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.

 

 

On the offensive

People, in my long experience, want to talk. (J. Robert Lennon)

Imagine the piano maestro Evgeny Kissin adjusting his stool before another magnificent rendition of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and the lead violinist leans over and says: Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your fu*k-up in Salzburg two weeks ago.

Welcome to the world of sledging, an art form that has filtered down from the dizzy heights of Test matches, through to first-class and minor counties, before landing on the squares of recreational cricket grounds. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease to a rousing rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new courtesy as club cricket seeks to gain an advantage at every opportunity.

Law 42 covers the issue of sledging making it a Level 1 offence (using language that, in the circumstances, is obscene, offensive or insulting or making an obscene gesture). But of course one cricketer’s obscene, offensive or insulting is another’s decent, complimentary or polite. One of the most interesting comments I have heard on a square in the last nine years came from an Aussie who at the end of a fractious game told me that no Aussie club player would make the kind of comments he had heard on England’s green and pleasant cricket land. (I certainly did not point out that the gentlemen sporting those rugged baggy green caps had been known to use some hi-tec industrial language).

I am reluctant to hand out a Level 1 – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I’ll be honest, I have stood with colleagues who revel in their authority, intervening at the slightest hint of a Law 42 misdemeanor. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than what I get from Mrs Umps and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays (and yes, she owns it the other six days).

I was at the bowler’s end when the second slip chance of the over was spilled by the same fielder. The bowler shouted fu*k off and my colleague was ready to have the flat-pack gallows erected on the square. I stopped his march to glory in his tracks, explaining that the said bowler’s outburst was directed at himself as well as the fielder and we should do nothing. But it was in earshot of the pavilion so we have to give him a Level 1,  my colleague responded. I prevailed and gave the bowler a fatherly piece of advice on how to manage his anger.

For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level 1 (the three levels above 1 are so far up the Richter Scale they would be ideal for a Quentin Tarantino sequel to The Hateful Eight (or in this case The Hateful Eight-for). So when a close-in fielder greeted an incoming batter taking guard with the next ball is going to put you in A&E, we were all over it like a cheap suit. The fielding captain described it as a bit of banter but I told him I had done jury service on cases that were one step up from such verbal threats and which had resulted in physical violence.

It is the informed sledgers who I most admire. These agile cat burglars of sledging often involve keeper, slips and bowler working in unison and while they may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, they would certainly make a half decent repertory theatre that specialises in promoting urban talent. So a ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the keeper with a quiet-ish Ooh, he doesn’t fancy it Mustard (the bowler Mustard is presumably a gentleman named Coleman). In the next over (from the other end) the batter is getting bat on ball but not piercing the field as first slip enters (stage right) with Outside off Dave, he fancies it (again, not a hanging offence). Dave of course understands the message and bowls a leg yorker which the batter just manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As Dave walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker that his partner should buy a lottery ticket, it’s going to be his day cleverly sowing another seed of doubt into the equation. More Independent than Daily Star, this more considered sledging is more likely to bring success.

And that should be the point of sledging. The banter can add to the tension of league cricket where points and local bragging rights are at stake. I particularly like it when the captain of the fielding side understands why myself or my colleague intervenes and instructs his team to stop with the nonsense. A bowler who has bowled a rank long-hop and is dispatched to the boundary, and who then admonishes himself with a loud sh*t does not deserve a yellow card dangled in front of him. Even if the expletive is in earshot of the pavilion, it is bad umpiring.

But F*S, you don’t need me to tell you that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running out of team

What is leadership, after all, but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretense that the decision was based on reason. (Robert Harris)

Law 38 (Run out) is the one that tests the limits of an umpire. Some of the worst decisions I have given were run-outs – I know they were bad because as soon as I gave them I knew I had got them wrong. These howlers were in my apprenticeship years in the lower divisions of the league when I would press the trigger or decline an appeal far too quickly. Since my elevation to the Panel in 2012, I have got much better, mainly through the excellent training my association provides along with a forensic collection of nuanced examples that have helped me construct a run-out crime scene and act accordingly. But I want to make this point from the outset; judging a run-out is often a literal ‘too close to call’ exercise which is why umpires on the big money in sell-out stadia have an army of television engineers to do the job for them.

