I was just caught up in a life in which I could ﬁnd no meaning. (Charles Bukowski)
It is a reasonable assumption that during the months of May through to mid September, an umpire could find a game seven days a week if so inclined. Aside from Saturday league games (my preferred choice of drink) there is a vibrant Sunday league circuit, county and association representative games, university games, high-profile corporate games and what I politely refer to as ‘gin and tonic’ cricket (aka friendlies). With a match fee and carbs-heavy tea, you could make a kind of living from the summer months. But that has never been for me. I’m a Saturday league umpire – nothing else interests me.
I am not against the concept of a friendly if it is played in the right context. So a pre-season match between two clubs in the same league is good for getting the gears moving and finding out whether the Aussie overseas bowler is as much of a real deal as his winter nets suggested. And cricketing charity fundraisers are welcome additions to the summer collection, especially when a celebrity turns his arm over. But I draw a line on the ubiquitous friendly without a cause – I’ve umpired a few and disliked the experiences from beginning to end.
There is something missing from a contest where nothing is at stake. What is lacking in quality at the lower end of the league cricket pyramid is more than made up for in the storyline, tension and drama of a league match. Captains of Saturday league teams are plotting and scheming how to win (and lose) the next match from Wednesday onwards. There are points and reputation at stake as players react to the pressure. A friendly, by its very definition, bears no resemblance to league cricket. It’s a platonic version of a passionate affair – there is literally no point to it.
A prime example of this is the ubiquitous MCC friendly. I would not want to become a member of MCC but I have no problem with people who do. I admire their commitment to the cause with some of them chalking off thousands of days of waiting until they are welcomed to the most famous cricket club in the world. But here is the rub – turn up at any MCC match to umpire (I’ve done around 10) and what you get is a collection of immaculately scrubbed-up players, all of whom adhere to the dress code of shirt, bacon and egg tie and slacks with a gentlemanly approach to their opponents (usually a club side). What is lacking in abundance, however, is the edge that defines a contest.
The same bowler who trundles in to deliver mediocrity for an MCC Sunday friendly will have have steamed in with a raft of toxic deliveries for his league club the day before. The fielder who would throw himself at a ball to save a run on a Saturday is sufficiently satisfied with a cursory Sunday bend of the back as the ball continues its trajectory. The same turned-down caught behind appeal in the league game on the Saturday that was met with seething rage will provoke nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders on the Sunday.
And whatever the state of the game, by the time the last hour approaches, batters, fielders and umpires have little appetite for the cricket as they imagine themselves with a tipple of choice in the club bar.
My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which encapsulates the friendly zeitgeist. A good League club with a belting track and outfield were hosting a team whose surname was Wanderers. And wanderers they were too, being one of those cricket clubs which only played friendlies and thus forgoing the thrill of meaningful chases.
I was already regretting my decision to stand in this game as I had to keep both ends burning due to the non-arrival of my colleague (interestingly a not uncommon problem with friendly matches). The home club, which boasted a strong team in the top tier of their league, gave eleven from their seconds and thirds an opportunity to prove themselves and after a few overs it was clear they were going to get a lot of runs and lose few wickets – something close to 300 with five down after 50 overs.
On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling the Wanderers were struggling at fifty-something for three in their reply. But the number three batter had accumulated a fast thirty and while not having the poise, balance and follow-through of Tom Graveney, he was blessed with the kind of hand-eye coordination that could have seen him chewing tobacco in Major League baseball or having a hill named after him at Wimbledon. An hour later he was still there having regularly smacked the ball to the rope while his mates at the other end managed to keep the crease warm for him.
At around 150-6 the odds were still stacked against the Wanderers and then our Major League superhero nicked off to slip who did his chances of being selected for the firsts no harm by holding onto a difficult low catch. Having left highly incriminating bright red evidence on the side of the bat (not to mention a loud nick that could well have carried to the pavilion car park) it was not necessary for me to raise my finger to confirm the catch. But the batter stood his ground, so I raised my finger. And he still stood his ground. Then the captain of the fielding side approached me and said that the game would be over very quickly if Jo DiMaggio was given out, so could I reconsider my decision?
How very convivial.