Keeping a low profile

You want life to be like in the movies, full of excitement. That’s how a child’s mind works, but the adults accept regularity, tedium, frustration. (Ed Bunker)

The captain brings on the leg bowler at my end (I don’t like the term leggie which is more suited to the Tiller Girls). The batting side are around 140-4 chasing north of 270 with enough overs left for them to win the game. I decline two raucous appeals for LBW in the bowler’s first over. I know this guy, while he’s not one to induce panic in the opposition dressing room, he is difficult to get away. He’s got accuracy and length to keep the run rate down and I can’t recall any batter giving him tap. But he has a chronic borderline condition of pitching the ball outside leg stump (or close enough to outside leg that I am going to decline an appeal).

He bowls eight overs on the bounce and aside from two long hops in the same over that are sent packing to the rope, he is as tight as a duck’s ar*e in water. The end result is a draw with the chasing pack around 30 short and the bowling side unable to clean up the last two wickets.

The said bowler appeals for LBW twelve times in eight overs (my notebook will sell for big money when I’m gone). I give the one that pitches on leg, turns a fraction and impacts on pad below the knee-roll. The rest of the appeals do not even make the final edit – the guy’s got form. So why doesn’t someone work on the problem in the winter nets?

As I have pointed out, the main difference between lower divisions of the League and the level I officiate is the ability of bowlers to deliver a minimum four good balls an over. By good I mean making the batsman think about what is about to arrive in front of him, play the ball and not concede runs. In the lower divisions, you get the occasional good ball mixed in with a melange of long hops, leg-side wides and Charlie Cairoli impersonations. This makes umpiring more difficult because you never knew what might be coming next. A medium pacer who has been hit for fourteen in the previous five balls somehow delivers a straight yorker that hits the batter’s boot on the full and he is on his way before I raise the finger.

Umpiring on the Panel – the League’s roster of umpires who do the top four divisions – is a much better standard. The medium pace foot soldiers may lack the raw talent of professional cricketers but this is more than offset by their ability to hit a nagging line and length around the top of off stump. Stock bowlers like this are invaluable to a club – a typical seven over spell with figures of 1-30 may include the occasional ball that is thumped to the rope but most deliveries are in the zone and any captain would be delighted with such a return.

This kind of military medium also provides an opportunity for umpires to build an identikit profile of how a bowler operates – with seven overs you get 42 samples for the research. Of course, each ball is always judged on its own forensics, but profiling gives you a collection of similar outcomes from bowler and batter which can be to be used as extra evidence for LBW or caught behind. And it always good to see the bowler bring out the occasional X-factor delivery with wrist behind the ball to make it move sufficiently and deceive the batter. Older club cricketers with a wise heads and a vault of thousands of balls, are particularly adept at this sting.

Profiling is also useful for the cat-and-mouse spin encounters. The regular right-arm finger spinner makes the ball break from off to leg to the right-hander enticing him to smother the ball with his bat in the hope of him missing one or getting a pad-before-bat impact (always difficult to identify at real speed). But decent batters are canny enough to pitch their tent outside off stump where, provided he is playing a shot, he cannot be out. This is the soul of cricket with  bowler and batter jousting for dominance as the scorers join the dots.

The other scenario is the batter going on the back foot to play the ball, missing it and the impact on pad is in line with the stumps. But whether it would have hit one of them is another matter. Sometimes the turn is too sharp and seeing the wicket-keeper appealing outside leg stump is enough for me to keep the finger down. But where the keeper is behind all three stumps, I’ve certainly given them.

And it is both surprising and disappointing that in the comfort of the club bar after washing away the tension of a match with a hot shower (delete adjective to describe some showering facilities) the topic of conversation always turns to specific decisions made by myself and colleague. The accepted post-match practice is for the skipper or club to buy you a drink (the tradition suspended if you have sent the overseas player packing with a tight run-out). These brief encounters usually consist of variations on Not sure why you didn’t give that LB umps, it looked like it was hitting all three….from here.

