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.

 

 

The field-good factor

People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering. (Richard Yates)

When I first started playing league cricket in the 1970s you would turn up to the nets in April and enjoy a bat and bowl ready for the first match in May. There was no knowledge or perception of match fitness, indeed the newspaper representing the county I supported would run a pre-season photograph of the pros jogging around a wet county ground outfield in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits accompanied by a headline like Ready for action.

In those days there were a number of top players whose girth would merit an automatic disqualification in today’s game. The likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe carrying all those kilos would never have made one of those sliding stops a few metres from the boundary or been one of a double act tag-team catching card trick beyond and inside the rope.

In all the years I played league cricket the level of fielding was generally poor from the slippers to the cover fielders and beyond. It seemed to be a given in league cricket (and indeed in some first class quarters) that average fielding was something you just put up with. Sure, there was an occasional great run-out as the cover fielder gathered the ball cleanly and ran out the striker with a direct hit, but those kinds of incidents were as rare as a camel wandering onto the pitch (I must tell you about that incident in a later blog). My memory of league cricket as a player was seeing regulation catches spilled, shots hit directly to a fielder sailing over the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the keeper.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that league cricket fielding is so much improved today it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game as I did.  At each game I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stars with arms like tree trunks and the kind of strength you see on reality shows where people are dragging trucks across the Sahara. In my day, the pre-match warm-up was a sly Silk Cut in front of the pavilion followed by a couple of catches in the outfield. Today, it’s an SAS pot-pourri of sprints, squats, ballistic throws to the keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket. In play, I am regularly called on to judge run-outs where the chance of one happening goes from impossible to probable as a fielder dives and throws down the stumps. Balls that are hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand and catches to the deep are rarely spilled. I regularly do a crude calculation of runs saved by fielding in an innings and it can amount to 30-plus.

Clearly clubs are working on their fielding as much as their batting and bowling. And it is good to see that cricket TV coverage (if you can afford it) is giving the right kind of role model message with the magic powers of today’s top players in the field. I will come onto sledging in a future blog – that kind of nonsense is not a good role model for club cricket, and it has made its way into the recreational game. But to see a team of amateurs successfully emulating IPL billionaire fielders is brilliant.

I regularly talk to colleagues about the improved standard of fielding and the consensus opinion is that the way we fielded was so bad that improvement was inevitable. But it is the gap in quality that is so striking. I am convinced that gym membership is playing a big part – the fitness of current players is highly impressive.

So while I take my hat off to modern league cricket fielding there is one area of the art that really annoys me. These days, the most innocuous drive played directly to a fielder at mid-off or cover point is greeted by a cacophony of great fielding Jonesy, Smithy, Big Al when even in my day that kind of regulation fielding was within the capability reach of a bloke the size of a person today featured on Britain’s Fight with Fat.

League cricketers’ meteoric rise to fielding fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch your acrobatic dexterity I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot as you. Your technical ability and fearless approach have made cricket more exciting and raised the level of participation.

 

 

 

Baby you can drive my carbs

Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting? (Tom Wolfe)

The great British cricket club tea is the kind of quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside the Changing of the Guards, Crown Jewels, Wimbledon, Glastonbury and typical English pub.

The image of a steaming tea pot (no, not a wretched urn), home-made scones, jam tarts, sandwiches generously filled with an assortment of egg, tomato, cheese, chutney and ham – all washed down with a proper cup of tea is embedded in cricket folklore. But as with much of modern life, for some clubs the tea interval has become transformed from a delightful half-hour break of merriment into a cricketing dystopia involving a 20-minute binge of comfort food purchased from the savings shelves of discounting supermarkets.

It is extremely rare to come away from a league match feeling satiated after treading extremely carefully around a minefield of sausage rolls, mini rolls, imitation Kit Kats and miserable white bread sandwiches which, had they been served in prison, would have precipitated a riot. And to compound the felony, some clubs feel no shame in presenting a cup of tea as some kind of capability test consisting of a tea bag, urn, plastic carton of milk (regularly UHT) with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class – stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.

Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I hear time and again from club officials)? Actually, no. There are some clubs who know how to do it right, and by that I am not only talking about the food. For me, the ceremony and organisation are equally important.

So when I am dispatched to a particular club that understands the difference between a Wetherspoons’ gut-wrenching curry and a Michelin Star pub lunch, I eagerly anticipate the assignment, because tea there is an experience to savour. After the delicious and bountiful rounds of sandwiches, the tea ladies (mums and wives of the players) come round with trays filled with an appealing melange of scones, cakes and buns. Jam sponge umps? I made it myself. The frisson is tangible as I hold out my plate: Well if you made it yourself my dear, it would be impolite to refuse. My goodness, that’s a generous slice.

