The 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 deserves a 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.

The iconic actor Peter Falk who played Columbo, was of course referring to baseball with this quote: It became the joke of the neighbourhoos. If the umpire ruled me out on a bad call, I’d take the fake eye out and hand it to him. (Peter Falk) 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 be more proactive in improving her husband’s unkempt demeanour, Mrs Umps understands the connection between a well 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 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  asking him now to run on the leg side is like asking Mrs Umps to give up her Netflix rom-com for my favourite TV programme America’s Toughest Prisons (I wouldn’t fancy no-balling any of those guys). Resourceful batters who couldn’t kick the off side trigger habit conformed by continuing their preferred off side but 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, stumping or bowled; 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; 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 empty rooms 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 umpire coat for a caftan and replaced my ball counter with six incense sticks. But I drew the line at saying 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 pummelled 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, the 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 looked like 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: Yeah Umps, going down leg.

Now that’s more like it buddy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 he wasn’t good enough.

In the summer of 1967, I was eleven when I went with my parents to Bude in Cornwall for our holidays. We stayed in a typical Brown Windsor hotel 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. 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. This was my introduction to the thrill of sport, a meritocracy transcending age and class and providing joy to a fifty-plus guy and his enthralled son.

I was okay at football and cricket and at sixteen I persuaded a local cricket club to give me a few games that became two 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 first experienced an umpire’s decision going against me. I nicked to the keeper but 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 onwards I always walked on a caught behind.

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 off with the ball continuing its merry way to halfway down middle stump. I get a look from the batter that suggests that this felony will ensure I spend the rest of my life in a dark, windowless room 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 the 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 playing squash 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 will 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 – and become 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catcher in the wry

Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss. (George Orwell)

A quick calculation. I’ve umpired around one hundred and thirty league games, most of which have gone into thirty-plus overs and beyond in the second innings. I reckon I am called on to make a close decision around three to six times an innings (and here I mean a difficult decision, not one where the noise off the bat to the keeper can be heard in the next village). So a conservative interpretation of these unscientific stats suggests I have made around eight tight decisions a game – one thousand in total.

Among the one thousand, I can only recall one that that has stayed with me. There have been many occasions when a batter or bowler has displayed various levels of dissatisfaction with a decision – that is all part of the umpiring experience. But the very fact that I never think about any of these hundreds of instances while occasionally looking back on one confirms that I have an element of doubt on its veracity.

It involves a player for whom I have a lot of respect but on this occasion, I think he may have conflated my decision to give him out caught and bowled with a change in the dynamics of the team’s innings. Batting first, they started the afternoon with a whirlwind opening partnership of over one hundred that suggested three hundred was on the cards. But a middle order collapse left them on around two hundred and thirty with seven down and around five overs to go. He was steering the innings back towards a very decent total when fate conspired against him.

An innocuous finger spinner was trundling away at my end. There was little turn and given his ability, very little danger. He decided to try something different – always a good option – and gave the ball some air. The the ball pitched on a length, the batter hit it back and the bowler caught it and turned round to appeal. I should point out (against myself) that the appeal was not like a real appeal where a hysterical bowler goes down on one knee and like Tom Jones coming on stage gesticulates and screams (in this case without holding up a lady’s lingerie). But there was an appeal and I am charged with making a decision, in this case whether it was a bump ball (hit into the ground by the batter and caught by a fielder, or a proper catch). I had already made my mind up that it was a catch, but to be completely fair to all concerned I went to get a second opinion from my colleague who told me he couldn’t see properly from square leg but he thought it could be out because of the way the ball looped back to the bowler.

I returned to my position and gave the batter out. Being the excellent cricketer that he is, he trudged off seething with rage and I could hear the ensuing gerunds from beyond the boundary rope. But credit to him, unlike many batters and bowlers I have disappointed over the years, he was experienced and wise enough to keep his cool until reaching the pavilion.

The innings ended with around two hundred and fifty on the board and the side batting first won the game by some distance. At the handshakes, the batter gave me a stern look but he shook my hand – another plus to him. After showering and the post-match paperwork I sought him out at the bar. In a very polite tone and with no ill feeling he told me that in twenty-plus years of cricket it was the worst decision he had ever encountered.

Going over it frame by frame I think am satisfied I got it right. I believe he got under the ball rather than it popping up after it was hit into the ground. There was a high backlift but no intent to hit the ball hard and I think he misjudged the length and followed through more than he intended and the ball looped up. But of greater importance was the speed and trajectory of the ball after impact. With quick bowlers, a bump ball often squirts at speed to the slips or gully. But with a slow bowler, the ball-hit-into-the-ground shot regularly pops up and dribbles its way to point or the covers. In this case the combination of a high back lift and mistiming the contact conspired against the batter.