It would be good to have a natter about That battle with their off spinner and our number four was great to watch….from here.

But that kind of chat doesn’t sell newspapers.

 

 

 

 

Bats out of Hell

Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. (Peter Drucker)

It was in 2008 when I first realised what all the fuss was about. It was my first season umpiring. I had arrived at the ground earlier than normal. On my way out to have a look at the wicket a few guys from the home team were warming up and I picked up one of the bats I saw laying around. As a player I’d done a fair amount of time holding a bat – in 1978 I achieved my only half century, opening for my university in a pre-season friendly against a technical college. It was my best sporting achievement until I ran a marathon in 1986 (which I managed to finish last week).

I stopped playing cricket around 30 years ago because I was regularly working Saturdays. And other than a few friendlies in a municipal ground with a less than serious pub team, I had not held a bat for 20 years. Lifting that bat was a real eye opener. I could barely hold the damn thing such was the weight. It was like carrying a slab of concrete around with you.

It’s quite easy to spend £700-plus on a cricket bat. The marketing guys at the likes of Gunn & Moore, Kookaburra and Gray-Nicolls  list some of the world’s best players as users of the top end of their ranges. To pay Ben Stokes to endorse these bats, the league cricketers are going to have to stump up money that in some cases is way beyond their pay grade. The fact that the world’s best batsman Steve Smith is happy to use a relatively modestly priced New Balance DC 1080 which retails at around £250 tells you everything you need to know about marketing techniques.

Some players in the league regularly travel to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to visit family and buy locally manufactured unbranded bats. A captain showed me a range of bats that looked and felt similar to the £200-£300 bats that are popular among league cricketers. The only difference was the price tag, the bats from Asia were up to 70 percent cheaper.

From the best view in the house I see and hear these non-branded manufactured bats making the same cracking sound as the Stokes-endorsed version. And when a batter finds the sweet spot in a glorious cover drive, the ball still arrives at the rope in a flash. Branded or unbranded, today’s bats are operated by seriously strong guys and this combo of muscle and bat weight send the ball a long way further than in my day.

Advertising gurus fill their pockets from endorsements by international stars buying into the dream of emulating the world’s best. But of course, the village blacksmith is never going to be a Stokes or a Sachin Tendulkar. So where you might expect the said blacksmith to buy his chisels from Fujikawa than Wickes, why would he want to spend a small fortune on a piece of cricket equipment he might be using, with the greatest respect, for ten minutes.

How people spend their money is not an umpire’s business, but if your level is second or third tier league cricket (the level I played and now umpire at) then a cap of around £150 is more than enough. The one and only bat I ever bought (£15 in 1973 and probably  worth around £120 today) was more than enough for a bit-part cricketer like myself. As the greatest batsman in the history of the game demonstrated, a decent batsman can score runs using a cricket stump.

I like it when a nine-ten-Jack batter, who at the 40-50 age range still turns his arm over for a five-over spell, comes out to bat carrying a piece of wood that looks similar to my Gray-Nicolls objet d’art. It takes me back to the era when you would be served by a shop assistant wearing a brown cotton work coat and where off-white cricket trousers, shirts and sweaters would be neatly folded and placed inside a wooden drawer. The shop assistant would have knowledge about the product and would take pride in representing this one-branch family sports shop on the high street. And for five months months of the year (including pre-season nets) that bat would be an important part of your life. One week you would be holding it but not using it as your off stump cartwheeled towards the next village. The following Saturday you would arrive home excitedly recounting the thirty-odd runs  facilitated by your trusted piece of willow, gently caressing it as if you were greeting a loyal Labrador Retriever.

The slabs of concrete are rewriting cricket’s laws of physics. Today’s defensive prod to point is yesterday’s firm drive. The only injury I have suffered to date while officiating was the straight drive that connected with my shin on the full, missing a bone by not much. By the time I reacted I was down and out.

