The Wizzer of Oz

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. (Henry David Thoreau)

Over the years, I’ve met some great characters on the circuit, guys who can tell a tale and leave you thinking that can’t be true, but who cares? Top of the pile is the young man fielding at square leg and as his teammates were searching for a lost ball in the woods, he asked me whether he should propose to his girlfriend. As Mrs Umps has no interest in cricket and will not be reading this, I told him to continue getting his books from the library and not to bother with Waterstones. I have a vision of him ten years later, still at square leg and with the look of a man thirty years older.

Then there was the taxi driver who was ferrying me from a station to the ground and as we stopped at a traffic light where a wedding party was spilling onto the pavement, he turned round and proffered this bonne bouche with a perfect economy of words: We never learn.

The list goes on. During a rain break pitch inspection I was told by a captain sporting fishing waders that we needed to get back out and finish the game (when actually his team needed to). We were more concerned with a potential front-page tabloid splash (sic) about the first cricketer to drown in a match. Then, I was once told by a former Minor Counties player that the LBW I didn’t give was hitting middle stump – and yes, he certainly had the perfect view from mid-wicket.

One of my favourites was after a game when I encountered the home club chairman approaching a new Range Rover. When he saw me heading towards my Lt. Columbo jalopy he eyed it up and down, struggling to understand how a human being can be seen alive in such a rust bucket. Such was his disdain, I was expecting him to bring out an under-car mechanic creeper to prove beyond doubt that vehicle was unworthy of his club car park.

And then there was the Aussie cricketer I met on a train. With a small bag on my back and a sun hat in hand I could have been out for a summer day’s bird watching or even on my way to watch a game of cricket. So it would not have been obvious that I was umpiring a cricket match. When I saw this young chap with a cricket bag, (aka coffin) I felt the need to engage. My first instinct was that he may have been going to the same game as myself, and I was worried I might ruin his weekend.

It turned out he was going further down the line to a club where I have officiated a few times. He spoke about club cricket in Australia where, apparently, some games are played over successive weekends with two innings each. He also told me that Australian club cricketers had more respect for umpires than English players. Mate, I can’t believe some of the lip that I hear from the Poms. Why do you let them get away with it? He’s my kind of guy.

Then from nowhere he politely asked if I had a problem with my bladder. The only two certainties in life may well be death and taxes (Mark Twain or Benjamin Franklin) but when you get to your mid-sixties there are two further inevitabilities, namely spectacles and frequent visits. So prior to going on a walk I immerse myself in some orienteering so that should I need to relieve myself, I will know of a place to do so where there won’t be any consequences.

My travelling companion then told me about an incident in Sydney where an umpire was so desperate for a wizz, that at the end of the over he called out: Having a slash. And rather than take the longer walk to the pavilion, he set off to the short boundary and relieved himself in a secluded area he had reccied before the pre-match pitch inspection.

On the short walk from the station to the ground I recalled similar situations. In most cases I was able to hold on until a drinks break or fall of wicket. The human brain is an incredible organ that enables full concentration to trump the need to urinate. But there times when I resorted to stamping my foot in the vain hope the desperation would diminish. On such occasions, I have entertained dark thoughts – I know the ball has pitched two feet outside leg stump but I’m bursting and I need the village blacksmith packing. Then I realised  that if I gave him out, in thirty seconds we would be sharing a latrine and he might instigate a full and frank discussion.

On the few occasions I have experienced desperation, I informed the fielding captain, excused myself and ran hard to the pavilion. On one occasion when I returned to the square I didn’t have to wait long for the welcome home message from one of the fielders: Everything in working order umps? Soldiers back in the barracks?

All of this is age related, but with adequate planning and due diligence it need not be an issue. I empty my bladder before leaving the house and I can usually find a pub, small hotel or secluded road with adequate camouflage. There is a problem with hot days where regular drinks are required for hydration. But with wickets regularly falling, I have perfected a pavilion-lavatory-return technique that takes under two minutes. Such is the precision and suavity of this operation one captain suggested I audition to play James Bond. But because I was raised with old-fashioned values of civility, I didn’t want to remind him that his last three innings yielded 0-0-7.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you being served?

Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. (Isaac Asimov)

We should never forget that umpires provide a service to the game of cricket and to players, who, after all, pay for the officiating. Over the years, I’ve had discussions on and off the pitch with captains and players but the content is generally about particular calls I have made. It’s rare to be given the opportunity to listen without the impulse to respond. Early in 2021, a friend of a friend introduced me via email to a captain of a Premier League cricket team (I’m giving him the name Andy). He kindly agreed to do an interview via email. I suspect his thoughts and insights below will resonate among captains and players at all levels of League cricket.

We are only going to get better if we listen. As Andy says, marginal decisions are not high on his agenda. One umpire sees an LBW appeal as the ball striking the pad outside the line of off stump with the batter playing a shot, another sees it on the line. One umpire hears bat on ball for a caught-behind, another doesn’t. These decisions work for and against players over a season and tend to balance out.

Andy is more interested in poor, rather than marginal decisions, acknowledging that however bad a decision may appear to be, it must be accepted.  The example he gives below regarding the ball pitching outside leg stump is worrying, particularly at Premier League level.

Interview with Andy, Premier League captain.

How long have you been playing competitive cricket? ​Twenty-eight years

As a player, what has been your general experience of umpiring? ​Generally not great. I would say that there are a lot more bad umpires than good, but as players I also think that we cannot appreciate how difficult the job is. And also how different the experience is when you’re batting or bowling as opposed to observing. And as players we cannot be objective!

What makes a good umpire? Good umpires are knowledgeable, calm, polite and professional. We don’t need them to be our friend or foe and they should treat players with respect and speak to them as adults. Also, it is very important to own mistakes they may make. A common trait of the best umpires is that they have mostly all played cricket to a decent level and among the less good ones is that they haven’t.​

But I would also say that you have to feel and seem confident, and having been around the game as a player certainly helps you feel like you should be there. Sure, with a bit of time and experience that confidence comes but imagine it would be quite hard initially for someone who hasn’t played much to come into umpiring.

And a poor umpire? ​Bad qualities include being authoritarian and emotional – quick to argue, defend and scold. Some umpires want to be involved too much. And they can also be stubborn!

Umpires are going to make mistakes which may have an effect on a result. Can you separate the disappointment from the inevitability of this happening?  Yes, I think so. Any player who has played long enough realises that decisions tend to average themselves out. I encourage my players to not walk if there is any doubt because otherwise you won’t even up the decisions for and against you. The flip side is that you should leave the crease without too much fuss when you don’t agree with a decision, however hard that might be.

You are now a captain. Has your view of umpires changed from when you were only playing? Yes, I think being the leader of the team has made me feel far more aware of my behaviour on the field as the ultimate representative of the club. Being more in control of the game along with the umpires and the opposition captain makes me work with the umpires and try to have more of a relationship with them. In my younger years I used to be quite hot headed and immature. As a fast bowler that isn’t a great recipe for relationships with umpires.​

If you were asked to provide some content on an umpire’s Continuing Professional Development (CDP) course, what would you recommend? Difficult question. I think maybe being paired with a more experienced umpire to see how they go about the job.​

Please give us examples of good and bad umpiring. Bad umpiring: Everyone can make a mistake with a decision, but I have witnessed some howlers. We were playing against a bowler who delivers big in-swingers. He was bowling over the wicket at a left-hander. It basically ruled LBW out of the equation unless it was very full. A back-of-length delivery, pitches a foot outside leg stump, doesn’t really bounce, hits the batsmen on the pad, big appeal and was given out. It just didn’t make sense. Marginal wrong decisions including faint inside edges, LBWs or bat on pad caught behinds that are neither here nor there. But the ones that show no understanding of the game or sometimes just a lack of common sense are hard to take.

Good umpiring: We were well on top in an important game and there was some rain about. The umpires let us carry on to twenty overs (the minimum for a game qualification) in lightish drizzle. There was pressure from the opposition to come off – they were trying their luck a bit. We did come off but eventually came back on and won. I thought that was pretty good umpiring given the context of the game and the lightness of the rain.

