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.