Proper batters (those who shine in Divisions 2 and 3 and who may have an occasional outing for the firsts in the Premier League) need the concrete slab protein fix. These guys are in the gym five times a week to build up muscle to not only carry a weight that Precious McKenzie might have struggled with, but also to ensure that if they are paying north of £400 for a cricket bat, they may as well get the full value of the train fare.

Because that is how cricket is played today.

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

Carry on umpiring

It’s eighty degrees and I’m down on my knees in Brooklyn. (Al Stewart)

I always turn out for duty in a pressed white cotton buttoned shirt, black golf slacks and if it is not too hot, my Association blouson (a word I had never heard until I started umpiring). For maximum comfort I sport rubber-studded trainers, an inexpensive Panama hat and when the sun is in a good mood, an expensive pair of shades. I always take a post-match shower, even when cold is the only option. (We’ve been waiting for the plumber for a couple of weeks, umps….Check your calendar, I was here a month ago and the hot water wasn’t working then). I’m surprised at how many colleagues do not shower after a match, especially when they take the trouble to change back into Civvy Street garb. Poor form.

League cricket was less complicated when I started playing in 1973. A bowler would ask an umpire to hold onto a sweater and/or cap and that was the extent of the housekeeping assignment. Today’s umpire now needs to be a paid-up member of the Magic Circle as he makes the bowler’s myriad of accoutrements re-appear at the end of an over. Try these for starters: Sweater(s), cap, sunhat, sunglasses (never saw a pair of those on a cricket field in the 1970s), watch, asthma peak flow meter, changing room key, oven-ready roll-your-own cigarette (quick blow when a wicket falls, umps), smartphone (just for today, umps, I brought it out by mistake), bracelet, silicon wristband (it’s my bowling arm, umps), plastic water bottle (no way young man , try King’s Cross left luggage), energy bar, credit card (sorry umps), hand towel (no way, that’s for your mid-off), lip balm, full-rimmed framed eyeglasses, hay fever tablets (thanks, but I bring my own). And as I stagger around in the twenty-eight degree heat like a human corner shop, a fielder requests that I find a place for his club cap (hot out there umps, I need need to wear a sun hat….What extraordinary powers of observation you possess young man, get yourself an astrology column in one of the tabloids).

Post-match, as you are sorting out your own miscellany of bails, bowlers mark, six  coins, run clicker, scorecard, ECB guidance on junior players, Laws of Cricket handbook, watch, pencils, sharpener, mint humbugs, hay fever tablets and hand towel you realise that the bowler has not collected his more-expensive-than-mine branded sunglasses. So off you go on a trek to the changing room or bar to reunite the goods with its owner (thanks umps, they’re expensive shades). I’ve even had a captain phone me during the week (I know this may seem a bit strange umps, but did you find a club cap in your bag after the game?…..Yes, I found it in one of the inside pockets of my blouson). Fortunately, the car park of an aircraft-hangar Tesco was a convenient lunchtime rendezvous and I extracted full value from the assignment by getting a meal deal.

It is rare not to have a designated umpires’ changing room but occasionally we have to change with the teams, or as I call it, turning right as you board a plane (as if I have ever experienced the delights of turning left). It is crucial not to engage in friendly banter in this situation (how did it go last week umps?) and after the game it is best to wait until the team has packed up before showering and changing, one of the main reasons being it is not good for morale to hear a player who wasn’t told we were changing with the team describe your performance as sh*te.

These days there is a thriving market in team branded kits which I rather like. It is good to see the guys warming up in their pre-match outfits and take the field with club badges on the caps, shirts and sweaters. I like it when I am umpiring a skipper appears at the toss wearing a club blazer, but the Beau Brummel ambience is a tad compromised below the waist with his practice shorts (albeit with the club badge) and a pair of beach shoes.

