Able was I ‘ere I saw LB

It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. (JD Salinger)

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professor of neuroscience who was researching reaction times in sport. 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 (he compared Wayne Rooney to Mozart). Being able to interpret and execute Cricket’s Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) should similarly equate every League umpire around the world with the great composer.

Before the bowler has even delivered a ball, I am watching out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, the action, follow-through, the protected area of the wicket. And with all of this data stored in my consciousness, we then get to the business end of the decision-making process – trajectory of ball, where it pitches and its subsequent journey, how dangerous it may be, not to mention whether the batter at the bowler’s end is trying to steal a cheeky few metres.

All of of the above must be signed, sealed and delivered before I can get my head round an LBW decision which could well ruin the village blacksmith’s weekend. We make decisions all the time, but I doubt there are thirteen people (fourteen if you count your umpiring colleague) staring as you decide to run for a bus on an icy pavement.

At my age there are more sedate Saturday afternoon alternatives, notably an expedition to the tundra of Ikea with Mrs Umps where searching for a flat-pack dining room table in the warehouse can be equally as taxing as an LBW decision. It took me some time to realise that making the right LBW decision is not an exact science, it is a judgement based on evidence, knowledge and experience of Law 36 and its caveats.

Of course bowlers, batters and fielders (even those with the perfect view at long leg) bring their own interpretation to Law 36. Naturally, the bowler believes he has apprehended a burglar running out of his house carrying a 50-inch TV. But with so many mitigating circumstances, Law 36 is is a defence barrister’s Shangri-la, and if there’s any doubt, it ain’t gonna be out.

We are paid the big bucks (half a tank of petrol) to judge if the ball pitches outside leg stump. If so, the batter is not out. Is the impact of the ball outside the line of off stump and is the batter playing a shot? If so, the batter is not out. And after impact of ball hitting pad (assuming the two points above 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 even make the LBW director’s cut. The only way to deal with an LBW decision is to ignore the screaming bowler, wicket keeper, fielders, tea ladies, dog walkers and the batter examining the edge of his bat, then take a few seconds to reconstruct the crime scene, before delivering a verdict.

Reactions from batters given out are far worse than disappointed bowlers who tend to take a rejected appeal as part of the coal face shift. Occasionally, a well parented wicket-keeper backs me up, confirming to his teammates high or going down leg. So why appeal if you know it was not out? (I think we know the answer to that question). In short, batters are never out LBW. Not me guv; I wasn’t on back foot; it pitched a mile outside leg stump; couldn’t you hear the nick; way too high (pointing to his right nipple).

I am rarely kept awake worrying about umpiring decisions, but occasionally one muscles its way into a dream I might be having about scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup Final. In my first season on the League Panel, a useful medium-pacer is all over the batter like a cheap suit and the ball thuds onto the front pad on the knee role in front of the middle and off stumps. It is one of those appeals that comes with all the trimmings – wicket-keeper screaming with both arms pointing to a superior force in the sky and the bowler vociferating on one knee, Pavarotti style.

My initial inclination is to give it out as it appears to meet the criteria for releasing the guillotine blade. But in a few post-impact seconds my thought process is blurred – something is not right and I persuade myself that the impact may have been just outside the off stump and the batter has attempted to to play a front-foot defensive shot. I have allowed myself to find a reason not to give it out – and on the way home I ask myself whether I actually have the bottle to make these decisions.

This incident taught me a key lesson – understanding why we make a particular decision. It’s like doing jury service where evidence eclipses the defence QC’s mitigation – there is no room for sentiment. Today, with ten years experience under my belt, a similar scenario would end with me ruining the village blacksmith’s weekend.

One LBW decision I got right should be used on a Continuing Professional Development course for umpires. It’s my first post-qualifying apprentice season in one of the lower Divisions of the League and I give a batter out LBW. As he  reluctantly trudges away from the crease, instead of acknowledging to the arresting officer that he has been caught with his fingers in the till, he says: I hit it. I could, of course, feel his collar for the crime of dissent, and to be honest I quite like the idea of him spending the night locked in a pavilion changing room while I’m tucking into Mrs Umps’ delicious cottage pie.

What follows is written with remorse and I beg your indulgence. In those early days, I was a rookie umpire without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Terms and Conditions relating to match officiating. I can assure you that such an incident could never happen again. Indeed, since that fateful incident, I may have got some decisions wrong, but my match management has always been highly professional.

As the fielding side celebrate the LBW decision with high fives, I decide to get clever and react to the batter’s I hit it with a riposte of my own: Get the local paper on Friday sonny, and you’ll see that you didn’t hit it.