Reading these pages you will be thinking what a thoroughly decent fellow I am with my tolerance, empathy and dedication to the umpiring cause. I appreciate these kind thoughts, but between ourselves, there have been occasions when I get into my car after a match and speed off like a driver from a bank heist.

I never leave bad vibes on the field of play or pavilion. Whatever has happened inside the boundary rope is left to be swept away by the groundsman as the players make merry in a post-match bar. There are many untold stories of emotion left on a cricket ground – beautiful cover drives, superb catches, spells of bowling that have kept the run rate down, acts of heroism bringing a team back into a match that had looked lost. There is also no shortage of disappointment, remorse and at times, anger.

Quality batters return to the pavilion and contemplate how they played that shot. Bowlers make the trek to long-leg having been pummelled for a few boundaries. Captains mis-field a straight ball at mid-off, their concentration hampered by winning the toss, deciding to bowl and then spending half the afternoon retrieving balls from the boundary.

All of this is food and drink to myself and my colleagues. We coast in neutral with no influence on which way the game’s wind is blowing. It’s not our intervention that causes a batter to aim for a church spire in the next village, a reliable slip fielder to drop a simple catch or when dark clouds conspire to rob a team of victory.

In one game, the meteorologists keep their promise and it’s raining hard enough to come off.  We get back to the pavilion and the visiting captain is waiting. And that is when the genteel and stoical umps is at his his most vulnerable as someone lights a fuse that surges through his body.

In a method acting voice borrowed from Marlon Brando, the captain says: No worse than when we stayed on in the first innings umps. So why have we come off now? We’re in the UK, not the Sahara. It’s a joke. We don’t rise to that particular bait, particularly as it is now raining hard. We are in and out looking at the wicket, the square and outfield and twenty minutes later we shake hands.

After completing the paperwork, we shower and out of politeness to the blameless home team, we have a quick drink in the bar, and then hit the road. The visitors probably would have won but in the League regulations, there were not enough overs completed in the second innings to constitute a match. There was no need for the repertory cameo from the captain, but all it meant was that the team’s behaviour was marked as satisfactory, not good.

Well over ninety percent of League cricketers are decent folk who play hard and fair and behave perfectly. But I’ve noticed a trend among League cricketers that have played at a higher level (like Minor Counties or even at the First Class level) to test my patience.

A regular club cricket bowler will happily plough a furrow for scant reward, but once a season he’ll be bursting with pride as he relates every detail of a five-for to his devoted colleagues in the bar. But there is something about former semi-pros – starts with the very definition of their previous status – I played two pre-season warm up games for [insert county] eighteen years ago. But such is their self-regard, that even in the third tier of a recreational League, they strut around the ground as if they were hailing the Maitre d’ at La Gavroche.

Every time a ball hits a pad, the ex-pro is down on one, or even two knees with an aggressive appeal. Pitched outside leg stump? Impact outside off stump? Ball hits bat onto pad? All irrelevant. It’s out because only he knows what proper cricket is all about. If he were a London cabbie he’d be telling an unsuspecting passenger that he’d had the Krays in the back of the cab.

I handle the situation of excessive appealing in a conciliatory manner. I don’t report it as Level 1 offence because I know the captain well enough for him to take ownership of the problem, and it’s quickly sorted. On the journey home I think about this player and others like him. I imagine them being that close to a county and even a Test career only to have it cruelly ended because even though they are in the top one percent of cricketers in the country, they are still not good enough. All they have left is the third tier of the League.

However much blood, sweat and tears have been spent on the ground, the post-match handshake ceremony is not up for debate. Whatever a player’s feelings about this or that decision, he shakes my hand and then we can have the arbitration talks in the bar.

There has only been one one occasion where a player refused a handshake. I have umpired this guy a few times over the years and despite his age (mid-forties) and sporting a generous girth, he is a decent finger spinner with Premier League experience. He’s fielding at first slip and I turn down a caught-behind. The wicket-keeper tells me he isn’t sure so what is this guy’s problem?  But the fielder just can’t let go with mutterings between overs and looks to kill from the Mrs Umps vault, and then refusing to shake hands with me after the game. I keep my cool, politely entering the dressing room and holding out my hand. And to be fair, he accepts it.

Every decision I make involves a winner and loser, that’s the nature of cricket. It took me a few years to realise that disappointed and angry players can infect umpires when their temperatures are rising. But they will only succeed If we let them.

