Catcher in the wry

Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss. (George Orwell)

A quick calculation. I’ve umpired around one hundred and thirty league games, most of which have gone into thirty-plus overs and beyond in the second innings. I reckon I am called on to make a close decision around three to six times an innings (and here I mean a difficult decision, not one where the noise off the bat to the keeper can be heard in the next village). So a conservative interpretation of these unscientific stats suggests I have made around eight tight decisions a game – one thousand in total.

Among the one thousand, I can only recall one that that has stayed with me. There have been many occasions when a batter or bowler has displayed various levels of dissatisfaction with a decision – that is all part of the umpiring experience. But the very fact that I never think about any of these hundreds of instances while occasionally looking back on one confirms that I have an element of doubt on its veracity.

It involves a player for whom I have a lot of respect but on this occasion, I think he may have conflated my decision to give him out caught and bowled with a change in the dynamics of the team’s innings. Batting first, they started the afternoon with a whirlwind opening partnership of over one hundred that suggested three hundred was on the cards. But a middle order collapse left them on around two hundred and thirty with seven down and around five overs to go. He was steering the innings back towards a very decent total when fate conspired against him.

An innocuous finger spinner was trundling away at my end. There was little turn and given his ability, very little danger. He decided to try something different – always a good option – and gave the ball some air. The the ball pitched on a length, the batter hit it back and the bowler caught it and turned round to appeal. I should point out (against myself) that the appeal was not like a real appeal where a hysterical bowler goes down on one knee and like Tom Jones coming on stage gesticulates and screams (in this case without holding up a lady’s lingerie). But there was an appeal and I am charged with making a decision, in this case whether it was a bump ball (hit into the ground by the batter and caught by a fielder, or a proper catch). I had already made my mind up that it was a catch, but to be completely fair to all concerned I went to get a second opinion from my colleague who told me he couldn’t see properly from square leg but he thought it could be out because of the way the ball looped back to the bowler.

I returned to my position and gave the batter out. Being the excellent cricketer that he is, he trudged off seething with rage and I could hear the ensuing gerunds from beyond the boundary rope. But credit to him, unlike many batters and bowlers I have disappointed over the years, he was experienced and wise enough to keep his cool until reaching the pavilion.

The innings ended with around two hundred and fifty on the board and the side batting first won the game by some distance. At the handshakes, the batter gave me a stern look but he shook my hand – another plus to him. After showering and the post-match paperwork I sought him out at the bar. In a very polite tone and with no ill feeling he told me that in twenty-plus years of cricket it was the worst decision he had ever encountered.

Going over it frame by frame I think am satisfied I got it right. I believe he got under the ball rather than it popping up after it was hit into the ground. There was a high backlift but no intent to hit the ball hard and I think he misjudged the length and followed through more than he intended and the ball looped up. But of greater importance was the speed and trajectory of the ball after impact. With quick bowlers, a bump ball often squirts at speed to the slips or gully. But with a slow bowler, the ball-hit-into-the-ground shot regularly pops up and dribbles its way to point or the covers. In this case the combination of a high back lift and mistiming the contact conspired against the batter.

This explanation did nothing to assuage him in our post-match chat. And here is the important point. The fact that I respect the player for his ability and demeanor actually sowed a seed of doubt in my mind which I carry beyond that game.

In a different game my colleague gave a young batter out LBW and it took him a long time to walk, and as he left the field there was some TV post-watershed language directed at my colleague, and for these profanities we reported him. The young batter is one of the most talented players I have seen on the circuit and when he is on song he is great value to watch. But his explosive personality does him no favours – he belongs to a cohort of talent-with-attitude cricketers who see a close LBW or caught behind decision that goes against them as a personal slur.

Compare and contrast the reactions.