It is around 7.20pm on a glorious July evening and I am standing in a league match between neighbouring small towns in the third tier of the league. The final two overs are about to begin. Chasing 230, the batting side are 215-8. All three results are possible (decisive, draw and tie). The tension is palpable, there are around 50 people watching from a raucous bar area overlooking the ground. It has been a superb game of ebb-and-flow league cricket played in the best of spirits. I glance over to my colleague who is taking the bowler’s end for this penultimate over and we both smile. We know what is at stake.
The ninth wicket falls in the second ball of the final over, a neat catch taken by first slip. In walks the number 11, a forty-something half-decent pace bowler who can hold a bat without the scorers needing to sharpen their pencils. This is what makes cricket such a great game; four deliveries will determine an outcome of the previous 596 reminding me of of Jim Peters’ heroics at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games. The batter plays two of the balls with the confidence and technical skill of a number nine, allows the other two go and local bragging rights for the coming year are shared after this hard-fought draw.
After the handshakes a remarkable thing happened. Both teams gave myself and my colleague a guard of honour into the pavilion as the bar – now in a state of frenzy – cheered us in. It had been a perfect day of cricket. But out of the 130 or so Saturday league matches I have officiated, this is the only one I recall as perfect, an uncannily out-of-sync statistic in a cohort made up of the mundane and unsatisfactory.
It took me around five seasons to understand that umpiring a cricket match is around 20 per cent about administration of the Laws and 80 per cent about management of people and their expectations. Because what use is an exact interpretation of Law 36 (LBW) when I am asked by a club chairman to ‘come behind the pavilion for a chat’ after giving his captain out to a ball that would have hit the middle of middle stump? Why am I castigated for not giving a batter out caught behind when all I can hear at the time of the alleged contact is an Eddie Stobart articulated lorry hurtling over a by-pass. Why would a captain mark myself and colleague down for calling off a match on a square that resembled an Olympic diving pool? How does the gentleman who approached a young incoming batter with ‘the next ball’s gonna put you in A&E’ sleep at night? (Very well I expect). These peccadillos – and there are hundreds more – beg a question that requires an answer.
Why the hell do we do it?