A match made in heaven

The truth is in the middle of funny and serious. (Steve Coogan)

Looking back on many years of marriage, I should have recorded every occasion Mrs Umps had given me a coating but I can’t afford a petabyte of storage. Quality certainly beats quantity in my on-field anecdote collection which adorns my old scorecards and notebooks. Being one of those jealous types, Mrs Umps once challenged me about writing Excellent tea!! in my notebook assuming this was code for some post-match revelry with Brenda. Don’t worry my dear, two exclamation marks is a reflection of Brenda’s delicious jam sponge, not her crumpet. (You haven’t got the balls to say that, ed).

It’s a cold and windy early May afternoon in which sweaters and heavy bails are required (I always carry a pair of heavy bails – you never know when you may get lucky). The wind then decides we also have to dispense with the heavy bails’ services and allow the stumps to go commando. I’m at square leg when the ball hits bat then pad before gently rolling onto the wicket. The wicket-keeper is in hysteria mode and I confirm to my colleague that the ball has indeed hit the  stump. He sends the batter packing (bowled) but the young man has not abandoned a warm duvet and young bride to have the remainder of his Saturday ruined. With ice frothing on his beard, he puts down his crampon and starts a discussion.

Come on umps, that would never have dislodged a bail. You can’t give it out.

In this case, the velocity of the ball hitting the stump is totally irrelevant (although you do need an appeal, which is always readily available from the barber shop quartet behind the stumps). The batter may well be an expert on the laws of physics and when he types into a search engine No-bails-bowled-touches-stump, he will also become a tad more proficient in the Laws of Cricket.

Can you tell the keeper to stand back umps. He’s not supposed to change where he stands? No. I can’t. I get half a tank of petrol to watch for the keeper and his gloves getting in front of the wicket, not advising him on the best place to position himself.

A bowler who is courting the popping crease asks me to warn him if he is getting close to delivering a no-ball and of course I am happy to oblige. I’ve heard batters complaining about this: Not your job umps, take no notice. Interestingly, when I tell a batter he is standing a distance from the guard he originally requested, I have not heard a fielder complain.

The home side are making merry against some average bowling. A couple of  balls go missing in the wooded area behind the boundary rope. The third time it happens, the visiting captain refuses to accept any of the used balls on offer. Do you really want us to award the match to your opponents because you are refusing to play? Or will you choose a ball and we carry on?

It’s tough out there in the middle. The job spec highlights The Laws but doesn’t mention concentration, the soul of umpiring. I’m in the zone from ball one to ball six-hundred with full concentration. From time to time it’s good to get out of solitary mode and enjoy some contact with fellow human beings. Occasional words (even half a minute of banter when a search party is looking for a lost ball) are exchanged at square leg. These precious moments make the exercise worthwhile.

Our first slip has fifty thousand followers on Tik Tok. He posted  a video of his grandmother playing cricket in lycra shorts on Skegness beach. (It’s classy, our League).

I left my phone in a minicab last night. They found it and I’m collecting it after the game. (Without that happy ending there is no way I can get any sleep tonight).

Last season, we went looking for a lost ball in the woods, and we saw a couple at it behind a tree. (So that’s three lost balls,).

Did you hear what happened on our club tour to Cornwall two weeks ago? (No, and I never miss the evening news at ten o’clock).

But it is the afternoon wedding party in the village church opposite the ground that gets my douze points for match entertainment. You can understand why the two families chose the church for the ceremony, assuming they come from the same estate. But the timing? We started at one, by half past one they were married and by quarter past two the photos were finished (although the cameraman had a few days’ work ahead in photoshopping tattoos off the bridesmaids’ arms).

At square leg I had the perfect view of the party coming out of the church. We never learn, I thought. And then it hit me. They chose the village church because there was a pub within walking distance. And so I was thankful that it would be the upstairs room that would bear the brunt of the action, not the village cricket club.

But having witnessed the happy event, the visiting side who were fielding, spent the next over discussing the possible modus operandi (should that be oper-randy?) of the couple’s night ahead. I won’t go in to details, suffice to say that contemporary young adults have more crusading options than were available in my boring missionary days.

The fun started around four as we were coming off for tea. I don’t know why the party came en-masse to the cricket ground, I assume the upstairs room was being prepared for the evening buffet and entertainment (cue the village blacksmith overseeing the karaoke). I could be wrong but it looked like alcohol may have been quaffed as the wedding party gave players and umpires a guard of honour into the pavilion. And though I was desperate for a cuppa, I was happy to play along.

Mr Umpire, you’re out! shouts a gentleman with a tie around his neck and an index finger pointing north. As will be your son in a few months, I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Psycho. Frenzy. Rope.

Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare. (Alfred Hitchcock).