Not all the players buy into these branded kits. There are guys who turn out once or twice a year when the captain requires a filler and may not even have appropriate whites or cricket shoes. One such chap came in around the fall of the fifth wicket and hit a brisk thirty-something wearing trainers without studs, a pair of khakis and a customised polo shirt with (name) and (40) on the back (I’ll wager  that was some weekend in Prague). In the bar after the game I said: That’s not the first time you have picked up a cricket bat. He told me had played top division cricket up to the age of around thirty but marriage, kids and work combined to put a day out with the lads on the back burner.

It is a script I have heard too many times on the circuit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Line dancing

You can waste your lives drawing lines. Or you can live your life crossing them. (Shonda Rhimes)

Applying the ubiquitous Law 21 (No ball) 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 2014 (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 divvied up.

An 18-year-old was opening the bowling of the second innings of the match. Up to that match I had never witnessed 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 have endured 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 the 80 metres 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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 that driving 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.

 

 

 

 

Change of pace

Deadlines just aren’t real to me until I’m staring one in the face. (Rick Riordan)

Sports Science degree question: There are two medium-pace bowlers with similar actions. Bowler A gets through an over in around three minutes; Bowler B gets through an over nearer to five. Discuss.

This conundrum regularly plays in my mind as I make the journey home after a game. First of all, let us explode the myths as offered by League cricketers in the bar after a game: There must have been six lost balls that cost us 10 minutes; wickets were tumbling throughout the innings (maximum respect for astute observation); come on umps, we had to rearrange the field with that right-left combo smashing it all over the park; we weren’t that slow; So what if our opening bowler has a long run-up, why should he shorten it?

I take a no-nonsense approach to slow over rates – there is no need for it at any level of cricket. I don’t understand why the ICC does not come down harder on violation of its its expected 15 overs per hour in Tests and 50 overs in three hours for an ODI innings. Yes, things do happen in cricket that stop the natural flow – injuries, lost balls and a camel walking across the square (more on that another time). But there appears to be some kind of expected norm among some clubs that starting tea at 4.15pm when the first delivery started spot on at 1pm is perfectly acceptable (note, that even the most recalcitrant of captains accepts that a 4.20 tea is taking the proverbial).

It is nearly 2pm and the bowler is starting the 13th over, at the end of which I remind the captain that the rate needs to speed up. Don’t worry umps, we’ve got two spinners coming on. If I had a pound for every time that excuse was used, I’d be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean flicking cards into a top hat. The two long-spell spinners certainly had shorter run-ups but in their attempt to find a perfect spot for nine colleagues to stand they may as well have started in the next village.

Of course, all of this nonsense should be sorted out before the players take the field, but with music blaring out a wall of noise as they get changed, there is no chance of discussing the minutiae of who goes where with a right-left batting combo, or indeed what field the opening speed merchant will bowl to.

This organisational felony is compounded by league cricketers who think of themselves as senior players gatecrashing the discussion between skipper and bowler. The result is an over of finger spin that should take three minutes actually taking another 10 per cent of the bowling time because every two balls mid-off should be closer/further out/a tad squarer/actually let’s try a silly mid-off/you know what, let’s go for a second slip. The wicket-keeper is regularly involved in this kind of nonsense with a Masonic-like signalling to the mid-wicket fielder to move back a couple of feet (occasionally, the signal is replaced with Joe, give yourself five just as the bowler is starting his run-up, an expression that makes me want to leave the proceedings and join Mrs Umps at Ikea.).

Then you have a collective can’t-be-ars*d team mentality where at the end of the over, instead of getting ready for the first ball of the next set of six, we have hands in pockets sauntering to their posts with a discussion concerning the work promotion prospects of the wicket-keeper.

Naturallement, Hide becomes Jekyll when the captain finally realises that the rate is now eight overs in 20 minutes. And in an amazing transformation, the fielding side are working like a well-oiled machine. But of course, league cricket protocols demand that the batting side, sniffing the opportunity of a penalty coming to the fielding side, start their own 1970s-style workplace go-slow.