How much does emotion influence the marks you give umpires after a game? Very little, I really only properly engage with umpiring marks when umpires have had a real shocker.

Do players talk about umpires? A lot. There is plenty of time for chat when you play cricket so you end up talking about a range of subjects extensively – including umpires!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make it a double

Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. (Mary E. Pearson)

It’s Friday evening and I get a call from the secretary of the League’s Umpires’ Association informing me that my colleague for the game tomorrow is unwell and cannot fulfil the fixture. That’s the bad news, but it doesn’t end there. He continues: I can’t find a replacement. We are already one down on the weekend roster. 

I know the drill for these situations. There are three options: First, I can take both ends with a player from the batting side taking the batter’s end. Second, I take one end with the said player taking the other end. Third, knowing the scorer of the home team is a qualified umpire, I ask him to take an end and find someone else in the club for scoring duties. I know from experience that the only realistic outcome is for me to take both ends. It’s going to be a long afternoon.

During the three seasons of my apprenticeship in the lower levels of the League, I stood many times with players who officiated from the other end when their club could not provide an umpire. And although umpires attached to a club (as I was) are a better option than a player doing the job, there is still the issue of bias. I remember an incident in my first season of umpiring where I turned down an appeal for a caught-behind from my club’s wicket-keeper. After the game he expressed his surprise that I did not give it – adding the revelatory line: I expect our umpire to give those marginal decisions in our favour.

Having a realistic view of my fate actually eases the pressure as I drive to the ground. The home scorer is not keen to don the blouson, so at the toss I tell the captains I will take both ends, stressing that decisions on stumping and run-outs made by their teammates should be based on facts not pacts. And as a goodwill gesture I instruct them to put my colleague’s expenses behind the bar rather than in my pocket.

Prior to this game I had only taken both ends in a couple of Sunday friendlies. Those games were more concerned with the brand of G&T available in the bar than winning and losing. A finger spinner sporting a cravat would politely enquire after a ball made contact with the batter’s pad: Out sir? But with points and local rivalry at stake, a discernible tension characterises a Saturday League encounter. Bowlers charge in screaming spittle with their appeals, and the contest is well and truly on. Hence my steadfast determination to do this double shift.

Because of the extra weight I am carrying, the players give me a wider berth on excessive appealing, along with keeping some of the more vocal elements of their respective choirs in check. I tell the scorers I am not keeping a tally of the runs but everything else remains the same, relentless and challenging – just the way I like it.

But there is one thing missing – the Saturday camaraderie with my colleague. Pre-match banter, gossip from the circuit and the occasional walk down memory lane (Georgie Fame versus The Dave Clark Five) before the serious business begins. That’s when we become a team, controlling the game without imposing ourselves on it, confirming that a catch in the slips has carried, a nod after the fourth ball of the over and a post-mortem at the fall of a wicket. With the short walk over to  consult missing, it’s a lonesome afternoon.

On the brighter side, watching the comings and goings of the magician’s assistant is always good fun. Clearly they couldn’t find a modern-style blouson in the lost property box amid the jockstraps, batting glove with no partner, sock with two partners and stag weekend in Prague T-shirt. So my assistants share a knee-length white lab coat (de-rigueur fashion for umpires in the nineteen-fifties). It’s comforting to see the batter who has been found guilty (LBW) returning to the square to undertake his community service. I particularly like the makeshift changing of the guard ceremony where, instead of my assistant returning to the pavilion fully dressed, he meets at Checkpoint Charlie forty yards in from the boundary rope and hands over the lab coat to his colleague. And as he stumbles towards the square while buttoning up, he looks like he’s ready for a shift on the Asda meat counter.

Towards the end of the first innings I’m flagging from the combo of both ends and the August heat. I give myself an extra drinks break and the sugar rush from this  bright green slime (aka lime cordial concentrate), sees me through to tea. The empty seat on the umpires’ table reminds me that it is acceptable to avail myself of four egg and cress triangles, two mini rolls and three mugs of tea.