My run-out archive contains very few incidents where both batters end up at the same end as the ball is casually thrown to keeper or bowler to politely nudge a bail out of the groove. Similarly, I am not interested in the three-yards-short of the crease variations. Either way where the batter has or has not made his ground, is of far more interest.

Broadly speaking there are two types of close run-out calls; the pick-up and throw at the stumps from within the 12-yard circle (whether imaginary or real) and a boundary field and throw that might break most laws of physics with a direct hit, or the more common thrown into the keeper’s gloves for him to break the wicket while the batters are trying to steal a second or third run. There is also the bowler in follow-through deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps leaving a batter backing up with egg on his face in his attempt to poach a run.

Humans are fallible, that is how run-outs occur. I’ve seen established partnerships of 70-plus come to a dramatic demise because one of the guys sees a run that doesn’t exist and ruins his partner’s weekend. Club level cricket is no different to any competitive sport, the folk that excel intuitively know how to walk the line of seizing the moment without taking unnecessary risks. Run-outs occur because batters are unable to concentrate at the required level all of their time at the crease.

On a close call run-out the batter who gives up on the chase lives in hope that there is no direct hit because catching or gathering a ball to break the stumps takes a surprisingly longer amount of time than you might think. The batter who uses the bat to make his ground (with or without a dive) at least gives himself a chance. It took me a few years to fully understand the dynamics of this race: the batter who is unhappy with a decision because he is three yards past the stumps does not realise how far the momentum of his despairing efforts has carried him, and more importantly the dive has absolutely nothing to do with where he was as the bails came off. Similarly, I have seen plenty of keepers give me the look after I turn down a run-out appeal because of course, from their point of view, the bails were off immediately so the batter must have been out. Along with this look comes a triumphant strut to his teammates and high fives all round as if the umpire is abusing the keeper’s human rights by even considering a not-out.

In an earlier posting I talked about how much fielding has improved. And I am always impressed with fielders who emulate Ricky Ponting and Ben Stokes with direct hits. Interestingly, running between the wickets and communication between batters has not improved at the same pace. The lethal Definitely Maybe cocktail of miscalling, inspired by Noel and Liam Gallagher, inevitably ends in tears.

A prosecuting barrister may ask: Why do you give different decisions on what looks like, from the evidence presented, the same situation? This is a pertinent question. These close run-out calls all look and feel similar. I reply: I do not know. I give it as I see it. But I can tell you that I have had as many batters and fielders after a game telling me I had called run-outs correctly (for and against them) as those who said they thought the decision I had given was anything ranging from incorrect to incompetent.

Let’s be honest, on a tight run-out an umpire is making nothing more than an educated guess, which, at the very least, is better than a guess made through ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

One for the road

Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever (Paul Auster)

The medium pacer with the nagging line and length is getting on the batter’s nerves. The bowler is too good for him. The fifth ball beats him and right on cue the bowler follows through with the stand-and-stare routine while the batter practises the shot he really meant to play, but of course playing it properly was way beyond his pay scale. One ball to go and I’ll be at square leg thinking about what I have to do at work on Monday morning (bad practice, we are trained to give the same concentration while standing at the batter’s end as we do at the bowler’s end). But when the keeper is standing back I have found that square leg provides the perfect habitat for a spot of R&R.

As the sixth ball of the over is delivered, fate conspires against me. The ground is situated close to an A road and even on a Saturday there are enough wagons and testosterone-fuelled bikers to edge the decibel scale north. This ain’t no quaint village green, it’s a hardcore concrete jungle with a cricket ground.