There is nothing like a Saturday League cricket appointment. Mrs Umps has a lie-in as I tuck into a hearty breakfast (there won’t be any grub until tea after the first innings at around four o’clock). Everything has been prepared on Friday night and I start up the car in good time to get to my appointment by noon. (I can only assume that Lionel Richie chose Sunday over Saturday for his easy morning because of the extra syllable in Saturday). I usually am out of the club car park by eight at the latest and have a leisurely drive home accompanied by an inane radio phone-in: First time caller, I’m a little nervous. I ‘ad Winston Churchill in the back of the cab last week.

I’m not interested in umpiring anything other than a Saturday League match although I did dabble with a few Wednesday evening Twenty20 matches. There is of course a difference between did (history) and have done (implication you want more). Nope, I won’t be donning the umpiring pyjamas again for such games because at my age I really don’t need the blood pressure monitor slamming against a bell in a funfair game of high striker.

I like Twenty20, but only as a spectator. It’s cricket’s equivalent of letting your hair down at the work Christmas do. You put on a funny hat, have a few too many and cavort with Helen in accounts (again, no word to Mrs Umps, please). But after sleeping off the hangover you still have to present the quarterly marketing brief next day.

Everything done at a civilised pace at a Saturday League game becomes a stampede at Twenty20. Filling in your scorecard at the end of each over is like decoding an Enigma machine in under a minute. In order to keep up with the pandemonium you and your colleague are required to become part of the frenzied circus and get the next over started before you can begin to digest the previous nine-ball over which contained a lost ball, two sixes, and a run-out. But umpires have it easier than the scorers who need to type at a record breaking world record of two hundred and thirteen words a minute to keep up with the action.

And the club veterans who know a thing or two about cricket, having done a twenty-year stretch, are replaced by a couple of millennial boiler room dealers who love a midweek Twenty20 larf a few hours after persuading you to part with your pension before you can say free hit. There’s no room for sentiment when a game can change over a few balls, and anyway why would the veterans even want to risk their necks on this treadmill of cricketing bling?

I’ve seen the effect that Twenty20 has had on young cricketers who come to the crease on regulation League Saturdays and immediately break cricket’s laws of gravity with a heave-ho towards the next village. I mean, you wouldn’t ask your girlfriend to marry you on the first date. You’d have a good look at how the wicket is playing and get a feel of the deviation and pace before committing yourself to the tundra of Ikea. Unfortunately, the instant gratification of this Tinder20 version of our glorious game is starting to poke its nose into the Saturday League circuit.

One of the few Twenty20 games I umpired involved two universities from the same city  – the main proper university against an old polytechnic that was now allegedly a university. The proper university were on about three hundred for four after eight overs and Captain Poly was less than jolly. It was already clear which of the universities was going to have bragging rights by the end of the evening. A poly fielder told me at square leg that he would drop any catch that came from one of the proper university batters because he was enjoying watching his innings. And while they were searching for another lost ball that had probably ended up in an ultrasonic measuring cup in the proper university’s lab, he told me he was doing a degree in Football Studies at the poly. I politely wished him luck adding I hope you get a two-one.

But in an unprecedented act of self deprecation, I willingly confess the main reason why my dalliance with umpiring Twenty20 was so brief. Like the stressed poly captain, I was completely lost in this dystopian cricket world. I felt like a traffic cop in Mexico City caught in the headlights each and every way and about to have a Hispanic attack. Along with the forty-two Laws of Cricket, the match regulations alone would have made the late John le Carre fold under pressure, never mind Secret Umps. Fielding restrictions, overs allowance for bowlers, leg-side wides, calculating new targets after rain, free hits – the list was as endless as the proper university’s first innings score.

But there is a sting in this tale. There were no negative vibes in any of the Twenty20 games I umpired. There were some close finishes but the overall feel of the occasion was that of having a great evening out with the lads with cricket on crack followed by a barbecue. There were no nasty looks from batters I sent packing with LBW or caught behind, run-outs were not met with a hands-on-hips stare – it was all about the fun, fun fun.

Ten days after this match I encountered one of the poly guys playing in the League. He scored a few runs and bowled a decent spell. In the bar after the game he told me only a handful of the polytechnic team that night had ever played League or  school cricket. Twenty20 had ignited their interest: Personally, I don’t like playing it umps, but they needed a couple of players who knew what they were doing.

I knew what I was doing when I left umpiring Twenty20 matches. My career in this genre was short but not sweet. It was like taking a shower at the Bates Motel.