This explanation did nothing to assuage him in our post-match chat. And here is the important point. The fact that I respect the player for his ability and demeanor actually sowed a seed of doubt in my mind which I carry beyond that game.

In a different game my colleague gave a young batter out LBW and it took him a long time to walk, and as he left the field there was some TV post-watershed language directed at my colleague, and for these profanities we reported him. The young batter is one of the most talented players I have seen on the circuit and when he is on song he is great value to watch. But his explosive personality does him no favours – he belongs to a cohort of talent-with-attitude cricketers who see a close LBW or caught behind decision that goes against them as a personal slur.

Compare and contrast the reactions.

 

 

Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now?

All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are. (Paul Auster)
Profiling league cricketers (first in a series)

The Pundit

Chasing a modest 190, the opening partnership is building nicely. I have The Pundit at my end as the last ball of the over smacks his partner on the back pad in front of middle and off on a straight delivery. After a brief survey of the crime scene I send the batter packing. I know what’s coming.

The batter is not perturbed, he’s been caught with his fingers in the till but The Pundit will have none of it. This is a guy I respect as a cricketer, a gritty, no-nonsense opening bat and very useful slipper. But over the years he has got on my proverbials with his whispering punditry at the non striker’s end. And right on cue, as the batter makes his way back to the pavilion I get the action replay: Missing off umps, you got that one wrong.

To be fair The Pundit is consistent. On one occasion, his partner’s call for a second run left him with some ground to make up as the ball came back to the bowler’s end. Safely home, he gave a full and frank appraisal of the incident to his partner (throwing in a gerund or two to add weight to the argument). And from the kindness in his heart, he then proffered me an opinion: I don’t know how many times I’ve got to tell him about running between the wickets. He doesn’t listen. He’s got something missing up top.

Then there was the caught-behind where I gave him out. The keeper was standing back, the edge was faint but obvious and as he passed me he muttered to the bowler: Only decent ball you’ve bowled all afternoon.

And indeed it was.

The Professional

I’m standing at the batter’s end when a fielder approaches me to take up his position at square leg. A nodding acquaintance is the normal protocol but this chap needs to talk. Between balls I get the full CV: I played a first class games for Xshire (I imagine a pre-season jolly at The Parks for Xshire against Oxford University –  more like a blind audition for The Voice than a headline slot on Later with Jools Holland). I’ve played Premier League but it didn’t work out (That would be worth discussing further but I stay well clear of delving). I love this level, I get a lot of time in the middle. (True, he batted very well).

The Reputation

The openers come out to start the second innings – with 240 to chase it could be an exciting late afternoon. My colleague asks me if I had seen the heavy guy before, he’d apparently been making runs at a fast pace and was one to watch. With little foot movement he relied on hand-eye coordination leaving most of the balls to go through (judging those to perfection) while dispatching the ones that took his fancy to the boundary and beyond. The heavy build and bat were useful additions to his arsenal and his entertaining knock (a few more than fifty) set the scene for the more traditional batters to see his team through. A team player through and through, I miss him on our circuit (he moved with his work to a different part of the country).

The Joker

It’s the day after the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The captain gives the ball to his opening bowler. The batsman is taking guard, the wicket keeper shouts Come on Will, you know where to put it and gully follows with That’s what Kate said last night. 

There is a big difference between a joker and an as*hole (there are more of the former than the latter, thank goodness). I have heard some cracking material over the years: Bowler to slip fielder after a second catch is dropped in an over – I bet you didn’t even catch an STD with that woman I saw you with last week. Bowler to batter (in a non-confrontational way at the end of an over, and the batter took it in the right spirit) Would you describe your character as ‘edgy’? Captain to colleagues at the fall of a wicket – He batted like sh*t and we gave him the runs (probably not meant as a joke).

The old-timer

The time first time I went out to bat as a 16-year-old in a league match my captain said: We need the points for a draw. Don’t hit the ball off the square, don’t give your wicket away and don’t take it personally but I don’t want to see you until you come back to the pavilion with a draw. The mission was accomplished and I got the nickname Stonewall. It is rare to see such heroics in modern league cricket

Occasionally, you get a player in his late forties or beyond who can teach the youngsters a thing or two about survival. Playing spin on a turning pitch by working out a defensive strategy is a real talent. In this situation, you can’t hit your way out of trouble. And far from sending these players out to bat at nine, ten, Jack, captains should consider moving them higher up the order.

The stand-in

Every cricket captain’s nightmare – Friday 8pm, the text comes in: Missus unwell, got to see to the kids, can’t play tomorrow. You’d think with a well-known club like his, the captain would make one call and  job done. At 9.30pm the matter is finally resolved, the guy in question has played before but he is not going to contribute much. On the other hand he is on a list of possibles and he is willing to turn out.

