The old English Cricket Board (ECB) Level 1 umpiring course was excellent, although the emphasis on Laws over match management compromised my confidence in the first couple of seasons. After passing the exam I decided to serve an apprenticeship in a lower division of the league. Panel umpires were not sent to officiate at this humble level so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those three years, I reckon about 30 per cent of my match-day colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other 70 per cent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied umpiring and a raft of other good folk who enjoyed an afternoon away from the missus.
And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the 40-plus games I umpired over the three seasons some who stood with me really tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were the de rigeur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system being awarded to the ‘colleague’ who at least used initiative in actually finding a makeshift ball counter. But seriously mate, moving six roll-ups from one pocket of your jeans to the other (not to mention lighting one up at the fall of a wicket) to count the balls in an over does not quite fit the zeitgeist in upholding more than 200 years of tradition.
In my first few weeks on the job I had an unwelcome episode with a former pro who was patrolling the mid-wicket area, which as you all know is the perfect view to judge a close LBW. A raucous appeal went up and I rejected it, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high. At the end of the over the said player ambled over to me and asked in a polite voice: “So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps?” Instead of giving the player a warning (Law42, Players’ conduct) I spluttered out some nonsense about it being a bit high. I had experienced my first bit of lip and had got drawn into a contretemps (not a good look).
At this level, the game is still called cricket but to borrow a well-known idiom, it’s just not cricket. Because how can you call a bowler chucking down four cow pats an over as cricket, a batter swinging at thin air ball after ball and a fielder screaming ‘mine’ and then not attempting to catch the ball? If I had thought there was hope of redemption – that some of the players might have made it higher up the league pyramid or some keen juniors were coming through the ranks – I would not be so harsh. But there was nothing. The same routine prevailed; the captain complaining that his opening pace bowler (hahahaha) was at a stag weekend in Prague so he had persuaded Geoff to play. Ah yes, the owes-you-a-favour Geoff coming off a night shift resurfacing a motorway and turning out in whites that were extremely tight jeans (more Faberge than Fearnley), and who spent most of his afternoon in the outfield adjusting his gonads.
And there was very rarely a battle between bat and ball or a tense finish. A half decent team would rattle up 250-plus and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be 90-odd all out. And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on – perish the thought – even worse players. But who cares? They served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the league) and the bar was bouncing at the end of play.
So after three seasons I said goodbye to this friendly and jovial set of guys and prepared myself for the high-roller games with two qualified and neutral umpires, two qualified scorers, prepared wickets (not Anzio beach) and a minimum of four good deliveries per over.
Be careful what you wish for.