I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph. (Tom Wolfe)
Recreational cricket umpiring is a hobby – whatever we are paid for expenses comes nowhere near the minimum wage. I reckon it’s about three pounds an hour if you take into account the time we leave home and return.
There are moral compromises in doing the job properly. I get no pleasure in messing up the village blacksmith’s weekend with a close LBW decision – the subsequent muttered insults with a gerund thrown as he trudges back to the pavilion are understandable. Back in the day, I was also the recipient of poor decisions (some also went against me). Other problems that can compromise a good day’s umpiring include no hot water in the showers, and weather that can’t make up its mind. Umpiring is already a tough assignment without having to worry about injuries.
With helmets and padding from head to toe, batters are well shielded. Of course a batter being hit midships (the gonads, for the uninitiated) is the cue for merriment – I particularly liked a comment from the non-striker coming to console the batter who was on his knees gasping for air (don’t worry mate, I’ll stand in for the weekly chore with your missus tonight). As with any sporting event you expect an occasional mishap. A broken finger here (spilled slip catch) a pulled hamstring there (gentleman carrying extra weight chasing a cover drive) and of course getting hit by a ball which can actually be fatal.
Thankfully incidents of injury to umpires are extremely rare and our membership of the Association of Cricket Officials includes medical cover. In the last few years a lethal cocktail of modern bats the weight of concrete slabs and players working out in the gym have combined to make umpiring potentially more dangerous. That said, in my 12 years on the circuit I have been injured twice.
The first occasion involved a wayward throw from a fielder at mid-wicket who was going for glory in a throw-down-the-stumps pincer movement. After a clean pick-up the ball missed the wickets by more than two meters but found a resting place on my stomach. Fortunately there was no damage (or indeed any subsequent complaints from Mrs Umps) and hats off to the fielder who said: Umps, your missus is going to think you’ve been up to a bit of S&M. (I have indeed paid for many a slap-up meal over the years).
The second shook me to the core. In a tight encounter where all results were on the cards, a young batter was making a valiant attempt to win the match with some clean and hard hitting. The finger spinner from my end was taking plenty of tap so tried a different technique, lobbing up an inviting loop which the batter struck perfectly on the half volley. The only thing I remember is the ball cracking into my tight shin on the full.
The pain was excruciating and the noise alone was enough to convince me there was a broken bone. But the Great Umpire in the Sky was looking down on me as there was a physio on the fielding team. After an exploratory feel around the area he was certain there was no fracture. My colleague took both ends for the remainder of the match as I sat it out in the pavilion. Bruised and still in pain, endured a particularly difficult journey home.
It was my inability to react that concerned me. There have been many occasions where I have had to duck or scarper to get out of the way of a straight drive. But on all those occasions I felt in control, especially standing back to the speed merchants to give me a bit of leeway to get out of the way. But that shot left me no time to react. I was caught in the headlights.
As much as I like all the players on the circuit, I don’t want to be leaving the ground in a coffin (and I’m not referring to the rectangular treasure chests that hold the players’ gear, also referred to as coffins). I now stand further back to the spinners and I now wear football shin pads (it’s hard to get rid of them) and a box to protect the crown jewels. These days there are hardly any visits to see them anyway.
There is plenty that can be done to avoid injury. The simple mantra watch the damn ball should keep you out of trouble, but some colleagues insist on watching the batters running between the wickets to get the perfect view of a possible run-out, rather than turn round to see the throw coming in. Sure, ninety nine times out of a hundred the ball will come from the deep over their heads to wicket-keeper or bowler, but on the one occasion it doesn’t….
I watch every ball that goes behind me like a hawk and to be brutally honest, if that affects my ability to make a close run-out call, I’m not all that concerned. I’d rather get flak from a disgruntled batter or wicket-keeper and look forward to Mrs Umps’ cottage pie than be worrying about the result of an MRI scan in A&E.