Tales of the unexpected

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Chuck Noll)

For the sake of a discussion let us assume a league cricket match can last for 50 overs per side and that win, draw or tie are on the table. Most games follow a similar pattern where the team batting first build up a decent score (say 250-plus) and the team batting second don’t reach the target but don’t lose all their wickets, depending on the League Rules, such situations end in a draw.

Of course, the team batting second can chase down 300-plus in fewer than 40 overs – I’ve seen that happen more than once. And the team batting first can be bowled out for around 100 and still win the game. Again, these things happen.

The most significant aspect of umpiring is watching a story develop into something that is both unexpected and interesting. In well over 100 league games I cannot remember one umpiring decision that changed the course of a match. But I can remember some significant shifts of fortune that changed the tempo and ultimately the result of the game. We all remember such heroics – Ian Botham (1981) and Ben Stokes (2019) at Headingley in Ashes Tests are two memorable examples of wins against huge odds.

A similar dynamic can also happen in League cricket, but in my experience it is rare. Nine times out of 10, a team chasing 250 will not win but also not lose. There may be unexpected collapses that cause a defeat and there may be an occasional heroic knock that swings the pendulum. But the key point about cricket is its inclination to deliver the expected denouement. Poor bowling, dropped catches and opposition batters in form combine to enable a decent first innings score. And on what is regularly a wearing pitch that takes some spin, it is not going to be easy for the team batting second to win, but it would be a surprise if they lose.

Occasionally, the difference between a well fought draw and hard-to-take defeat comes down to one attribute that is at the heart and soul of cricket – concentration. The population of league cricketers includes a myriad of personalities bringing a different approach to the game. There are cricketers who may have shown some promise as a youngsters but who are happy to enjoy their afternoon without breaking into a metaphorical sweat. There are people who make a living from mundane desk jobs and as soon as Saturday comes round they become obsessives once they cross the boundary rope.

But the difference between winners and losers (and I class saving a game as a win when it looked all over) is the amount of concentration a club cricketer can muster. So the right kind of batters who need 25 off three overs with two wickets in hand can find a way of coping with pressure and waiting for the bad balls to see their team through to at least a draw. A bowler who hasn’t turned his arm all season and is called up to replace an injured colleague can somehow find the confidence to to prevent the win for the opposition.

You see the difference in the guys whose concentration cannot be compromised. I remember one young batter who came in at seven down and guided his much more experienced partner through to a fairly comfortable draw. I asked the young lad in the bar afterwards what he does as a day job. ‘Junior doctor, A&E.’ For this player, the transference of skills from saving lives to the challenge, concentration and story that must have a happy ending are part of the DNA that this remarkable cohort of players possess. Natural talent is ineffectual if a player is unable to convert it into points for his club because he loses concentration.

Cricket is no different to other sports in its ebb and flow. A batter hits a quick 30 and bowlers take three or four wickets in a five-over spell. But having the ability to control the outcome of a game is beyond the capability of most players I encounter. One game that springs to mind was one I played in around 1975. I was still a teenager playing in a competitive league and we were hanging on for a draw. I came in at eight down and my partner who ended up with a match-saving unbeaten 50 guided me through some pretty torrid bowling. The most important aspect of that match was how he raised his game by keeping his head down.

I did as I was told, barely getting the ball off the square and when I reflect on that match, I realised that we saved the game not only through our own efforts, but also because our opponents did not concentrate enough in getting one of us out. They were waiting for us to make the error and that was not going to happen as everything went our way (including two LBW appeals against me that must have been close).

This kind of attritional cricket is about determination, bottle and endurance. And it is also about having the ability to tap into understanding your own ability as a player. In all levels of the game, it is the guy who calls on his bank of knowledge and experience as a bowler or batter – the thousands of balls he has delivered or played – and not letting a moment of madness get anywhere near his consciousness.

I have admiration for these players – it is a privilege to umpire them.