Exchanging agreeable remarks for no other purpose than to keep silence from closing in. (Richard Yates)
The pre-match toss is a ceremony I rather like. I always arrive earlier than the ‘one hour before play starts’ requirement in the league. There is a lot to see to before the first ball is bowled – check the outfield for overhanging trees; check the sight screens; the boundary and pitch markings; discuss with umpiring colleague our views on behaviour (when and how to intervene); receive the match balls from the home captain; ensure we have bails, bowler’s marker, scoresheet, ball counter and score clicker, pencils (sharpened) a hat and sun cream.
Before all that is done I leave my bag in the umpires’ room, saunter out have a look at the wicket and introduce myself to the various people assembling on the square. My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion in which you know nothing about the topic. And that is the reason why I never get involved in the weekly pre-match league cricket debate: “How’s is the pitch going to play?” Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield play perfectly and those that resemble a newly laid athletics track play like a minefield. These days live coverage of Test matches involve at least 20 minutes of a posse of former captains giving a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and the occasional JCB digger into the surface. I don’t like this time-filling exercise which is why I turn on the TV as the bowler starts his run-up for the first ball.
I am obliged to check that the pitch markings are correct and that that the surface is fit to play on. I am not interested in what the experts are telling me about uneven bounce and the gradient that the bowlers need to watch out for as they approach the crease. Post-match we are charged with giving an assessment on how the pitch actually played although the ‘carry’ and ‘turn’ sections may have more to do with the quality of the bowling than whether the soil should be put on the naughty step.
Miraculously, when we call the skippers for the toss, the people who had assembled earlier have dispersed – I haven’t a clue to where, or indeed who they are – I usually find them lurking in and around the pavilion during the match. (More on these anonymous souls in a later blog).
Unlike football and rugby where the toss is a ceremonial ribbon cutting exercise to determine which team will kick-off, the cricket toss can have repercussions, particularly if the skipper who wins it decides to have a bowl rather than a bat, and then loses the match.
At the top of my long list of ‘out of order’ is people whose handshake is like a white bread cheese sandwich that has been in a goldfish tank. As if there are not enough problems in the world without limp handshakes. A firm grip is all I ask for (but do not necessarily get) despite the said skipper sporting a six-pack and looking like he could roll the wicket with one hand.
The pre-toss banter can give you an indication of how the afternoon is going to pan out as the captains exchange some meaningless chat concerning the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how they have literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season and the same old same old nonsense of how difficult it is to get a team together (apparently Thursday is the default day that the top batter and bowler cried off) ‘so we may not be that strong today’. Aha! The ubiquitous reverse swing psychology has finally made its way to the village square. And if I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian response: “You won’t get any problems from us, umps.” I’m reassured that I predict a riot is now apparently unavailable in the bar’s juke box.
The coin is flipped and lands on the hallowed turf and either it’s an immediate decision (often accompanied by a smug ‘we’ll have a bat/bowl’) or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer asks because he doesn’t know the answer.
Before heading off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fees. Call me old fashioned but I much prefer the fee to be presented to me in a sealed C6 envelope with the word ‘Umpire’ on the front. But I regret to say there is one skipper out of 10 (unscientific cohort) who looks like he enjoyed his Friday night out and who turns up slightly confused, emptying his pockets of accoutrements that include creased bank notes, coins and an occasional betting slip with the batting order on the back.