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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Roll up to the roll-up

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 couple of 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 out in the sun.

And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the 30 or so 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 rigueur 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 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: 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, was drawn into a contretemps and 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) 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 on the plus side 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 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.