 

Ticket to the wicket

A good umpire, like a good FBI agent, is never noticed if he is doing his job. (Thomas Boswell)

One of the reasons I starting writing Secret Umps was to entice younger cricket lovers to take up umpiring. There is a Young Umpires section of the Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) but in my twelve years umpiring, the youngest colleague I have encountered was mid-thirties. It’s interesting that the majority of umpires on the First Class panel are former players who have been fast-tracked into officiating. Compare that to football – I can’t think of one top referee who was a professional footballer, so why are the English Cricket Board so keen on ex-players?

A high percentage of umpires on our panel are former players who have gone on to umpire in the same League. But there should also be room for people who have not played any form of competitive cricket to umpire. So whatever your age or experience of cricket, whether playing or watching, I present my fifteen-point Secret Guide to Umpiring below. And maybe a cricket fan will bring his Barmy Army passion to the umpires’ course before donning the blouson and contributing to the future of this great game.

The qualities you definitely need are a love of cricket (playing and/or watching), a level temperament, an ability to learn the Laws and to concentrate hard. Before you book yourself onto an umpiring course here are some handy pointers.

  1. The right side of the law: Get yourself a copy of Tom Smith’s Cricket Umpiring and Scoring. My version has more fingerprints than a forensics bounty at a bank robbery. The Laws, along with how they are administered in practice, are covered in the kind of detail that would make even the the most stubborn village blacksmith think twice before making a post-match comment. The usual suspects of LBW (Law 36), Run-out/Stumped (Laws 38 and 39) and caught (Law 33) are the ones that will engage you most in the middle. And when you have enjoyed your first few appointments, you’ll become a world authority on  Law 42, Players’ conduct.
  2. Double trouble: Okay, you make a mistake – umpires are human, although I’ve never seen that aphorism on a changing room wall. But don’t compensate the team who may have got the wrong side of a bad decision. Take ownership (imagine that, a woke umps) of the error and move on.
  3. Rule of thumb, don’t be a chum: You are there to umpire a cricket game, not to make new friends. The correct umpiring house style should be respectful control.
  4. Thems the rules: Be sure to know the regulations pertaining to the match you are umpiring. Getting stumped by the village blacksmith on time lost to rain and minimum number of overs that constitute a match is black cap offence (and I’m not referring to the New Zealand test team).
  5. It’s not your gig: First line of the Level 1 course all those years ago. The purpose of umpiring is to enable twenty two players to have a great game of cricket. Good umpires are vigilant, not vigilantes. A bowler has two catches dropped by first slip in an over and shouts a four-letter word needs nothing more than a quiet word without the handcuffs. That way you earn respect from players.
  6. Refrain from explain: Big appeal and you give not-out. There is no need for a prolonged Q&A session with the players as occasionally happens at the end of an arthouse film (so I have been told).  A quick sign to the bowler of high or leg is more than enough. Or don’t bother with a response.
  7. Those who serve: Club players pay good money to play League cricket. They deserve fully focused umpires providing a service at both ends for around one hundred overs in a match. Sure, it can be challenging, but give me umpiring on fast tracks any time over Ikea’s flat packs.
  8. Dress to Impress: A half scrubbed-up umps makes bad decisions. I get my kit ready on Friday night and whether you choose to model the Duncan Fearnley umpires’ collection (remortgaging terms available) or purchase simple cotton white shirts and slacks from Primark, please look the part.
  9. TalkTalk: Keep in regular contact with your colleague. From how the ball is turning to uneven bounce, help each other with information. If you disagree on how many balls are left in one of those nine-ball overs then consult the scorers.
  10. Time, gentlemen please: Don’t get trigger happy as soon as an appeal comes in. Before you send the village blacksmith packing, consider the forensic evidence at the crime scene for a few seconds.
  11. Captain’s stable: Regularly communicate with the fielding captain (slow over rate; can we lower the decibels please). Don’t talk shop to other fielders, even when a player lights up at the fall of a wicket. Politely ask the captain to sort him out.
  12. Courage of conviction: Whether it’s the captain on ninety-eight or a teenager on debut, don’t be swayed by emotion. Law 36 does not come with a skipper-not-out-in-the-nineties clause. True, it won’t be pleasant seeing gallows being erected on the square at the conclusion of the match, but it’s more important that your decisions are consistent, and good.
  13. Middle manager: Knowledge of Laws and regulations is essential. Ability to manage people and their expectations is also crucial another, or to put it in language of previous generations, use your common sense.
  14. Young and gallant with lots of talent: The future of cricket depends on youngsters coming through the ranks and of course we want to see them playing in adult Leagues. Please make sure you follow all the ECB guidelines on wearing helmets, not exceeding over limitations and general safety measures on and off the pitch.
  15. Nota Bene: My scorecards are full of notes on timings of lost balls, players leaving field injured and over rates. This kind of forensic evidence is invaluable for usage at all stages of the game.
So come on folks, what have you got to lose? I promise you won’t regret it. Become an umpire!

