating the umpires. (Umps’ scores lads. Nice guys, satisfactory. Let’s have a shower and get to the bar). But as the years roll on I now believe that if both captains believe my control of the game was Satisfactory then I have accomplished my assignment for the day.

There are a few captains who actually prefer the outliers to Satsfactory. This is playing with semantics and reminds me of a holiday with an old girlfriend in France in the late 1970s. We went into a restaurant where the food was superb but the manager was fractious, to say the least. With my Where is the nearest bank level of French I asked her if she was being difficult because, perish the thought, she may have an aversion to English tourists. Not at all, she replied. I am like this with everyone.

So here’s an idea that the Umpiring Politburo might like to consider. We should trial a cricket equivalent of Restorative Justice where victim and convicted criminal can talk through the reasons for their decision-making. To ensure fairness in this  exercise of conciliation, the above roles are rotated as the two parties strive to find some common ground on defining Good and Unsatisfactory.

As it stands, the jury’s still not-out.

 

 

 

 

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 three pounds an hour if you take into account the time we leave 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 – the subsequent muttered insults with a gerund thrown as he trudges back to the pavilion are understandable. Back in the day, I was also the recipient of poor decisions (some also went against me). Other problems 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 assignment without having to worry about 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 few years a lethal cocktail of modern bats the weight of concrete slabs and players working out in the gym have combined to make umpiring potentially more dangerous.That said, 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-the-stumps pincer movement. After a  clean pick-up the ball missed the wickets by more than two meters as it found a resting place on 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 tight 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 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  standing back to the speed merchants to give me a bit of leeway to get out of the way.  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 like 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, also referred to as coffins).  I now stand further back to the spinners and I now wear 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 to see them anyway.

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 their heads to wicket-keeper or bowler, but on the one occasion it doesn’t….

I watch every ball that goes behind me like a hawk and to be brutally honest, if that affects my ability to make a close run-out call, I’m not that concerned. I’d rather get flak from a disgruntled batter or wicket-keeper in the bar and look forward to Mrs Umps’ cottage pie than be worrying about the result of 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