The bases of umpiring

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. (George Orwell)

I have a vivid memory of watching my first live baseball match at Shea Stadium, New York, in 1978. I had worked on a kids’ summer camp and it was the night before three mates from the camp and myself embarked on the famous Route 66 New York to Los Angeles road trip. Having grown up watching the sedate world of county cricket, here was an entirely different bat and ball proposition, a night of razzmatazz with hot dogs, a seventh inning stretch appearance of TV dog Lassie and the pitcher being transported to the mound in a golf buggy that resembled Liberace’s bathroom. That’s just not cricket, you may say. But forty-plus years on, it is exactly what cricket has become with IPL. And I believe the game is better for it.

At Shea Stadium that sweltering August night, I remember the packed house under floodlights, the moment where time stood still before the pitcher swivelled into action, the endless possibilities from each pitch and the uniforms that respected the traditions of baseball.

However much you love a particular sport, a referee or umpire is nothing more than a functionary and until I understood the significance of that word, I took some hard knocks.

Before and after a game there is much to do. I leave Umps Towers at 10.45am and return around 8.45pm. Around two of those hours are taken up with travel with a further two hours of umpiring duties before (checking the pitch, boundary, overhanging trees, captains’ briefing, toss) and after (paperwork, a drink and discussion in the bar).

Then there is the small matter of officiating six hundred balls. In the bad old days you would regularly get county and Test matches where two hundred represented fast going in a day’s cricket. With heavier bats and six-pack physiques the pace has quickened but there are times when there is not much action. While some of the younger players on the circuit like to tee off from ball one, most batters understand that watching from the pavilion is not as profitable as building an innings in the middle. I like these unremarkable passages of play – numbers on the scoreboard may not be cranking over but the tension is palpable. I can imagine a few bowlers desperate to accompany the look they give a batter who was ready to have a go but thought better of it with the immortal Dirty Harry line: Go on punk, make my day.

Those six hours on the field demand concentration, judgement and decision-making skills. The combination of Laws, League regulations and player management duties is a tough assignment and an umpire cannot afford a ball off duty (including at the striker’s end). I have developed a routine – it is interesting that the times I have been found wanting usually come when I deviate from it.

The bread and butter stuff is now hardwired into my system as I hear the bowler approaching. I’m watching for back foot; front foot; where the ball pitches; where it is going onto; is the bowler running into the protected area; is the ball legal; does it meet the criteria for a possible LBW or caught behind; is it a wide ball? Oh, and all this inside a couple of seconds – so no pressure.

Some balls are delivered, left alone and go through to the wicket-keeper. Others are defended and dribble out a few feet. Some are thumped to the boundary, others are nudged to a place where no fielder is in place for a single. Some balls ignite the action button so I position myself for a run-out. Others demand a judgement on whether a catch has carried to a fielder. Like the pitcher moment of truth at Shea Stadium, the list of possibilities from the ball leaving a bowler’s hand are endless.

Aside from the routine of remembering the weekly shopping list above, I also look over to my colleague after every ball (in case he has spotted something) and take a couple of paces out of my office while updating my ball counter and run clicker. And then at the end of the over, I fill in my scorecard while keeping an eye on the behaviour of the players as they cross for the next. (If you have been a follower of this blog you might have noticed that players sometimes have differences of opinions, and not only with the opposition).

Fans provide passion, players entertain and we umpires are functionaries that enable the game to flow. It is when umpires bring emotion into their work that problems arise. Failure is unforgiving. You can be on top of the minutiae with the ball counter, run clicker, scorecard and over rate. But a fall from grace can come from nowhere.

Such an incident occurred late in the season in a game where both sides had an outside chance of promotion. It was the second over of the first innings and the batter had hit consecutive off drives to the rope. He hit the next one straight and I triggered to jump out of the way. But in his follow-through the bowler got a finger on the ball and inadvertently diverted it onto the stumps. I gave the backing-up batter not out. It was a bad decision.

The batter only got a few runs and it had no effect on the game. But I had a bad day because I could not get it out of my mind. And here lies a truism about cricket umpiring. The magic of the moment from Shea Stadium is not a panacea of joy and poor decisions are accidents at best and bad judgement at worst, waiting to happen.  You have to be equally alert for every ball and base your judgement on knowledge of the Laws and your experience as a player and umpire. If you get wrapped up in emotion then you are simply projecting the role of spectator into the role of umpire.

Of course these split-second judgements are difficult. We are not paid the big bucks (steady on, ed) to have a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. I wasn’t expecting the bowler to get a finger to the ball, I was off balance, I saw the backing up batter get back, but I didn’t see that his bat was not grounded. I thought he must have got back. And I learned an important lesson – when anything can happen, it will.