https://www.ecb.co.uk/be-involved/officials/find-a-course/Umpiring-courses

 

 

 

 

 

My Sweet Lord’s

If you aren’t going all the way, why go at all? (Joe Namath)

A few years ago I attended a talk by Paul Baldwin, an umpire on the First Class panel and one of the few to have reached the peak via recreational cricket. He started out umpiring on an RAF base in Germany in 1989 and became a First Class umpire in 2015.  Baldwin’s friendly demeanour, along with his excellent communication skills made for a terrific evening. A rare example of coming through the recreational ranks, Baldwin certainly resonated with Secret Umps and I particularly liked his take on umpires’ mistakes: Don’t let it affect the way you umpire the rest of the game. Just don’t do it again. I went home with a spring in my step.

I think it was in my fourth season of umpiring that I got an invitation to umpire a match at Lord’s. You would be right in asking why an umpire at my modest level of qualification would be invited to officiate at the home of cricket. Surely there is a hierarchy of ability which would leave me kicking stones at the bottom of the pyramid and taking cold post-match showers in the second and third tiers of a recreational League for the rest of my days.

I was invited to the Lord’s gig through my work, which is another way of saying I know someone who holds a senior position in a national charity, and he knows I am a qualified umpire. But really, Secret Umps at Lord’s? I mean, would you go to a newly qualified dentist to yank out a wisdom tooth (or in my case, have one put in)?

When the invite arrived in my electronic mailbox I was very excited and pictured myself walking in the footsteps of Bradman, Botham and Richards through the Long Room with a packed members’ enclosure raising their bacon and egg sunhats as myself and my colleague walked onto the ground. But as with all illusions of grandeur, the reality was not quite as glamorous – the gig was on the Nursery Ground (where players have nets before a big match) behind the now not so new Press Centre. So in the space of a few lines of an email I had gone from headlining the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to doing a cover of the guitar solo from Sultans of Swing in my bedroom.

I can imagine the fuss Mrs Umps would make if did I were to umpire a packed house at Lord’s. Her iron would be steaming like Stephenson’s Rocket, my white cricket shoes would be like George Raft’s spats in Some Like It Hot and instead of a hairy ar*e Primark white hat I would be sporting a one hundred pound Harvey & Hudson Panama. (Imagine telling the insurance company you had left a Harvey & Hudson in the changing room of a club cricket pavilion – I can see the groundsman typing in ebay as I write this).

And to make the Lord’s experience even more exciting my colleague is a personal  favourite on the circuit. Nicknamed Spreadsheet (possibly because of his wideish XL girth) he loves his Saturday umpiring and shares my definition of officiating as enabling twenty two players to enjoy a game of League cricket.

Being a down to earth character, I wouldn’t let the windfall of a Lord’s appointment change my lifestyle. I’d still take the Sports Direct rucksack with an old tin of Spanish chocolates filled to the brim with my match-day melange. I might consider buying a half decent overnight case so as not to embarrass the concierge while checking in at the Danubius Hotel next to the ground. I would of course expect to pay more in its Pavilion Bar and Grill for food and drink than I normally pay at a Wetherspoons Curry Club night (Thursdays, highly recommended if you have been vaccinated). But really, fourteen pounds for a glass of wine and a draft San Miguel? For that kind of money you’d get at least another three drinks in a Spoons’ round even if the sell-by date on the draft faucet is in Roman numerals.

I doubt I will ever umpire on one of the beautifully manicured Lord’s strips (there’s not much chance of me staying at Danubius, Regent’s Park either). But one of my methods of ensuring one hundred percent concentration in a League game is imagining I am standing at a packed Lord’s with Dennis Lillee or Jimmy Anderson speeding in to bowl while at the other end Tom Graveney or Vivian Richards are waiting. These iconic cricketers are the souls in the shoes of my weekly blacksmith and insurance underwriter so Mr Umps, you’d better be at your best. No thinking of what grub Mrs Umps is serving up tonight, the chances of your team avoiding relegation when the football season starts in August or the whether one of the tea ladies will strike up a conversation (please do not let Mrs Umps see this). And whatever the reaction from bowler or batter, I know I’ve got an appeal right or wrong when I imagine Jonathan Agnew and Phil Tufnell analysing it on Test Match Special.

Agnew: Another great call from Secret Umps.

Tufnell: Yeah. We could hear that nick to the keeper from the stump mic. I think dear old Secret’s edging closer to that Elite Panel.