There is a loud appeal for caught behind as bowler, keeper, slips, long leg, tea ladies and two old blokes walking their dogs go up in choreographed unison a la Busby Berkeley. The problem for me is that a truck driver who is hurtling down the A road chooses that very moment of the alleged offence of bat on ball, to sit on the horn.

If he had forgotten his lunch box when leaving home, or stopped for cuppa in one of those makeshift snack stops on the A road (usually with a corrugated roof emblazoned with the word Tea’s – yes I am aware the apostrophe is misplaced), I would have been in the perfect situation to make a decision. But at this precious moment I was entrusted with making a judgement when the only evidence to give the batter out was the near orgasmic pleading of the bowler and keeper (with the greatest respect to the two fellows, hardly DNA material).

The batter stands and hopes and of course I’m having none of it. How the hell can I hear anything with the Grand Prix on the A road? Not out. Over bowled, I announce. My colleague, walking in from square leg points to his right ear to confirm he couldn’t hear anything. Cue the the tiresome guilt tripping of the batter who is out for a few more soon after the incident and is given a less than polite send-off peppered with gerunds and advice on how to get rid of the evidence on the edge of the bat.

The incident has no influence on the game’s outcome. But the same finger of fate is at work after the game. Approaching my car, I encounter the wicket keeper and team-mate about to set off. The wicket keeper eases the passenger window down. Thanks umps, hope to see you later in the season, he says in tone of voice that suggests he might not actually mean that he hopes to see me later in the season.

And purely for quality control purposes, I ask him with a faint smile: Did he hit it?

No idea umps, couldn’t hear a thing.

At least Dick Turpin wore a mask.

 

 

 

Cricket’s Village People – Macho Macho Man

I became as hard as whipcord, but with a brain like cotton wool. (Derek Raymond)

The visitors are batting second and are around 40 runs away from chasing down around 250 with plenty of wickets in hand. The game is in the bag. A right-hand-left hand batting combo need a sight screen moving. It’s a nickel and dime situation normally dealt with immediately; a couple of fielders get the screen moved, and on we go.

But once again, the psychopathy of a league cricketer determines that a polite request can become a potential heated incident. As fortune would not have it on this occasion, there is a perfect storm of no fielder being near and a posse from the batting side enjoying a stroll, which happened to find itself next to the screen.

The captain of the fielding team shouts a polite request to the posse paraphrased: Guys, would a couple of you mind moving the screens. No response. The captain, moving a tad nearer to the posse, tries again – still no response.  The head honcho of the posse then crosses the boundary rope and in a this-town’s-not-big-enough-for-both-of-us posture declares: Come and fu*king make me.

At that point I had a vision of Mrs Umps asking me to pass her a ball of wool for her latest Esty project while I’m watching Match of the Day and me saying come and fu*king make me before I am impaled by a single point needle while Mrs Umps is telling the ambulance service there is a lot of blood….but take as long as you need to, I appreciate how busy you guys are.

It took a few seconds for the fielders to digest the situation which gave me a enough time to hot foot it over to the posse and tell the head honcho that if he wanted to play further games this and next season, he should move the screen and apologise to to the fielding captain, which he did, saying they were only having a larf.

While noting the absurd reaction and comment of the head honcho, the fielding captain could easily have calmed the situation by instructing a couple of fielders to move the screens. By choosing not to, the captain agreed to enter the potential conflict with the danger of the situation unravelling.

Captaincy is a crucial part of a cricket match’s dynamics. I have noticed that the captains who take what might be described as a poor decision by the umpire (never from myself, of course) on the chin and carry on with the game, tend to lead teams that are more successful. A case in point happened in 2016 in a game I remember well. I turned down a marginal LBW decision from the skipper. The batter went on to make another 40-plus runs so it could have been costly. But instead of throwing his toys out of the cot, the decision stimulated the captain to rally his troops who bowled and fielded well in the latter part of the innings and comfortably chased down the target. The message is clear, think before you act – especially where you are minded to react.

