I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why. (John Steinbeck)
Imagine going on a blind date and the prospective ‘partner’ is a disappointment. You like rock and roll, s/he likes country; you like a pint, s/he likes a short; you say potato while s/he says potarto. But you can’t call the whole thing off because you are umpiring a league cricket match together. When the fielders and batters are out in the middle you have to put your musical differences to one side and get on with the game. So whether you like the snap, crackle and pop of Kristina Maria (Let’s Play) or the Caruso of Pop Roy Orbison (It’s over) you are thrust together for the sole purpose of giving 22 people a great afternoon out while ensuring the Laws of Cricket are adhered to and interppeted appropriately.
It has taken me a good few years to know the roster of umpires in the league. And as with any kind of cohort of humans there are some I would like to ‘see again’ (in the dating sense of the word) and some who don’t rock my boat. But there is one Constant (to name a former Test umpire) – I have the utmost respect for every colleague I stand with because they are all cricket players who qualified as umpires to give something back to the glorious game.
After three years umpiring in the lower divisions of my league I was apprehensive, to say the least, when I presented myself for duty for my debut Panel game. It went well, I think, despite an LBW I turned down that might have been a tad harsh on the bowler. But that day was the start of a very positive relationship with the 50 or so colleagues I have stood with over the years.
Yes, there have been disagreements about light, whether the pitch is fit to play on, did a certain ball go over waist height on the full and should we be having a gentle word in the captain’s ear about whether the wicket keeper’s gobby approach to incoming batters will hamper his chances of being listed in Debrett’s.
For me, the hour or so I have with my colleague before the first ball is bowled is the best part of the umpiring experience. The ceremony is pretty much the same each week. As we squeeze into a space about the size of a red phone box we catch up on the behaviour, standards and gossip from the season. Then comes a few minutes on our respective Mrs Umps. She says I love cricket more than I love her. And then onto the serious business of how we will deal with Level 1-4 offences, our stance on calling wide balls and ensuring the over rate ticks along nicely.
There is no better feeling that walking out with my colleague five minutes before play starts, placing the bails on the stumps, counting the fielders and giving the ball to the skipper (I always give the ball, throwing it is disrespectful). But as soon as the bowler begins his run-up to deliver that first ball, myself and my colleague are in full concentration mode.
Communication is key. Sure, we signal after four balls that two are left but I like colleagues who make eye contact after every ball. A glance is enough – the equivalent of comedian Peter Kay’s three rings sketch. And as if multi-tasking with bowler’s foot, where the ball has pitched, impact in-line, impact on bat before bad is not enough, we keep a record of the score, bowlers’ overs, junior bowlers’ limitations according to ECB guidelines. So having a shoulder to cry on when I see I am two runs short of the scoreboard total is a huge relief.
Of course, the quiet nod that a slip catch has fully carried or you were right to give the run-out is very useful for quality assurance purposes. And getting together at the fall of a wicket to tick boxes and reminisce about the kind of shot we would have played in the seventh over a match instead of the departing batter’s attempt to hit the ball into the next village or in some cases, a market town.
When umpires agree on the basics, the afternoon and early evening go well. There are however occasions when it is not the collective angst of players who are testing my patience, rather is my colleague. A good football referee is one who is not noticed, a bad one who is noticed too much. The same applies to cricket. An umpire who imposes himself or herself on the match thus turning the cricket experience into a playground for his fiefdom is not going to last long on the circuit. I have seen umpires cross the line in the sand and become obsequiously pally with a particular player or getting on a high horse to demand satisfaction from a player he has clearly fallen out with.
At the end of the cricket day, you and your colleague enjoy a drink courtesy of the home club (unless you have sent the captain packing with a dubious run-out). From the pavilion you look onto the square as the groundsman tidies up the loose ends, the sun is about to set and a splendid Mrs Umps dinner awaits you at home.
The partnership with your colleague has gone well, you have have both worked damn hard and have earned the respect of the captains, and through them the players.
Put simply, it is a good umpiring.