Batting time-wasting is quite an art with a brazen approach to keeping the game static as the batters bring out the deckchairs and two Gin-Gin Mule cocktails when they meet for their end-of-over powow. And League cricket would surely be all the poorer if we got rid of the right of the batter to demand a Werther’s Original wrapper that is hovering around point to be trapped and destroyed. And we can’t let the ubiquitous batter time wasting tactic is it okay if we have a quick drink umps pass without a mention. No problem young man, but it ain’t coming off the fielding side’s allotted time.

Amid this doom and gloom resides the majority of Saturday cricketers not looking for an edge (other than the ones they should be looking for). And it is more than a shame that the few spoil it for the many. We can’t teach captains how to behave, but it is our job to guide them towards an outcome that keeps the game moving and enables us to enjoy a long-awaited cuppa as close to 4pm as is possible.

I speak for all my colleagues when I say we appreciate the efforts of captains and players who do the right thing and get on with their job. And to the players who spend an eternity to get the ball back from wicket-keeper to bowler, or the batters who bring out a Karcher draining pump for their gardening, I do concede that taking a long time over certain tasks in life can actually add to frisson of the assignment.

But not when I am desperate for a cuppa.

 

 

 

 

Tales of the unexpected

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Chuck Noll)

For the sake of a discussion let us assume a league cricket match can last for 50 overs per side and that win, draw or tie are on the table. Most games follow a similar pattern where the team batting first build up a decent score (say 250-plus) and the team batting second don’t reach the target but don’t lose all their wickets, depending on the League Rules, such situations end in a draw.

Of course, the team batting second can chase down 300-plus in fewer than 40 overs – I’ve seen that happen. And the team batting first can be bowled out for around 100 and still win the game.

The most significant aspect of cricket is watching a story develop into something that is both unexpected and interesting. In well over one hundred League games I cannot remember an umpiring decision that changed the course of a match. But I can remember some significant shifts of fortune that changed the tempo and ultimately the result of the game. We all remember such heroics – Ian Botham (1981) and Ben Stokes (2019) at Headingley in Ashes Tests are two memorable examples of wins against huge odds.

A similar dynamic can also happen in League cricket, but in my experience it is rare. Usually, a team chasing 250 will not win but also should not lose. There may be unexpected collapses that cause a defeat or an occasional heroic knock that swings the pendulum. But the key point about cricket is its inclination to deliver the expected denouement. Poor bowling, dropped catches and opposition batters in form combine to enable a decent first innings score. And on what is regularly a wearing pitch that takes some spin, it is not going to be easy for the team batting second to win, but it could be a surprise if they lose.

Sometimes the difference between a well-fought draw and hard-to-take defeat comes down to one attribute that is at the heart and soul of cricket – concentration. The population of League cricketers includes a myriad of personalities bringing different approaches to the game. There are cricketers who may have shown some promise as a youngsters but who are happy to enjoy their afternoon without breaking into a metaphorical sweat. Some make a living from mundane desk jobs and when Saturday comes they transform into obsessives once they cross the boundary rope.

The difference between winners and losers (and I class saving a game as a win when it looked all over) is the amount of concentration a club cricketer can muster. So the right kind of batters who need 25 off three overs with two wickets in hand can find a way of coping with pressure and waiting for the bad balls to see their team through to at least a draw. Similarly, a bowler who hasn’t turned his arm all season and is called up to replace an injured colleague can somehow find the confidence to prevent the win for the opposition.

You see the difference in the guys whose concentration cannot be compromised. I remember one young batter who came in at seven down and guided his much more experienced partner through to a fairly comfortable draw. I asked the young man in the bar afterwards what he does as a day job. He was a junior doctor in A&E. For this player, the transference of skills from saving lives to the challenge, concentration and story that must have a happy ending are part of the DNA that this remarkable cohort of players possess. Natural talent is ineffectual if a player is unable to convert it into points for his club because he loses concentration.