This lavish tea set against a backdrop of framed photographs of the visiting 1964 Australian cricket team who ate in the same pavilion is sadly rare. For whatever reason, a white-sliced Savers loaf with a square of of processed cheese dumped on top of a discounted slab of margarine along with Savers custard creams and processed sausage rolls does not leave a good taste.

As a bare minimum, every tea should include a table for umpires and scorers. I don’t particularly mind the queue for the smorgasboard but it’s a tad awkward sitting next to the village blacksmith half an hour after I sent him packing with a close LBW (especially while savouring the delights of jammy dodger). The cost of plastic tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the supermarket in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. Can we also dispense with the paper or plastic plates and cups typically found and used in fast food outlets and replace them with appropriate cutlery and crockery? Do we really have to put up with chemically induced supermarket pizzas or sausage rolls? Why are salads and fresh fruit regularly banished from cricket pavilions? And what is the obsession with cheap crisps and Hula Hoops? As it stands, cricket teas are winning the arms race carbs war by a distance.

There are simple ways to improve the cricket tea. And it needs to start at the top. Just as there are guidelines for sight screens and boundary markings, so there should be minimum standards for what constitutes a decent tea. Clubs could promote an initiative with a College and invite students on a Cookery Btec to provide teas; a local restaurant could provide ideas for a tea in return for catering a club’s AGM.

The issue here is clubs’ interpretations of an acceptable standard. I am looking for some clubs to raise their catering game so that there is a level playing field and standard that makes all the cricketing stakeholders happy. If the wicket plays like a minefield, we have a duty of care towards the players who may end up with a painful reminder of their afternoon’s entertainment. The same principle should apply to the tea. And for what looks like a great value tea made with attention to detail, here is what clubs should aspire to.

 

Able was I ‘ere I saw LB

It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. (JD Salinger)

The human mind is capable of orchestrating the juggling many balls at the same time (search jugglers on Britain’s Got Talent, or just take my word for it). Most ordinary Joes would find juggling balls a difficult enough task but those same Joes when donning the whites have little truck with my contention that interpreting Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) is almost impossible if accuracy of decision-making is the main criteria.

Before the bowler delivers the ball, I am watching out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, bowler action, follow-through keeping out of the protected area of the pitch, trajectory of ball, where it pitches and its journey after pitching, how dangerous it may be, whether the batter at the bowler’s end is trying to steal a cheeky metre. And with all of that neatly stored in my consciousness, was the impact on the pad direct or was it a bat snick onto the pad?

With all of these stipulations you might think wonder whether deciding on the village blacksmith’s fate after going through the above list in a few seconds is a less preferable way to spend a Saturday afternoon than an  expedition to the tundra of Ikea with Mrs Umps. Judging an LBW is not an exact science, it is a judgement based on evidence, knowledge and experience of Law 36 and its caveats.

It’s interesting how bowlers, batters, fielders (even those with a perfect view of LBW at long leg, for instance) have wide interpretations of Law 36. The bowler thinks he has caught a burglar running out of his house carrying a 50-inch TV but with so many mitigating circumstances, LBW is is a defence barrister’s Shangri-la and if there is any doubt, it ain’t going to be out. In the few seconds I have to ruin the blacksmith’s weekend, I run over the forensics in my mind:

  1. Did the ball pitch outside leg stump? If so, the batter is not out.
  2. Was the impact of the ball outside the line of off stump and was the batter playing a shot? If so, the batter is not out.
  3. After impact of ball hitting pad (assuming 1 and 2 are sorted) is the ball heading for the stumps?
There are other factors that mitigate in favour of the batter,  the main one being the prevalence of some league bowlers’ inability to bowl a ball that would make the LBW director’s cut. The same Law 36 applies to Shane Warne and the village shoesmith but Warney bowling to Sachin Tendulkar would tax Aleem Dar more than the shoesmith bowling to the blacksmith taxes me.

The only way to deal with an LBW decision is to ignore the screaming bowler, wicket keeper, fielder and tea lady (and of course the batter examining the edge of his bat) and take a few seconds to reconstruct the crime scene before delivering your verdict.

Reactions from batters given out are worse than from bowlers who tend to take a rejected appeal as part of the shift on the coal face. Sometimes a wicket keeper backs me up, telling the skipper: It was high or going down leg. Quite. So why appeal if you know it was not out? (I think we know the answer to that question).

Batters of course are never out LBW. It wasn’t me guv; I wouldn’t get on the back foot to that kind of delivery; it pitched a mile outside leg stump; if you couldn’t hear the nick of bat onto ball then you shouldn’t be umpiring; way too high umps (defiant in his belief the impact was just below the left nipple).

