Strangers on a train

I’m afraid to move for fear of getting some of the world on me. (Sergio De La Pava)

I’m at the batter’s end in the first innings and the ball has been smacked over point for a one-bounce four and landed in the heavy rough beyond the boundary.

I like to get the housekeeping sorted around the issue of where to stand early on so as not to compromise the view of the square-leg. fielder. When a pace bowler is on duty and the keeper is standing back, it really is no problem for me to accede to the fielder’s request that I move back so he can have some space of his own for a catch or run-out.

Over the years I have exchanged pleasantries with many square-leg fielders, mainly about the weather, the fortunes of the England cricket team and occasionally in the second innings a Trip Advisor-style rating of the tea.

The search party for the lost ball was on and as I was about to consult with my collegue about the time to add on when my young co-actor sidled over and said: Mind if I ask you a question umps? You are more experienced in life than me. I’m thinking of proposing to my girlfriend, what do you think?

So the umpiring training I had gone through, the exams I had passed, the three seasons in the wilderness of the lower divisions perfecting my technique (steady on) and subsequent postings on the league Panel had now reached their zenith as I am asked by a player to advise him on one of the most important decisions of his life. Up to that point I thought my role was to control a game of cricket, give 22 guys a great afternoon out and interpret the 42 Laws according to my experience and expertise. Now I am an Agony Uncle.

I was certainly capable of giving such advice – assuming Mrs Umps is not reading this I may for instance have said: Imagine, young man, you were facing the raw, hostile and brilliant fast bowling duo of Sir Wesley Hall and Sir Charlie Griffith without a helmet on a wicket that was doing a lot. And as he pondered the analogy I added: At your age, I would advise you to keep your library card rather than make a one-off purchase in Waterstones. As luck would have it, the ball was found and as it was making its way to the bowler I gave the entirely professional response: I’m not the person you should be asking a question like that. Let’s concentrate on the game.

Fast forward a couple of years to the day after the 2016 EU Referendum. We had just finished a drinks break and my batter’s-end co-conspirator had barely said a word to me despite our paths crossing for around eight consecutive overs. And that’s the way, aha aha, I like it – a courteous professional relationship that may occasionally cross a line with a discussion on the England cricket team.

We were walking back to our little office around square-leg when the guy (mid-thirties) said: Bloody mess [the Referendum] umps. They are never going to be able to sort out these negotiations. And it’s going to cost the country billions. Again, my response was to-the-point saying we were both standing where we were in order to play and officiate a game of cricket. But I did have a lengthy chat with the guy in the bar after the game and went home to explain the intricacies of legal negotiations as Mrs Umps served up a delightful cottage pie. (I should add that she has no knowledge of cricket and has never been to a game but like myself, she was greatly disappointed with Referendum result).

Then there was the day Mrs Umps had the car and I made my way to the match by walk/train/walk. I enjoy this way of travelling as I can have a pint after the game or read a book, or just go through the key decisions without the intense concentration demands. My umpiring colleague did me a turn by giving me a lift to the station, thus saving me a mile’s walk.

I boarded the train and was immediately confronted by another difficult umpiring decision. A player whom I had sent packing with a caught-behind was in the carriage. I could tell from his expression that he hoped I would sit with him and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation about the decision and umpiring in general. I often get a feeling about whether a decision was right or wrong in the manner a player who I may have given a marginal decision against shakes my hand after the game. Over the years maybe five players have refused to shake my hand which is a pretty good record for the three thousand players I have umpired in 10 seasons.

This player (whom I had not umpired before) was disappointed with the decision but he walked off without incident and shook my hand with grace after the game. On the journey home we discussed the decision in some depth. He was sure the ball had clipped his pad going through to the keeper (who was standing back) and I heard and saw an edge, as had my colleague who confirmed he thought it was out.

What I particularly liked about this guy was his ability to construct an argument while understanding and respecting an opposing viewpoint. He also gave me important feedback regarding inconsistency of decision-making regarding wides, no-balls and the criteria for coming off for bad weather. This was not relevant to me personally but I have often remarked to colleagues that we can only get better if we listen to what players think and say about us. We know about this in our association and we are given excellent training each year to ensure we are striving for consistency.