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)

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professor of neuroscience who had been researching reaction times involved in a variety of sports. He confirmed something that I had often thought – a footballer’s ability to deliver a perfectly weighted pass taking into account, speed, angle and trajectory is the work of genius. Taking this example into cricket’s Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) should qualify myself and the thousands of League umpires around the world to be similarly categorised.

Before the bowler delivers the ball, I am watch out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, the bowler’s action, follow-through, keeping out of the protected area of the wicket, 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, we then get to the business end of the decision-making process – what happened to the ball’s journey. All of the above have to be signed, sealed and delivered within a few seconds as the village blacksmith (bowler or batter) waits for my verdict.

You might be thinking whether this kind of pressure is worth the effort, especially at my age. True, the alternative is to spend my Saturday afternoon with Mrs Umps on an expedition to the tundra of Ikea. It took me some time to realise that the right decision 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 the perfect vanatage at long leg) have wide interpretations of Law 36. Of course, the bowler has apprehended 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. I run over the forensics:

  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 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 far worse than disappointed 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 forty thousand balls I have supervised at the bowler’s end, I occasionally muse over certain judgements. One such decision I am convinced 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, 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 to give it out. This is an 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 a different reason. In my first post-qualifying apprentice season in the lower divisions of the League, 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, instead of acknowledging to the arresting officer that had been caught with his fingers in the till, he said to me: I hit it. I could have felt his collar for the crime of dissent, and to be honest I quite fancied the idea of him spending the night locked in the pavilion changing room while I would be tucking into Mrs Umps’ delicious cottage pie.

But in a one-off highly unprofessional reaction which I now regret, I replied: Get the local paper on Friday sonny, and you’ll see that you didn’t hit it.