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 the 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 territory so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those couple of years, I reckon about thirty percent of my colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other seventy percent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied the challenge of umpiring and others who met the criteria of two eyes and ears, but No balls.
And with the greatest respect to colleagues in the games I umpired at this level, some 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 awarded to the colleague who at least used initiative in actually finding a makeshift ball counter. But seriously my friend, 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 one of the 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 an LBW appeal). I had rejected this raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high, in fact so high that Dick Fosbury would have struggled to get over it with his patented flip. At the end of the over the player ambled over and asked with a touch of sarcasm: So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps? (There may have been a gerund thrown in as well). However, 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 was sliding down the snake.
At this level, the game is a like the collection of tacky prizes on everyone’s favourite 1980s quiz show Bullseye. The occasional Ford Escort, holiday in Estepona or speedboat in the shape of seventy well crafted runs or a five-for bowling spell. But the default level is a cheap radio alarm clock (four cow pats an over), an even cheaper cutlery set (a batter swinging at thin air ball after ball) and a collection of rectangular boxes that look like books to keep your videos in (a fielder screaming mine and then not attempting to catch the ball).
The purpose of the lower Divisions is not to find the next big name in cricket, it is to give twenty-two people who love the game an opportunity to play. And play they did, despite the problems captains have at this level getting eleven players on a team sheet. And because I was a club’s umpire and not on the panel I got to hear the goss. The opening bowler’s at a stag weekend in Prague. So Geoff’s playing. Ah yes, owes-you-a-favour Geoff coming off a night shift resurfacing a motorway and turning out in whites more Faberge than Fearnley and then spending three hours in the outfield adjusting his gonads.
There were some 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 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 signalling wide balls, I felt like the Bullseye contestants that bet the kitty on the star prize only to fall short of the required one-hundred-and-one total as the legendary Jim Bowen tells them Let’s have a look at what you could have won.
The main problem was the lack of tension. A half decent team would rattle up two-hundred-and-fifty and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be all out for a lot fewer. And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on eleven other wannabes. 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 ‘university’ on decision-making by unqualified umpires in the wilderness Divisions of Leagues. Let’s be honest when you have shared a few pints with the club chairman on Friday night, you might feel more cavalier in ensuring your team gets over the line the next day.
I was a rookie and certainly I gave some bad decisions during the apprenticeship years. But I certainly didn’t give any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. They were a great set of guys who served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the League) and the bar was always bouncing at the end of play.
After three seasons I swapped the set of Bullseye for the League Panel Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. I imagined high-roller games with qualified and neutral umpires and scorers, prepared wickets – not Anzio beach – a minimum of four good deliveries per over, sumptuous cover drives crafted and delivered with precision. I looked forward to teas prepared by celebrity chefs, showers with piping hot as well as cold water and my name on the changing room door. Officiating at this high level, surely the players would accept and appreciate the decisions of a qualified umpire. It would be, I surmised, a touch away from First Class cricket.
Be careful what you wish for.