I was just caught up in a life in which I could find no meaning. (Charles Bukowski)
During the months of May through to September, an umpire, if so inclined, can find a game to stand in seven days a week. Aside from Saturday League games (my tipple of choice) there is a vibrant Sunday League circuit along with county, association, university, corporate and what I politely refer to as gin and tonic cricket (aka friendlies) to accommodate umpires looking for games. With a match fee and better than average tea you could make some kind of living from the summer months. But I’m a Saturday League umpire – nothing else shakes my pebbles.
I am not against the concept of a friendly, provided 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 have suggested. Charity fundraisers are also welcome additions to the summer collection, especially when a celebrity turns an arm over. But I draw a line on the ubiquitous friendly without a cause – I’ve umpired a few and they leave a bad taste that reminds me of the dishwater that Pret a Manger presents as an Americano.
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 match. Captains of Saturday League teams are plotting and scheming how to win the next match from their Wednesday morning coffee break to the toss before the game. Points and reputations are at stake with the pressure mounting as the match story unfolds. By its very definition, a friendly bears no resemblance to League cricket. Imagine Quentin Tarantino inserting a tea dance into Reservoir Dogs.
Look no further than an MCC friendly. Wannabe entrants to this most famous of cricket clubs chalk off thousands of days waiting to sport the bacon and egg tie and jacket. And those who represent this club in friendlies will scrub up immaculately with a pressed shirt, tie, slacks and a jacket that comes with a zipped cover rather than a brown paper bag from Primark.
The host club buy into the spirit, ditching the discount supermarket white sliced loaves and mini rolls for a catered tea provided by a local Italian or Indian restaurant. As I tuck into the Torta Pasquellina I wonder why we are bothering at all with the cricket. Add to the mix a bartender of repute serving the umpires with a post-match complimentary drink of choice and you might think that this is how the good Lord brainstormed the perfect Sunday afternoon.
What is lacking, however, is the edge that defines a contest. The same bowler who trundles in to deliver mediocrity at an MCC Sunday friendly has steamed in with a toxic cocktail of chin music for his League club the day before. The fielder who throws himself at a ball to save a run on a Saturday is satiated with a cursory Sunday bend of the back as the ball continues its trajectory to the boundary. The same turned-down caught behind appeal in a League game that is met with seething rage, provokes nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders as the triple-barrelled MCC batter adjusts his cravat ready for the next ball.
My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which can only happen in a friendly. A League club with a belting track and outfield are hosting a team whose surname is Wanderers. And wanderers they are too, being one of those cricket clubs that only plays friendlies.
As we take the field, I am already regretting my decision to stand in this game as I have to keep both ends burning due to the non-arrival of my colleague (interestingly, a not uncommon problem with friendly matches). The home club – a strong team in the top tier of their League – are giving eleven players from their seconds and thirds an outing. After a few overs it is clear they are going to get a lot of runs for very few wickets – something close to three-hundred with five down after fifty overs.
The catered tea is indeed the highlight of the day. I sit with the Travelling Willburys and the chat is all about deals, business trips to New York and cars – their expertise on this subject is backed up by a display of luxury on four wheels in the parking lot. It’s too late in my life to linger on what could have been, and we take the field for the second innings.
On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling, the Wanderers are struggling at fifty-something for three. But the number three batter has accumulated a fast thirty and while not having the poise, balance and follow-through of a Tom Graveney, he is blessed with the kind of hand-eye coordination that could see him chewing tobacco in Major League baseball or having a hill named after him at Wimbledon. An hour later he is still there smacking the ball to the rope while his colleagues at the other end keep the crease warm.
At around one-hundred-and-fifty for six wickets, the odds are still stacked against the Wanderers. And then the Major League hero nicks off to slip who does 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 carries to the pavilion car park) it is not necessary for me to raise my finger to confirm the catch. But the batter stands his ground, so I raise my finger to trigger Jo DiMaggio’s departure to the locker room. And still he stands his ground.
The captain of the fielding side approaches to remind me that the game will be over very quickly if The Yankee Clipper is given out, so could I perhaps, reconsider my decision?
How very convivial – pour me a G&T.