I am rarely kept awake worrying about umpiring decisions but out of the 40,000-plus balls I have been in charge of at the bowler’s end in league games, I occasionally muse over certain judgements.

An LBW decision I am now sure I got wrong came during my first season as a panel umpire where I gave the batter not out on a strong appeal. A useful right-arm medium-pace bowler was all over this middle order batter beating him every other ball. It was one of those appeals that came with all the trimmings – wicket-keeper screaming with both arms pointing to a superior force in the sky and the bowler, having examined the damage, turning round, going down on one knee and beckoning me Pavarotti style.

My initial inclination was to give it as it met all the criteria (legal delivery, pitched on off and impacted just below the knee roll of the front-foot pad). But in the few post-impact seconds my thought process determined that something was not quite right and I persuaded myself that the impact may have been just outside the off stump and the batter did attempt to to play a front foot defensive shot. I had allowed myself to find a reason not to give it. For some reason, I didn’t have the balls and that is a more important part of the umpire’s learning curve – understanding why you make certain decisions, rather than reflecting on the decision itself.

One I got right stayed with me for my own most unprofessional reaction. In my first post-qualifying apprentice season in the lower divisions of the league – before I became a Panel umpire – I gave a batter out LBW (impact on back foot heading for lower part of middle stump having pitched on middle). As the batter reluctantly trudged away from the crease he said: I hit it.

Get the local paper on Friday, sonny I replied and you’ll see that you didn’t. To be fair to the young lad, he took it in the right spirit.

In the bar after the game I apologised to the batter and his captain. It was not a good look on my part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 to stand in seven days a week if so inclined. Aside from Saturday league games (my preferred tipple) there is a vibrant Sunday league circuit, county and association representative games, university games, high-profile corporate games 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 bowler is as much of a real deal as the 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 a 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 ubiquitous 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 at 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 trajectory. 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 little appetite for the cricket as the club bar looks enticingly in reach.

My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which encapsulates the friendly zeitgeist. A good league club with a belting track and outfield were hosting a team whose surname was Wanderers. And wanderers they were too, being one of those cricket clubs which only played friendlies and thus 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 11 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 few wickets – something close to 300 with five down after 50 overs.

On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling the Wanderers were struggling at 50-something 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 a Tom Graveney, 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 some of his mates at the other end managed to keep 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 low 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 – let’s all go for a G&T.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wilderness years

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 in this dangerous terrain so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those couple of years, I reckon about thirty percent of my match-day colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other seventy per cent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied umpiring and and others with two legs, eyes and ears (allegedly).

And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the games I umpired at this level, some of the guys I stood with really tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were regularly the de rigeur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system 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 of two hundred 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 know is the perfect view to judge a close LBW). I had rejected a raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high. At the end of the over the said player ambled over and asked: So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps? Instead of giving the player a warning (Law 42, Players’ conduct) for this lip, I spluttered out some nonsense about height. Having voluntarily walked into a contretemps, I earned a slide down the snake.

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 a cricketer, 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 not much talent on show. The same routine prevailed – the captain complaining that his opening pace (hahahaha) bowler 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 more Faberge than Fearnley, spending  three hours in the outfield adjusting his gonads.

There were notable exceptions. A batter who had graced higher stages of the cricket pyramid turning out occasionally and scoring shedloads along with a couple of lads at university who looked the part. I have a heart and I recognise the importance of giving cricketers of all levels an opportunity to play. But with much of my time in the middle looking like a scarecrow (Wide ball) it reminded me of comedian Peter Kay’s routine on the 1980s TV show Bullseye: It were sh*t, but it were good.

The main problem was the lack of tension. A half decent team would rattle up 250-plus and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be all out for not many.  And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on – perish the thought – even worse players. And then there was the issue of partiality. I’m sure there is a peer-reviewed study from one of those former polytechnics which is now a resplendent university on decision-making by unqualified umpires in the wilderness divisions of Leagues. Let’s face it, when you have shared a few pints with the captain and club chairman on Friday night, you might feel more cavalier in ensuring your team gets over the line on the Saturday.

I am sure I gave some bad decisions during this apprenticeship, but I certainly didn’t give any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. Yes, they were a great set of guys who served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the League) and they ensured the bar was bouncing at the end of play.

Three seasons was enough and I bade farewell to the budget divisions. I was welcomed to the League’s panel and spent the winter preparing myself for 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. I wasn’t going to stand in the top two divisions but I was going to be officiating real cricketers who would appreciate the decisions of a qualified umpire while showcasing their undisputed talent. It was going to be as near to first class as I could ever get.

Be careful what you wish for.