I regret to announce that the Lord’s story ends on a sad note. Persistent rain in the week leading up to the Nursery End charity gig forced the game to be postponed the day before the event. My contact emailed me ending the message with Next year, perhaps. I am left feeling like Madame Loisel the superbly crafted protagonist in Guy de Maupassant’s classic short story, La Parure. I may never get to walk through the Long Room and I feel cheated. I honestly believe I do possess the skills to carry a Jereboam of champagne to the bacon and eggs members in the pavilion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keepers of the peace

History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts (Ian Fleming)

The game ends with a win for the fielding side. I am at the bowler’s end when the final wicket falls. I walk back to collect my bowler’s marker (why bother, they are under a Sov each on Amazon, but still…) and then see the wicket-keeper approach me. I assume he is not best pleased about the two caught behind decisions I did not give: Thanks umps. I know you have given up your Saturday (he clearly does not know Mrs Umps) to come and give us a game of cricket and I just wanted to say how appreciative we are that you have been our umpire today. Tempted as I am, I don’t respond with a paraphrasing of the Peter Cook line: Shoot me down in flames if I err, but do I detect a note of sarcasm in your voice? Honestly mate, I’m not up for a discussion on Who’s the boss daddy.

Then there is the keeper who gets into a strop after I turn down a run-out: He was two foot short of the crease….Yes, he was. But you dropped the ball from the fielder and then broke the wicket. (His team’s scorer gave me a thumbs up as he had witnessed the episode from the score box at deep square leg).

Occasionally there will be a cat and mouse keeper engaging in white collar fraud. I’m at the batter’s end, keeper is up to the stumps to a military medium bowler. A couple of balls come through, collects them and the ball makes its way back to the bowler. Same again next ball, keeper collects, but then waits….and waits….and waits for a nudge of the batter’s back foot…and then takes off bails. Sorry pal, the ball was dead ten minutes ago. This kind of episode is thankfully rare and should not be confused with waiting a split second in the expectation of movement from the batter. I have given a few of them out but they are not easy to call. And a keeper who gets the bails off in a flash and then charges towards the bowler for a high-five not really knowing if the batsman’s back foot has not moved from its position is not going to be on top of  Mr & Mrs Umps’ Christmas Card mailing list.

Every club cricket umps reading this will have experienced what I call a Fright Night wicket-keeper. More Janet Leigh than Godfrey Evans, their screams reach the boundary and beyond and should I not agree with their kangaroo court decision, then the collective mob (the other ten in the field) are ready to lynch Secret Umps (steady on, two Hollywood classics in one paragraph? ed). It works both ways, fellas. You should hear some of the comments made about certain clubs at the end-of-season umpires’ meeting and the subsequent sharpening of our pencils. Okay guys, blousons and pacemakers at the ready, we’re going to march on (name of club here).

There are also some keepers who are clearly double agents spying for their clubs and the local umpires’ association. I made contact with one such agent in my first season on the panel. A huge appeal for LBW goes up from the opening bowler (I could see it missing leg stump). The bowler and his captain at mid-off (perfect view from there skip) are united in their outrage while wicket-keeper George Smiley gestures to the leg side and silently applauds my decision. Later that evening we meet in a nearby Tesco car park where I gave him a quarter of my match fee and we discuss some of the underhand tactics of Stasi CC.

And here lies a paradox. Despite the above, wicket-keepers are the heart, soul and engine of a cricket team. I can point out a number of batters and bowlers on the circuit who regularly produce the goods. But wicket-keepers are a class apart because I honestly cannot remember a bad one (other than when stringers come in while the first choice gloves man is on holiday). And while dropped chances and missed stumpings are rare, brilliant catches in front of first slip and amazing hand-eye coordinated stumpings are de rigueur for these guys. Wicket-keepers take a lot on the chin for the team, throwing themselves to off and leg to save wides from wayward deliveries becoming more embarrassing for bowlers; risking broken jaws as throws come in at a half volley on a minefield of a square; taking on slip duties for the last few overs of an innings; advising skippers on field placings (keepers are particularly adept at this) and even managing to strike a professional relationship with the batter with an occasional quip between balls.

After twelve years on the circuit I have learned that most keepers are likely to be appealing for the right reasons. A good keeper doesn’t need confidence trickster on his CV. And with modern technology, wicket-keepers can see that a caught-behind which looks black and white has a few shades of grey with the noise coming from a ball making contact with a batter’s trousers or pads.

