This can’t be true but I remember it. (Jeffrey Eugenides)
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 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 seven or eight, 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 wonderful day. But out of the 130 or so Saturday league matches I have officiated, this is the only one I recall as wonderful, an uncannily out-of-sync statistic in a cohort made up of the mundane and occasional 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?
The reason I do it is simple. It is a privilege to give something back to the game I love – as much as a privilege of seeing some of the greatest players in the history of the game. Walking out to start a game is the best feeling in the world – from the opening ‘Play’ to the final ball I am part of an unfolding story of protagonists, characters and drama that concludes in ways that disappoint some and excite others. During those hours on match days I am shut off from the outside world of work and family as I concentrate on around 600 balls being delivered (yes we concentrate when we are the batter’s end).
Yes, I have made decisions that have upset players (one of whom politely told me giving him out caught was the worst decisions he had ever had against him). And I have made plenty of good decisions, but more importantly I have managed challenging situations well and with a growing confidence that has come from excellent guidance and experience.
I take umpiring seriously. I get my kit ready early on match days and leave plenty of time to arrive at the ground. And I have enormous respect for players and officials of the clubs in the League – I know how much work goes into preparing a game of cricket.
So if you play or love watching the game of cricket. Find your local umpiring association and get trained to become an umpire. It is a truly great calling, especially when the game ends as it did in the top of this post.