The second innings is much easier, mainly because the visitors conspire to lose by a distance with poor shot selections and two absurd run-outs that their own ‘umpire’ at square leg could not possibly turn down (caught on camera with the swag, your honour).

And at the end of the day (literally, not football manager parlance) I am given a warm handshake by players, scorers and the home club chairman. What was a vision of the set of Carrie as I took the call on that Friday evening became It’s a Wonderful Life as glasses were raised in the bar. Sure, it was a challenge, but carrying a simple message saw me through the afternoon. All those years ago, my Level 1 umpiring course tutor opened the first session with these words: Your job is to give twenty-two guys a great game of cricket. Mission accomplished.

Dog Day Afternoon

Tolerance is nothing more than patience with boundaries. (Shannon Adler)

It is one of those afternoons where little is happening and the sound of silence resonates louder than bat on ball. The batting side are around one-hundred-and-thirty for six after forty tedious overs, while the home side are thinking they won’t have too many runs to chase.

This is one of the best grounds on the circuit with a very good track and outfield, excellent hospitality and a decent bunch of guys I have got to know well over the years. The one problem is that whichever strip is used on the square, there is always a long boundary on one side. And when – as in this case – it is on a slope, it is difficult to judge whether the ball has actually crossed the rope.

On such occasions there is only one way to make a call in the likely event myself and colleague cannot be sure if the ball has reached the boundary – we ask the fielder to be the judge. And let’s be honest, the worst that will happen is that the batter will get three instead of four. It’s not ideal, but we don’t have a third umpire, an array of cameras and an outside broadcasting centre taking up seventy percent of the car park.

Until this particular day, I had rarely witnessed any issues from the winners and losers of such decisions. On many occasions fielders who were not sure themselves (in diving they did not know if their body had made contact with the rope or line) would signal a boundary. So having seen the distance of the boundary at the toss we confirmed that we would be going by the fielder’s call. And of course the captains are not troubled by this small print, and nor I suspect are the other twenty alpha males who are busy pumping up their testosterone ahead of a great afternoon’s cricket.

I’m at the left-handed batter’s end, further away than I would be to a right-hander, but with the advantage of facing the long boundary. The batter pierces the offside ring with a cover drive of quality way above his third-tier pay scale and the chase is on. Of course, I’m not only looking at the race, I’m checking the batters are touching their bats down behind the popping crease on completing each run, but I do witness the fielder diving full length, dragging the ball back and tidying up with a throw to the wicket-keeper. The batters run three.

And like a guest at a dinner party who may or may not have broken wind as the vanilla mousseline is served, all eyes are on the fielder. My colleague asks him through a short version of the boundary signal. The fielder runs in and shouts Honestly umps, I think I got it but I’m not sure. The batters could not possibly have seen the outcome, but the left-hander generously offers his opinion. Must be a boundary, he was halfway towards….[the next village], implying that the said fielder has carried the ball over the rope with his momentum. And because he may be denied an extra run on a very close call, ergo it’s an abuse of his human rights.

I move over to consult with my colleague and we both agree to go with the fielder’s call, so no signal is necessary, and we confirm with the scorers to record it as  three runs. The batters mutter something we can’t hear but I doubt it was a compliment on the excellent job my local barber Yannis has done on me during the week. We move on.

Then from nowhere….

One of the delights of Saturday afternoon cricket is the sight of people walking their dog with an eye on the cricket as they stroll around the boundary. Forgive my sardonic tone, but I believe dog walkers are as equal in importance to the wickets, balls, pitch markings, scoreboard and sight screens as part of a club’s match miscellany. Without walkers and dogs, we are missing an essential ingredient that makes up a proper game. I’ve seen hounds exhibit flashes of fielding brilliance as they chase and return balls and on that basis alone, I’d give them a run for the third team in Division Six. Occasionally, a fleeting glance between myself and a dog walker at the end of an over will be followed by Afternoon umpire (note the correct term for calling the attention of an umps). Lovely weather. Such genteel exchanges, along, of course, with a packet of mint humbugs in my bouson right-hand pocket, ensure the afternoon runs smoothly.