Which brings me to the cricket confession box. It’s nineteen seventy eight and I’m keeping wicket for my university against another university. Early on, the ball is nicked low to my right and I catch it. The batter stays in his ground asking the umpire to make a decision on if the ball had carried. He confers with his colleague and gives the batter out. As we congregate waiting for the incoming batter, my skipper says: Great catch, but did it really carry? I replied with a wink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top of the morning

It was such a lovely day I thought it a pity to get up. (W Somerset Maugham)

It was one of those Saturdays where Mrs Umps pulled rank on the car for her occasional jolly to the tundra of Ikea, so I happily made my way by public transport. I had inherited my late father’s punctuality gene  – on my mother’s side promptness was defined by arriving at an airport as the plane taxied to its take-off slot. Like my father, I prefer to be two hours early than one minute late and that’s how I found myself on a ten-minute walk from a bus stop to my umpiring appointment a good hour before my colleague would be arriving – and two hours before play is called.

There is nothing more enticing than a club ground on match day, especially when there is the promise of sun and a gentle breeze. On public transport I have the luxury of a book (as opposed to one of those wretched screens that have taken the pleasure out of reading) and I am always happy to walk north or south of a mile from a bus stop to the day’s assignment.

The clubhouse is locked so I park myself on a bench and reflect on how fate has dealt me the kindest of blows, a wonderful summer’s day to be spent officiating a League cricket match. And in two hours, with the sun beaming down on freshly mown grass and a wicket that looks irresistible, I will walk out to the middle with my colleague to uphold a sporting tradition of nearly two hundred years.

At around eleven the clubhouse slowly wakes from its slumber. The captain and his father arrive in a vehicle that exudes status and which puts my eleven-year-old jalopy, now in an Ikea car park, to shame. The father, with whom I enjoy a professional and courteous relationship, is the home club’s long-standing chairman.

Hello umps. First time here this season?

Yes, how are you doing?

Mid-table, as usual. Just to let you know we still haven’t fixed the shower hot water so it will be an army one today, if you don’t mind.

He takes off his jacket and tie and swaps his luxurious wheels for a John Deere wide area mower and heads for the outfield while his son opens up the clubhouse.

And in the following hour the remainder of the home team, the tea ladies, the home scorer and the club barman turn up, each person’s unpaid job description hardwired into their Saturday home game routine. By the time I normally arrive at a ground (an hour before play), the hard work has already yielded an oven-ready cricket match.

The chairman has done some preparatory work on the strip during the week so the wicket only requires a touch of icing and the outfield, already resplendent before he jumps onto the John Deere, is now perfectly fit for purpose. The boundary rope which is not as white as when it was purchased, has spiked plastic flags every few metres to help ascertain whether the ball has crossed the line; the tea ladies are almost ready to add the sandwich fillings; after a rudimentary stock-take, the barman empties the mini-dishwasher from last night’s social; the home scorer checks the electronic remote control panel is working;  the liquid sugar fix jugs (drinks) are in the fridge; the match balls are brought to our  changing room and the stumps are in place.

And then the visitors’ five-car convoy parks up and their scorer gives my colleague their team sheet. I go to the home changing room for the paperwork. The room is fired up with banter as one chap, back from his honeymoon in the early hours of the morning, sheepishly enters the changing room to a rousing rendition of Oh Sir Jasper Do Not Touch Me. (I was tempted to join in myself but why kick a man when he is down?)

Welcome back Nicky! says the skipper (Nicky is not his real name but apparently he is regularly caught in the slips). Would you like to go down the batting order? I think I can safely say that the last two weeks will be the first time you have used your head. When you get in the queue for the innings break grub, you’ll realise that getting married is like a cricket tea buffet. You choose what you want and when you see what your mate’s got you’ll want some of that as well. And from the corner of the dressing room the Karl Popper of League cricket shares this pearl of wisdom: My missus made sure we got married in the summer and then didn’t let me play a single game for the rest of that season.

It’s now ten minutes to twelve and my colleague arrives. After the pleasantries, we get onto the umpires’ equivalent of the Peter Kay taxi driver routine.

Where were you last week? Who were you standing with?

Yeah, he’s one of the best on the panel. Did he tell you you about his divorce?

Yes. I wouldn’t mind having a natter with him.

Was the home keeper up to his usual tricks? I reckon the behaviour is better than last year.

Couldn’t be much worse. We will/won’t/get trouble today.

Is the hot shower fixed? I was here on the first day of the season and the shower was colder than a penguin’s chuff.

I think you might like to mark the facilities now. Home team’s opening bat Nicky is back from his honeymoon.

I thought he had more sense. Couldn’t see your car when I parked up. Your missus in Ikea again?