As an umpire you have been blessed with superb vision (be serious, ed) to realise there is a stand-in on the field. Sure he’s made an effort on the dress code with a white polo shirt (nice to see Ralph Lauren sponsoring the team), white jeans (possibly a tad tight around the midships) and white trainers (basketball style). I’m also not sure about the sunhat (Ayia Napa stag weekend attire).

But the great thing about stand-ins is their effort and sense of duty. Unlike some players, who provide a derisory bending of the shoulder in an attempt to field as if posing for a village green picture postcard, the stand-in will throw himself at the ball, miss it and then go hurtling after it and still be going strong as the Laws of Physics have escorted it over the boundary rope. True, you don’t want to watch the stand-in fielder position himself for a regulation catch in the deep – it usually ends in humiliation.

 

 

 

Wet Wet Wet? Take That

English rain feels obligatory, like paperwork (Maureen Johnson)

It is rare that a game is called off before I leave the house but occasionally the home captain calls just in time. I know what is coming: There’s no way we can play in this umps, the square is literally under water (and with your incorrect use of literally, you should be too). No Saturday fix and it’s cold turkey for lunch followed by a hike across the tundra of Ikea with Mrs Umps. This is God’s punishment for all the batters I’ve sent packing caught behind when the ball clipped the pad, not the bat.

In our Association we have an agreement that if the umpire has left home and reaches the ground only to find it is unplayable, the full fee is paid (especially as umpires, like any driver, should not be picking up calls behind the wheel). On the few occasions this has happened to me, I never take the full match fee, I just ask for my petrol to be covered. Similarly, on the one occasion where I had to do both ends of a game (my colleague called in sick too late to find another umpire) I did not take two sets of fees.

The spirit of hope springs eternal in the league cricketer, never more so than when the clouds open. The forecast had predicted rain all week but despite the Saturday cloud, the ground is dry and it’s certainly light enough to start on time.

I’m making my way to the middle to greet my colleague and pass the players on their pre-match warm-up. The banter is as expected: You never know umps, we may get a full game, I’ve seen a lot worse; I wouldn’t want your job in this weather umps (bring me a tissue); Could be a few ducks today umps (no comment) and rounded off with the finger in the air pointing 30 miles westwards comes the eternal classic: It’s looking much better over there umps. 

For an hour and a half everything has gone swimmingly (rewrite, ed). Then the fielding skipper points to the mass of dark cloud above us. The storm’s outriders announce their presence with a few friendly spots and we manage a couple more balls to end the over. And then we run.

You can tell when a club has got serious money with Test Match standard mobile dome-shaped covers distributing the rain to the outfield. The cabin class flat sheet covers are around four grand cheaper and once they are down, they do a pretty decent job.

It’s too early for tea and anyway Brenda (for some reason I am on first-name terms with all the tea ladies on the circuit) hasn’t even arrived with the Aldi sliced white and sausage rolls, so the players get comfy in the bar. My colleague that day is one of the best on the panel and we are busy keeping an eye on the rain, calculating overs lost and revised schedule while getting back out into the middle every 15 minutes to inspect the damage.

The rain gets lighter but there’s no evidence of it stopping. An hour after we have come off, we agree on an early tea. The damage is done, the strip is damp but not drenched but the unprotected bowlers’ run-ups are under water and even if they are cleared the ensuing mud heap is too much of a risk. The captains agree and it’s handshakes all round, a quick shower, post-match paperwork and drink (always soda and lime when I’m driving) and I’m on the road with the wipers working overtime.

These downpours are the exception. The usual rain-stops-play suspect is the borderline drizzle/light shower. I have a stoical approach to rain. Charged with ensuring the safety of the players, I am more inclined to come off in a borderline situation, particularly after this incident in 2015 which ensured every member of the ECBACO (the umpires’ representative body) pays the £30 subs a year the moment the reminder comes in. If my name and photograph must be splashed on the front page of a tabloid, I’d rather have the paparazzi ambushing myself and a middle aged celebrity outside Tiger Tiger than an irate village blacksmith with a broken leg suing me for negligence in my duties as an umpire

In these borderline situations where a no-result could send a team down there is a lot at stake. Playing on in light drizzle is a problem for both teams but I will only come off when it is necessary. It’s not easy defining a line that separates uncomfortable and dangerous but on most occasions it should be obvious for all concerned that the correct decision has been made.

I don’t spend too much time arguing the toss on this – we make a judgement without prejudice. We don’t care if the batter is on 90 or the fielding side need one more wicket (preferably the batter on 90). We are guided by the Laws of Cricket, specifically 3.8 (Conditions shall be regarded as dangerous if there is actual and foreseeable risk to the safety of any player or umpire) as well as the training from our Association.

For disappointed players, a decision we make at 5pm to call a game off can look questionable at 6.30pm as the sun provides a great drying act on the square and outfield.

Fortunately, on occasions like this, by 6.30pm I am well on the way home.