Friendlies – just not cricket

I was just caught up in a life in which I could find no meaning. (Charles Bukowski)

It is a reasonable assumption that during the months of May through to mid September, an umpire could find a game seven days a week if so inclined. Aside from Saturday league games (my preferred choice) there is a vibrant Sunday league circuit, county or association representative games, university games, high-profile corporate games between bankers and spankers and what I politely refer to as ‘gin and tonic’ cricket (aka friendlies). With a match fee and carbs-heavy tea, you could make a kind of living from the summer months. But that has never been for me. I’m a Saturday league umpire – nothing else interests me.

I am not against the concept of a friendly if it is played in the right context. So a pre-season match between two clubs in the same league is good for getting the gears moving and finding out whether the Aussie overseas player is as much of a real deal as his winter nets suggested. And cricketing charity fundraisers are welcome additions to the summer collection, especially when a celebrity turns his arm over. But I draw a line on the ubiquitous friendly without a cause – I’ve umpired a few and disliked the experiences from beginning to end.

There is something missing from any contest where nothing is at stake. What is lacking in quality at the lower end of the league cricket pyramid is more than made up for in the storyline, tension and drama of a league match. Captains of Saturday league teams are plotting and scheming how to win (and lose) the next match from Wednesday onwards. There are points and reputation at stake as players react to the pressure. A friendly, by its very definition, bears no resemblance to league cricket. It’s a platonic version of a passionate affair – there is literally no point to it.

A prime example of this is the MCC friendly. I would not want to become a member of MCC but I have no problem with people who do. I admire their commitment to the cause with some of them chalking off thousands of days of waiting until they are welcomed to the most famous cricket club in the world. But here is the rub – turn up at any MCC match to umpire (I’ve done around 10)  and what you get is a collection of immaculately scrubbed-up players, all of whom adhere to the dress code of shirt, bacon and egg tie and slacks with a gentlemanly approach to their opponents (usually a club side). What is lacking in abundance, however, is the edge that defines a contest.

The same bowler who trundles in to deliver mediocrity for an MCC Sunday friendly will have have steamed in with a raft of toxic deliveries for his league club the day before. The fielder who would throw himself at a ball to save a run on a Saturday is sufficiently satisfied with a cursory Sunday bend of the back as the ball continues its journey to the rope. The same turned-down caught behind appeal in the league game on the Saturday that was met with seething rage will provoke nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders on the Sunday.

And whatever the state of the game, by the time the last hour approaches, batters, fielders and umpires have no appetite for the cricket as they imagine themselves holding a tipple of choice in the club bar.

My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which encapsulates the friendly cricket zeitgeist. A good League club were hosting a team whose surname was Wanderers. And wanderers they were too, being one of those cricket clubs which only played friendlies forgoing the thrill of meaningful chases.

I was already regretting my decision to stand in this game as I had to keep both ends burning due to the non-arrival of my colleague (interestingly a not uncommon problem with friendly matches). The home club, which boasted a strong team in the top tier of their league, gave eleven from their seconds and thirds an opportunity to prove themselves and after a few overs it was clear they were going to get a lot of runs and lose very few wickets – something close to 300 with five down after 50 overs.

On a flat track and against a variable quality of bowling the Wanderers were struggling at fifty for three in their reply. But the number three batter had accumulated a fast thirty and while not having the poise, balance and follow-through of Tom Graveney, he was blessed with the kind of hand-eye coordination that could have seen him chewing tobacco in Major League baseball or having a hill named after him at Wimbledon. An hour later he was still there having regularly smacked the ball to the rope while his mates at the other end kept the crease warm for him.

At around 150-6 the odds were still stacked against the Wanderers and then our Major League superhero nicked off to slip who did his chances of being selected for the firsts no harm by holding onto a difficult catch. Having left highly incriminating bright red evidence on the side of the bat (not to mention a loud nick that could well have carried to the pavilion car park) it was not necessary for me to raise my finger to confirm the catch. But the batter stood his ground, so I raised my finger. And he still stood his ground. Then the captain of the fielding side approached me and said that the game would be over very quickly if Jo DiMaggio was given out, so could I reconsider my decision?

How very convivial.











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Roll-up, roll-up to the lower division of the league

It doesn’t really matter. Here goes nothing. It will be interesting to see what happens. (Sloan Wilson)

The old English Cricket Board (ECB) Level 1 umpiring course was excellent, although the emphasis on Laws over match management compromised my confidence in the first couple of seasons. After passing the exam I decided to serve an apprenticeship in a lower division of the league. Panel umpires were not sent to officiate at this humble level so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those three years, I reckon about 30 per cent of my match-day colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other 70 per cent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied umpiring and a raft of other good folk who enjoyed an afternoon away from the missus.

And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the 40-plus games I umpired over the three seasons, some of the guys I stood with really tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were the de rigeur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system being awarded to the ‘colleague’ who at least used initiative in actually finding a makeshift ball counter. But seriously mate, moving six roll-ups from one pocket of your jeans to the other (not to mention lighting one up at the fall of a wicket) to count the balls in an over does not quite fit the zeitgeist in upholding more than 200 years of tradition.

