You can waste your lives drawing lines. Or you can live your life crossing them. (Shonda Rhimes)
Applying the ubiquitous Law 21 (No balls) is a similar experience to erecting an Ikea flat-pack. You have a vague idea of how the work desk will be assembled but when faced with the instructions you may panic as you keep putting round pegs in square holes. The definitive cricket book is a great help in understanding this and other Laws, as is winter training. But nothing compares to testing your umpiring ability than being out in the middle with match points at stake.
The wording is clear but occasionally umpires are too quick to to reach for the holster in implementing a decision without reference to nuances and mitigating factors. A match from 2012 (my second season on the panel) reflects such a dilemma of the No ball Law. It was at the back end of the season and featured two mid-table teams who were going to be neither up nor down when the snakes and ladders were calculated ahead of Prize Day.
An 18-year-old was opening the bowling of the second innings of the match. Up to that match I had never seen an illegal delivery. The Law states that for a ball to be legal, the arm must be straight at the point of delivery. The opening delivery of the youngster’s first over looked like it had come out of a mechanical bowling machine such was the position of his elbow as the ball left the hand. Then came four deliveries that were borderline and the final ball was similar to the first. I called Over and went to consult with my colleague and we both agreed I was right in not calling the bowler.
If I called the youngster he would endure a difficult winter thinking and hoping he could modify his action. At the end of the game we had a chat with the captain who said he was aware of the issue. My path with the same player crossed two years later – his action was fine and he bowled with accuracy and pace. All it took was a few winter nets with a coach and the problem was resolved. I know umpires who would have called him for an illegal action – this situation required a more nuanced approach.
Certainly, the most common No ball infringement is the front foot. I have developed a strategy over the years to unravel the labyrinth of the bowlers’ line dancing around the popping crease. In my head I validate back foot, front foot and protected area landings before moving on to the business end of the action (all calculated inside a second or two).
Most bowlers accept overstepping with a cursory nod, occasionally asking me to point out the margin of error. It is particularly difficult to judge No balls in the second innings where the popping crease line colour can resemble an organic parsnip, but even with wearing strips there is usually enough evidence to make the call.
I’ve had a few exchanges with non-strikers whose vision is so good that not only can they see a definite No ball on delivery but less than a second later they are experts on where the ball pitched for an LBW (just saying, and all that, but they do not have the benefit of standing directly in line with the stumps). An incoming batter to the non-striker’s end less than politely informed me that the bowler from my end had been No balling adding that I had not called him. I more than politely pointed out that his view from the pavilion (long-on for a right-hander facing) must have given him a perfect vantage point for ascertaining whether none, some or all of the front foot was over the popping crease (not to mention an-80 meters distance).
Again there are nuances to consider – a spinner’s foot lands in front of the popping crease but the back of the foot is in the air behind the crease, so it is a valid delivery. Then there are pace bowlers who want to make the most of their armory and flirt with the line almost every ball, adding to an already crammed umpire’s to-do list. While I respect the intent of these guys I doubt they return the unsaid compliment when I call No ball just before the batter’s leg stump cartwheels towards the pavilion.
The other main No ball issue is the ball that does not pitch (aka beamer) which arrives at the batter above waist height (Law 41.7). In the lower divisions this kind of ball occurs more often that you would expect or like. But honestly, I have never seen a beamer bowled deliberately and in Panel games the players are good enough to control the trajectory of the ball.
But even the best bowlers can lose control (damp ball or problem with run-up are common reasons). The bowler always apologises, we call a No ball and move on. The law was modified in 2019 and a warning is now only applied if the umpire(s) believe the ball was dangerous. When this point is discussed at umpires’ training it reminds me of my misspent youth waiting as as a quickie ran in like a train to inflict damage on my stumps or my chest. Dangerous? Nearly 50 years on I can still smell the fear.
But with my life flashing before me, at least I didn’t have a helmet to adjust.