Cricket is no different to other sports in its ebb and flow. A batter hits a quick 30 and bowlers take three or four wickets in a five-over spell. But having the ability to control the outcome of a game is beyond the capability of most players I encounter. One game that springs to mind was one I played in around 1975. I was still a teenager playing in a competitive league and we were hanging on for a draw. I came in at eight down and my partner who ended up with a match-saving unbeaten 50 guided me through some pretty torrid bowling. The most important aspect of that match was how he raised his game by keeping his head down.

I did as I was told, barely getting the ball off the square – we saved the game not only through our own efforts, but also because our opponents did not concentrate enough in getting one of us out. They were waiting for us to make the error and that was not going to happen as everything went our way (including two LBW appeals against me that must have been close).

This kind of attritional cricket is about determination, bottle and endurance. And it is also about having the ability to tap into understanding your own ability as a player. In all levels of the game, it is the guy who calls on his bank of knowledge and experience as a bowler or batter – the thousands of balls he has delivered or played – and not letting a moment of madness get anywhere near his consciousness.

I have a lot of time for these players.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuck in the middle with you

I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why. (John Steinbeck)

Imagine going on a blind date and the prospective ‘partner’ is a disappointment. You like rock and roll, s/he likes country; you like a pint, s/he likes a short; you say potato while s/he says potarto. But you can’t call the whole thing off because you are umpiring League cricket match together. When the fielders and batters are out in the middle you have to put your musical differences to one side and get on with the game. So whether you like the snap, crackle and pop of Kristina Maria (Let’s Play) or the Caruso of Pop Roy Orbison (It’s over) you are thrust together for the sole purpose of giving 22 people a great afternoon out while ensuring the Laws of Cricket are adhered to and interpreted appropriately.

It has taken me a good few years to know the roster of umpires in the League. And as with any kind of cohort of humans there are some I would like to ‘see again’ and some who don’t rock my boat. But there is one Constant (to name a former Test umpire) – I have the utmost respect for every colleague I stand with because they are all present or former cricket players who qualified as umpires to give something back to the glorious game.

After three years umpiring in the lower divisions of my league  I was apprehensive, to say the least, when I presented myself for duty for my debut Panel game. It went well, I think, despite an LBW I turned down that might have been a tad harsh on the bowler. But that day was the start of a very positive relationship with the 50 or so colleagues I have stood with over the years.

Yes, there have been disagreements about light, state of the pitch, did a certain ball go over waist height on the full and should we have a gentle word in the captain’s ear about whether the keeper’s gobby approach to incoming batters (after all, we wouldn’t want to hamper his chances of being listed in Debrett’s).

The hour or so I have with my colleague before the first ball is bowled is the best part of the umpiring experience. The ceremony is pretty much the same each week. As we squeeze into a space about the size of a red phone box we catch up on the  gossip and compare notes on behaviour. Then comes a few minutes on our respective Mrs Umps (she says I love cricket more than I love her). And then onto the serious business of how we will deal with Law 42 issues, wide balls and ensuring the over rate ticks along nicely.

There is no better feeling that walking out with my colleague five minutes before play starts, placing the bails on the stumps, counting the fielders and giving the ball to the skipper (I always give the ball, throwing it is disrespectful). As soon as the bowler begins his run-up to deliver that first ball, myself and my colleague are in full concentration mode.

Communication is key. Sure, we signal after four balls that two are left but I like colleagues who make eye contact after every ball. A glance is enough – the equivalent of comedian Peter Kay’s three rings sketch. And as if multi-tasking with a bowler’s two feet, where the ball has pitched, impact on bat before pad is not enough, we also keep a record of the score, bowlers’ overs, junior bowlers’ limitations. So it is good to have a workmate to share the burden of guilt when I see I am two runs short of the scoreboard total.

