I was just caught up in a life in which I could ﬁnd no meaning. (Charles Bukowski)
During the months of May through to mid-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). With a match fee and better than average 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 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 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 match. Captains of Saturday League teams are plotting and scheming how to win the next match from their Wednesday morning coffee break. There are points and reputations at stake as players react to the pressure. A friendly, by its very definition, bears no resemblance to League cricket. Imagine Quentin Tarantino inserting a tea dance into Reservoir Dogs.
Look no further than an MCC friendly. I would not want to become a member of MCC but I have no problem with people who do. They chalk off thousands of days waiting until they are welcomed to the most famous cricket club in the world. And those who still play will scrub up immaculately to continue the tradition with a pressed shirt, bacon and egg tie, slacks and a jacket that comes with a zipped cover rather than a brown paper bag from Primark.
The hosting club also buy into the zeitgeist, ditching the discount supermarket white sliced loaves and mini rolls for a catered tea provided by the local Italian restaurant. In these situations 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 complementary drink of choice and you might think that this is how the good Lord envisaged Sunday afternoons.
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 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 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 was met with seething rage will provoke nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders as the tripled-barrelled MCC player lives to fight on.
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 bar edges enticingly closer.
My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which could only happen in a friendly. A League club with a belting track and outfield were hosting a team whose surname is Wanderers. And wanderers they were too, being one of those cricket clubs that only played friendlies.
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 – 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 few wickets – something close to three-hundred with five down after fifty overs.
On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling, the Wanderers are struggling at fifty-something for three in their reply. 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 having regularly smacked the ball to the rope while his mates at the other end are keeping the crease nice and warm.
At around one-hundred-and-fifty for six wickets, the odds are still stacked against the Wanderers. And then our Major League Baseball hero nicks 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 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. Then 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 – G&Ts all round.