In my first few weeks on the job I had an unwelcome episode with a fielder who was patrolling the mid-wicket area, which as you all know is the perfect view to judge a close LBW. A raucous appeal went up and I rejected it, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high. At the end of the over the said player ambled over to me and asked in a polite voice: “So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps?” Instead of giving the player a warning (Law 42, Players’ conduct)  I spluttered out some nonsense about it being a bit high. I had experienced my first bit of lip and had got drawn into a contretemps (not a good look).

At this level, the game is still called cricket but to borrow a well-known idiom, it’s just not cricket. Because how can you call a bowler chucking down four cow pats an over as cricket, a batter swinging at thin air ball after ball and a fielder screaming ‘mine’ and then not attempting to catch the ball? If I had thought there was hope of redemption – that some of the players might have made it higher up the league pyramid or some keen juniors were coming through the ranks  – I would not be so harsh. But there was nothing. The same routine prevailed; the captain complaining that his opening pace bowler (hahahaha) was at a stag weekend in Prague so he had persuaded Geoff to play. Ah yes, the owes-you-a-favour Geoff coming off a night shift resurfacing a motorway and turning out in whites that were extremely tight jeans (more Faberge than Fearnley), and who spent most of his afternoon in the outfield adjusting his gonads.

And there was very rarely a battle between bat and ball or a tense finish. A half decent team would rattle up 250-plus and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be 90-odd all out. And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on – perish the thought – even worse players. But who cares? They served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the league) and the bar was bouncing at the end of play.

So after three seasons I said goodbye to this friendly and jovial set of guys and prepared myself for the high-roller games with two qualified and neutral umpires, two qualified scorers, prepared wickets (not Anzio beach) and a minimum of four good deliveries per over.

Be careful what you wish for.


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The sun occasionally sets on the British umpire

This can’t be true but I remember it. (Jeffrey Eugenides)

It is around 7.20pm on a glorious July evening and I am standing in a league match between neighbouring small towns in the third tier of the League. The final two overs are about to begin. Chasing 230, the batting side are 215-8. All three results are possible (decisive, draw and tie). The tension is palpable, there are around 50 people watching from a raucous bar overlooking the ground. It has been a superb game of ebb-and-flow league cricket played in the best of spirits. I glance over to my colleague who is taking the bowler’s end for this penultimate over and we both smile. We know what is at stake.

The ninth wicket falls in the second ball of the final over, a neat catch taken by first slip. In walks the number 11, a forty-something half-decent pace bowler who can hold a bat without the scorers needing to sharpen their pencils. This is what makes cricket such a great game; four deliveries will determine an outcome of the previous 596, reminding me of of Jim Peters’ heroics at the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games.  The batter plays two of the balls with the confidence and technical skill of a number seven or eight, allows the other two go and local bragging rights for the coming year are shared after this hard-fought draw.

After the handshakes a remarkable thing happened. Both teams gave myself and my colleague a guard of honour into the pavilion as the bar – now in a state of frenzy – cheered us in. It had been a wonderful day. But out of the 130 or so Saturday league matches I have officiated, this is the only one I recall as wonderful, an uncannily out-of-sync statistic in a cohort made up of the mundane and occasional unsatisfactory.

It took me around five seasons to understand that umpiring a cricket match is around 20 per cent about administration of the Laws and 80 per cent about management of people and their expectations. Because what use is an exact interpretation of Law 36 (LBW) when I am asked by a club chairman to ‘come behind the pavilion for a chat’ after giving his captain out to a ball that would have hit the middle of middle stump? Why am I castigated for not giving a batter out caught behind when all I can hear at the time of the alleged contact is an Eddie Stobart articulated lorry hurtling over a by-pass. Why would a captain mark myself and colleague down for calling off a match on a square that resembled an Olympic diving pool? How does the gentleman who approached a young incoming batter with ‘the next ball’s gonna put you in A&E’ sleep at night? (Very well I expect).  These peccadillos – and there are hundreds more – beg a question that requires an answer. Why the hell do we do it?

The reason I do it is simple. It is a privilege to give something back to the game I love – as much as a privilege of seeing some of the greatest players in the  history of the game. Walking out to start a game is the best feeling in the world – from the opening ‘Play’ to the final ball I am part of an unfolding story of protagonists, characters and drama that concludes in ways that disappoint some and excite others. During those hours on match days I am shut off from the outside world of work and family as I concentrate on around 600 balls being delivered (yes we concentrate when we are the batter’s end).

Yes, I have made decisions that have upset players (one of whom politely told me giving him out caught was the worst decisions he had ever had against him). And I have made plenty of good decisions, but more importantly I have managed challenging situations well and with a growing confidence that has come from excellent guidance and experience.

I take umpiring seriously. I get my kit ready early on match days and leave plenty of time to arrive at the ground. And I have enormous respect for players and officials of the clubs in the League – I know how much work goes into preparing a game of cricket.

So if you play or love watching the game of cricket. Find your local umpiring association and get trained to become an umpire. It is a truly great calling, especially when the game ends as it did in the top of this post.







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