The shock element was not so much that the sight screen incident took place, rather that it took place in the context of the match where the head honcho’s team are winning by a mile (and win they did). The issue here is what turns a perfectly decent guy outside the boundary rope (7.24 commuter train to his work as an insurance underwriter) into one with concerning personality issues as soon as his right foot lands inside the playing area of a cricket ground.

I could go on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No logos

Price. You’re priceless. (Bret Easton Ellis)

There are many reasons why I enjoy umpiring, but the one that gives me most satisfaction is the support provided by my local association. From training to advice, from camaraderie to caring, every time I cross the boundary rope with a colleague, I feel I have a wonderful association behind me. The courses they run are superb and they have helped my development as a cricket official.

I am also generally happy with the English Cricket Board Association of Cricket Officials (ECBACO) the national body that represents umpires and scorers. For a £30 per year membership, I am fully insured and receive a well presented monthly magazine.

But to be brutally honest, I have some reservations about ECB, most of which revolve around its provision of on and off-field gear where I think the Board is  taking the proverbial urine sample. Let me start this finger wagging by stating that no umpire I have met is doing the job for the mone’. Yes, we are remunerated for leaving the house at around 11am and returning around nine hours later, a sum that when you factor in petrol or public transport amounts to around £3 an hour. I think we can safely say that money is not the reason we do the job.

So it is with some angst that I present you with the following delicacies available in the ECBACO online catalogue.  For £95 you can proudly sport ECB, ACO and supplier Duncan Fearnley logos on a woolen sweater (just what you need on a hot July afternoon). Fancy a holdall to carry your stuff from the car to the pavilion? At Sports Direct (my personal outfitters) you pay £10 with the SD logo, in the ACO catalogue you pay £60. (But of course, you have the honour and privilege of carrying the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos on your hike of 15 metres).

But the mother of all offers is the staggering £475 (I repeat, £475) offer in the Match II Ultimate Pack. This pot-pourri of goodies includes the big hitting on-field jacket, trousers, shirt, sweater (nope, not the £95 woolen one, rather the one that will give you an afternoon of electric shocks to help you concentrate harder with the sassy leg-spinner at your end), ball counter (from 99p on Amazon), bails (from £3.22 a set on Amazon) and a towel to keep the ball dry (free from home, but without the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos).

I have cosied up to colleagues (some of the umpires’ changing rooms are really cosy, believe me) who come bedecked from head to toe with the three logos. That’s fine, people can spend their money how they want, but I am happy to take the field without logos and savings that will go a long way to keep Mrs Umps happy.

I took this issue up with a jolly fellow manning the Duncan Fearnley stand at the ACO’s annual meeting at Lord’s some years ago. There were excellent keynote speeches from famous cricket doyens that day and we got a tour of the Lord’s pavilion along with posh sandwiches and biscuits. My jolly friend agreed the prices were high but said that the ECB demanded a high rate for use of its logo on the merchandise (an interesting point for an organisation that turned over around £172m in 2018-19).

So to the ECB I say this. Given that your 2020-2024 broadcasting deal is worth £1.1bn and you are charging around £100 a day per ticket to watch the World Cup and Ashes (and if I want to watch the World Cup and Ashes live on TV, I have to stump up a few hundred a year to Sky, who are the main payers of the above broadcasting deal), how about a little gesture to the men and women who ensure every game of cricket is properly officiated. For the effort we put in; for the lip and flak we take; for the courses and training we do (and pay for); for the intense concentration over around 600 balls a match; for our dedication to the great game of cricket – for all of this and a whole lot more, how about contacting Duncan Fearnley and instructing them to provide free of charge a once-only Match II Ultimate Pack to every qualified umpire in the country.

I’m sure the good folk in the Finance Department of the ECB can arrange a good deal on the usage of the ECB logo.