The wilderness years

It doesn’t really matter. Here goes nothing. It will be interesting to see what happens. (Sloan Wilson)

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 in this dangerous terrain so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those couple of years, I reckon about thirty percent of my match-day colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other seventy per cent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied umpiring and and others with two legs, eyes and ears (allegedly).

And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the games I umpired at this level, some of the guys I stood with really tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were regularly the de rigeur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system 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 of two hundred years of tradition.

In my first few weeks on the job I had an unwelcome episode with a fielder who was patrolling the mid-wicket area (which as you know is the perfect view to judge a close LBW). I had rejected a raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high. At the end of the over the said player ambled over and asked: So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps? Instead of giving the player a warning (Law 42, Players’ conduct) for this lip, I spluttered out some nonsense about height. Having voluntarily walked into a contretemps, I earned a slide down the snake.

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 a cricketer, 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 not much talent on show. The same routine prevailed – the captain complaining that his opening pace (hahahaha) bowler 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 more Faberge than Fearnley, spending  three hours in the outfield adjusting his gonads.

There were notable exceptions. A batter who had graced higher stages of the cricket pyramid turning out occasionally and scoring shedloads along with a couple of lads at university who looked the part. I have a heart and I recognise the importance of giving cricketers of all levels an opportunity to play. But with much of my time in the middle looking like a scarecrow (Wide ball) it reminded me of comedian Peter Kay’s routine on the 1980s TV show Bullseye: It were sh*t, but it were good.

The main problem was the lack of tension. A half decent team would rattle up 250-plus and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be all out for not many.  And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on – perish the thought – even worse players. And then there was the issue of partiality. I’m sure there is a peer-reviewed study from one of those former polytechnics which is now a resplendent university on decision-making by unqualified umpires in the wilderness divisions of Leagues. Let’s face it, when you have shared a few pints with the captain and club chairman on Friday night, you might feel more cavalier in ensuring your team gets over the line on the Saturday.

I am sure I gave some bad decisions during this apprenticeship, but I certainly didn’t give any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. Yes, they were a great set of guys who served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the League) and they ensured the bar was bouncing at the end of play.

Three seasons was enough and I bade farewell to the budget divisions. I was welcomed to the League’s panel and spent the winter preparing myself for 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. I wasn’t going to stand in the top two divisions but I was going to be officiating real cricketers who would appreciate the decisions of a qualified umpire while showcasing their undisputed talent. It was going to be as near to first class as I could ever get.

Be careful what you wish for.