Of course, the quiet nod that a slip catch has fully carried or you were right to give the run-out is very useful for quality assurance purposes. And getting together at the fall of a wicket to tick boxes and reminisce about the kind of shot we would have played in the seventh over a match instead of the departing batter’s attempt to hit the ball into the next village or in some cases, a suburb of the nearest metropolis.

When umpires agree on the basics, the afternoon and early evening go well. But there are occasions when it is not the collective angst of players who are testing my patience, rather it is my colleague. A good football referee is one who is not noticed, a bad one who is noticed too much. The same applies to cricket. An umpire who imposes himself or herself on the match thus turning the cricket experience into a playground for his fiefdom is not going to last long on the circuit. I have seen umpires cross that line in the sand and become obsequiously pally with a particular player or getting on a high horse to demand satisfaction at ten paces from a player he has clearly fallen out with.

At the end of the cricket day, you and your colleague enjoy a drink courtesy of the home club (unless you have sent the captain packing with a dubious run-out).  From the pavilion you look onto the square as the groundsman tidies up the loose ends, the sun is about to set and a splendid Mrs Umps dinner awaits you at home.

The partnership with your colleague has gone well, you have have both worked damn hard and have earned the respect of the captains, and through them the players.

Put simply, it is a good umpiring.

 

 

 

Two sides of the same coin

Exchanging agreeable remarks for no other purpose than to keep silence from closing in. (Richard Yates)

The pre-match toss is a ceremony I rather like. I always arrive earlier than the ‘one hour before play starts’ requirement in the league. There is a lot to see to before the first ball is bowled – check the outfield for overhanging trees; check the sight screens; the boundary and pitch markings; discuss with umpiring colleague our views on behaviour (when and how to intervene); receive the match balls from the home captain; ensure we have bails, bowler’s marker, scoresheet, ball counter and score clicker, pencils (sharpened) a hat and sun cream.

Before all that is done I leave my bag in the umpires’ room, saunter out have a look at the wicket and introduce myself to the various people assembling  on the square. My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion in which you know nothing about the topic. And that is the reason why I never get involved in the weekly pre-match League cricket debate: How’s is the pitch going to play? Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield play perfectly and those that resemble a newly laid athletics track play like a minefield. These days live coverage of Test matches involve at least 20 minutes of a posse of former captains giving a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and the occasional JCB digger into the surface. I don’t like this time-filling exercise which is why I turn on the TV as the bowler starts his run-up for the first ball.

We are obliged to check that the pitch markings are correct and that that the surface is fit to play on. I am  not interested in what the experts are telling me about uneven bounce and the gradient that the bowlers need to watch out for as they approach the crease. Post-match we are charged with giving an assessment on how the pitch actually played although the carry and turn sections may have more to do with the quality of the bowling than whether the soil should be put on the naughty step.

Miraculously, when we call the skippers for the toss, the people who had assembled earlier have dispersed  – I haven’t a clue to where, or indeed who they are. I usually find them lurking in and around the pavilion during the match. (More on these anonymous souls in a later blog).

Unlike football and rugby where the toss is a ceremonial ribbon cutting exercise to determine which team will kick-off, the cricket toss can have repercussions, particularly if the skipper who wins it decides to have a bowl rather than a bat, and then loses the match.

The top of my out of order list involves people whose handshake is like a cheese sandwich that has been in a goldfish tank. As if there are not enough problems in the world without limp handshakes. A firm grip is all I ask for (but do not necessarily get) despite the said skipper sporting a six-pack and looking like he could roll the wicket with one hand.

The pre-toss banter can give you an indication of how the afternoon is going to pan out as the captains exchange some meaningless chat concerning the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how they have literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season and the same old same old nonsense of how difficult it is to get a team together (apparently Thursday is the default day that the top batter and bowler cried off) so we may not be that strong today. Aha! The ubiquitous reverse swing psychology has finally made its way to the village square. And if I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian response: You won’t get any problems from us, umps. I’m reassured that I predict a riot is now apparently unavailable in the bar’s jukebox.

