Fred Karno’s Circus

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 these no-go areas so each club provided its own umpire. Over those three years, I reckon about thirty percent of my colleagues had done the Level 1 course, with the other seventy percent 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 my colleagues in the games I umpired at this level, some tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were often the de rigueur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system awarded to the fellow 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 to count the balls in an over (not to mention lighting one up at the fall of a wicket) does not quite fit the zeitgeist of nearly three centuries 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 vantage point to judge Leg Before Wicket. I had rejected this raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was so high that Dick Fosbury would have struggled to get over it. At the end of the over the fielder ambled over and asked: 

So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting, umps? (If I remember rightly, there may have been a gerund thrown in as well). 

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 this contretemps, I was sliding down the snake at great speed. With Mrs Umps reading every word of these posts, I wouldn’t dream of equating this metaphor with a registry office.

At this level, cricket is like the collection of tacky prizes on the iconic 1980s quiz show Bullseye. Winning a Ford Escort, a holiday in Estepona or a speedboat is out of the question. 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 with embossed book titles for your videos (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 cricket an opportunity to play at a competitive level. 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 as he spends 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 shed loads along with some youngsters who showed genuine promise. Sure, I recognise the importance of giving cricketers of all levels an opportunity to play, but signalling so many wides made me look like a scarecrow on crack. 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, with the legendary Jim Bowen turning up the humiliation volume with 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. Let me be clear, my soul was not for sale, however many pints I may or may not have shared with the club chairman during the week. 

I was a rookie and yes, I made some bad decisions during those apprenticeship years. But I certainly didn’t make any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. They were a great set of guys who served up the best teas in the Division – if not the League – and the bar was always bouncing at the end of play.

After serving my time in the Fred Karno big top, I was rehabilitated and accepted an invitation onto the League panel. Swapping the set of Bullseye for Mastermind, I imagined high-roller games with qualified and neutral umpires, scorers, prepared wickets replacing Anzio beach, a minimum of four good deliveries per over, sumptuous cover drives and groupies from a nearby care home queueing for my autograph. 

I looked forward to teas prepared by celebrity chefs, showers with piping hot water, my name on the changing room door in the Caesar’s Palace font and an International Cricket Council functionary inviting me for an interview to join the Elite Panel of Test umpires. I surmised that officiating at this high level would ensure that players would gracefully accept the decisions of a qualified umpire, while evoking the spirit of Corinthian sportsmanship.

Be careful what you wish for.