But this particular gentleman, who is accompanied by his wife (or perhaps a lady other than his wife) feels duty bound to clear up the boundary conundrum. It’s a four, a boundary, Mr Walker shouts while furiously signalling the boundary sign with the golden retriever nodding in agreement. And of course, the left-handed batter is conditioned to react with a Pavlovian reflex as classic as his once-in-a-season perfect cover drive.

There you are umps, it’s a four, you got it wrong.

Er, no, we got it right. We’re going by the fielder’s call, your captain agreed. Take it up with him. And to press home that particular point I added….as soon as you are out.

But umps, that guy saw it go over the rope.

I don’t care if Frank Sinatra saw it….and in a moment of inspiration, we’re doing it our way.

As we walk in for the tea interval, Mr and Mrs Walker and the golden retriever approach us.

Mr Walker wastes no time: I played club cricket and I know what a boundary is. Why not accept my decision?

Because you are out for an afternoon walk, you are not here to make decisions. We go by the fielder’s call. Mr Walker shakes his head, gives the leash a gentle tug and says: Poor show.

 

 

 

The ex-Prozac

The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you. (Stephanie Perkins)

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 the 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 pummeled 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 next village.

All of this is food and drink to me 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 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. 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 that occasionally does not resonate well with me. I’ve heard this kind of thing a few times: I played two pre-season warm up games for [insert county] eighteen years ago. But such is their self-aggrandisement, 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 bowler is down on one, or even two knees with an aggressive appeal. Pitched outside leg stump? Impact outside off stump? Ball goes from 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 sitting in a cafe holding forth on how he done the Knowledge in three months.

I handle the situation of excessive appealing in a conciliatory manner. I don’t report it as a 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 we can sort out 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 even 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 offer 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 only if we let them.

Bowled over

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

If I had to write a ten-word slogan to entice people into umpiring, it would be this:  You can’t beat the joy of an afternoon’s League cricket. 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. And quality certainly beats quantity in my on-field fun anecdotes collection which adorns my old scorecards and notebooks. Being a jealous type, Mrs Umps once challenged me about writing Excellent tea!! in my notebook assuming this was code for some post-match revelry with Brenda (my anonymity is not compromised here – every tea lady on the circuit is called Brenda). Don’t worry my dear, two exclamation marks is a reflection of Brenda’s delicious jam sponge, not her crumpet.

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 their services and so we 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 may 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 can watch for the keeper and his gloves getting in front of the wicket, but I’m not a personal trainer 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 I am happy to oblige. The sales executive holding a bat gets busy: 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 is not keen on 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. From time to time it’s good to get out of solitary and enjoy some banter with fellow human beings. Take these peccadilloes noted during ball searches over the years:

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

You won’t believe what happened umps, 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, well you know, behind a tree. (So that’s three lost balls).

Did you hear what happened on our club tour to Cornwall two weeks ago? (No, but I presume the umps were to blame).

The douze points for this particular entertainment contest goes to the afternoon wedding party in the village church opposite the cricket ground. We started play at one, by half-past they were man and wife and by quarter past two the photos were finished.

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

The visiting side were fielding and spent the next over discussing the possible modus operandi (more like operandy) of the couple’s night ahead. I won’t go into the minutiae, suffice to say that contemporary young adults have more crusading options than were available in my boring missionary days.

The fun really started around four as we were coming off for tea. I don’t know why the party came en-masse to the cricket ground, perhaps the upstairs room was being prepared for the evening buffet and entertainment (karaoke with the village blacksmith, yes the same one I have sent packing throughout this project). Filled with fuel, the wedding party’s conga line included the vicar, organist and photographer and was accompanied by a rousing rendition of The Engineer Song before the troupe formed a guard of honour to applaud players and umpires into the pavilion.

The groom, with a tie around his neck and his index finger pointing north, approaches me and slurs: Mr Umpire, you’re out! And at that moment I have a vision of Mrs Umps at the tundra of Ikea searching for a doormat and a new duvet cover for the spare room. Congratulations! I say and with my colleague make my way into the pavilion for a well-earned cup of tea, and a generous slice of Brenda’s jam sponge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.