And out we go to look at the wicket, outfield restrictions (overhanging trees) and have a quick briefing with the scorers. Then we we call the captains over for the toss. It’s going to be the perfect day.

 

 

 

 

 

Dramatis Personae (2)

Who Can It Be Now? (Men at Work)
Profiling the cast of League Cricket, The Musical (second in a series)

The Scorers
In twelve years of umpiring I have yet to encounter a scorer who was less than excellent. The geek persona they are often given is complete nonsense. I have never seen a copy of ‪The Galloping Sausage and Other Train Curiosities hanging out of  a scorer’s bag and I have never met one aged fifty-plus who lives with his mother.‬ Their training and assessment is as rigorous as ours and they are consummate professionals.

Approaching the scorebox after each innings is like waiting to be thrashed by the headteacher at school (Chewing gum under your chair in assembly sir? That’s outrageous). But when a scorer points out you have allowed a five-ball over, you don’t get the begging bowl out. Scorers are not to be messed with.

The Drinks Break
If a human addicted to recreational drugs wanted a cheap weekly fix, all he or she has to do is sign up for a recreational cricket club and midway through an innings go through the ceremony of inserting a liquid fix into his or her body. The sugar rush is surely equal to a line of crack. Welcome to the mid-innings drinks break. I’ve stopped requesting plain water because players who bring these jugs of squash (or as I call them, multi-coloured bags of sugar) cannot believe that a human being would actually not want to drink this liquid chemical cocktail. If it was branded by a couple of hipsters sitting on a hammock in their desk pace inside a refurbished shoe factory, naturellement, it would surely be called Sledge.

The Spectators
It’s rare to encounter more than a few people watching a club cricket match – I don’t count dog walkers or Secret Umps’ mates who occasionally flex their cycling muscles to watch another brilliant umpiring performance. I’ve had the occasional exchange of opinion with spectators, the most fractious involving a gentleman who was shouting from the boundary: He’s no-balling.

Reading these wise posts, you will be aware that Secret Umps is a voice of reason and tolerance, ready to impart goodwill to all men and women (and like my Welsh mate who does not know whether to identify as a man or woman, those who are gender Clwyd). But if there is one thing that gets my goat it is seeing a grown man wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. So at the end of the over I rounded up Mr Other-Umps (it’s posh our League) and we approached the said fashion troglodyte.

He’s no balling, I can see it from here.

Look mate, your not even square to the wicket and good luck to you if you can see the bowler’s front foot from here because I can hardly see the line myself. Enjoy the game and leave the umpiring to us. Oh, and your tie needs straightening.

Overseas players
In our League there are players who come from all parts of the cricketing globe. A few are club pros whose passage is paid by the club and they enjoy a lovely English summer coaching and playing.  Can I have leg stump please sir? asks the South African club pro taking guard. I put the idea of calling me Sir to Mrs Umps and I must say, after being on the receiving end of her negative response, the A&E department worked incredibly hard to free the 240mm trussing needle that had penetrated my abdomen.

I remember an Aussie pro telling me after a game that down under his colleagues show more respect to Messrs Umps than English players. But such is my admiration for the local hearty souls that frequent the pavilions of league cricket, I find that assertion from a Pom incredibly hard to believe.

The Kids
Before my self-imposed exile on friendlies and matches other than Saturday League games, I umpired a few school matches and a couple of county U17 games. Yes, it’s great to see the stars of tomorrow strutting their stuff and occasionally we have a youngster turning out in the League.

When I say youngster, I mean 12-15 and those are rare on the circuit. But cricket is a meritocracy and there are some very good young players who have the ability and temperament to play in adult cricket. When I was serving my apprenticeship in the lower Leagues on behalf of a club, I would sometimes take a lift with the skipper and when youngsters were present, the level of banter noticeably changed from the  dregs of the gutter to a bingo caller in a Darby and Joan tea party.

I really messed up one youngster’s debut. Standing at square leg I did not get out of his way quickly enough and he spilled a difficult catch. But there was no gerund from him, why he even inquired if I was all right having taken a tumble trying to give him some room. I’ll wager that his grandfather never left the house without a pair of leather gloves.

The Bathrooms
I think it’s reasonable to expect a cricket club to provide a decent hot shower after each game – and most do just that. I think it’s poor form to chat to captains and players after a game wearing the same sweaty slacks and blouson. Despite some fairly old pavilions and clubhouses, clubs do their best to keep the lavatories clean but there is nothing worse than coming off the field with a magnificent sunset behind you (think The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro) only to find the remains of the tea break floating in the bowl. Still, in these difficult economic times, some clubs are more flush than others.

 

 

 

 

 

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.