The coin is flipped and lands on the hallowed turf and either it’s an immediate decision (often accompanied by a smug we’ll have a bat/bowl) or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer asks because he doesn’t know the answer.

Before heading off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fees. Call me old fashioned but I much prefer the fee to be presented to me in a sealed C6 envelope with Umpire on the front. But I regret to say there is one skipper out of  ten (unscientific cohort) who looks like he enjoyed his Friday night out and who turns up slightly confused, emptying his pockets of accoutrements that include creased bank notes, coins and an occasional betting slip with the batting order on the back.

 

 

 

The best, simply

Talent is an asset (Sparks)

A few years ago I was in a hostelry watching a football League Two play-off final with a friend. After about 30 minutes of this frenetic, route-one free-for-all, he made an interesting observation. “The laws are the same, the shirts are similar and there are 22 players on the pitch. But this is not the same game of football that is played in the Premier League.”

In an earlier posting I highlighted some of the talent challenged players to be found wandering around the lower leagues and how becoming a panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to officiate among – in the main – very good cricketers. Overnight, two decent balls an over in the lower leagues became a minimum of four decent balls an over; fielding became spectacularly better and batters understood how to build an innings.

And on occasions, the match fee which covers petrol and around 10 hours duty is worth a lot more than the actual amount when I have had the pleasure of witnessing a special innings from a class batter or a match-winning spell of fast bowling from a young lad who can maybe make a name for himself. It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoning fours that stick in the mind, rather it is the leg-side nudges, the beautifully balanced cover drives, the shot selection (including leaves outside off stump) and a perfect judgement of runs that enhance the watching experience.

These nuances separate the bish-bash spear-carrying Romans from the few Charlton Hestons on the league circuit. Yes, cricket is certainly a hand-eye co-ordination sport and there are plenty of village blacksmiths who can clear a sight screen before getting caught (literally) with their hands in the Pick ‘n Mix trying to pinch a few more sweets. You can’t display hand-eye natural talent from the pavilion, but you can get to three figures if you know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leggie who is giving you a hard time knowing your partner has worked him out.

One such player immediately springs to mind. I have umpired two of his centuries, both of which were model innings. An opening bat, from the first over he took charge with a trademark ‘yes, one’ or ‘yes, two’, easing his way to 50 before pushing up the run-rate. I’ve also seen him get out early (on one occasion he got a ball that kept very low and played over it). His reaction was to walk off without the toys coming out of the cot, understanding that this type of incident is statistically rare and that next week his day may come, again. I have never seen him get out to a false shot – the guy is sheer class.

The same nuances apply to bowlers, particularly the opening variety who fancy themselves as the new Sir Wesley Hall. A five-over spell that has brought three wickets might look good in the scorebook but if 20 of those 30 deliveries failed to make the batter play the ball (not to mention the wides that pushed the count up to 35 balls) then the raw talent lottery win is not going to be a jackpot.

The key component that separates good from mediocre is time. I have seen former Premier League footballers in their last hurrahs playing in the lower leagues and despite carrying a few extra pounds of weight (not salary) they still orchestrate the game with closed eyes. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches here, a controlled drive for two there and an occasional smack to the boundary to one of the two badly bowled balls in an over. Time itself has nuances – the lethal batting cocktail to reach a century  includes waiting for the ball to come to bat and waiting for the ball that will get you four, or even six.

Good bowlers are also good waiters. If the usual run-up is not working, they try a different angle. If the nagging length outside off stump is keeping the run rate down but not getting rid of the batter who is now on 70, they bring something else out of the locker. And of course, any fielder, however much talent he has, can change the course of a 600-ball game with one throw at the stumps.

And yes, captaincy is also a talent, but that’s an article in itself.