Price. You’re priceless. (Bret Easton Ellis)
One of the first of many homespun philosophies I heard on the Level One umpiring course was this little gem: Badly dressed umpires will give bad decisions. It reminded me of my old dad insisting I should never leave home in anything other than proper leather shoes when my adolescent years (early seventies) coincided with the original obsession of Adidas and Puma footwear. There were plenty of door slams and gerunds as I fought for my human rights to wear trainers, to no avail.
And while I do make a serious effort to look the part for a Saturday League encounter (assiduously preparing my kit on a Friday evening), I draw the line on being a moving sandwich board for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). The blousons we wear in our League do have ECB, our Association logo and manufacturers and distributors Duncan Fearnley’s logo. I don’t have a problem with that, we pay a reasonable fee to our Association towards the cost of the blousons. As a devoted patron of Aldi, I know all about value – I’ve caught out a number of so-called informed friends who can’t tell the difference between a £1.80 bottle of branded ketchup (think 57 not out) and Aldi’s 59p in-house version. The blouson is not the problem, it is a simply literal cover-up for the rest of the apparel.
I’m laying out my match-day paraphernalia as my colleague enters the changing room. Like many of the umpires I stand with, he is adorned head to toe with English Cricket Board Association of Cricket Officials (ECBACO) branding. His homage to the seventies Saturday night Generation Game conveyor belt includes a hat, casual polo-shirt, bag, umbrella and once he is fully changed, match-day polo shirt, trousers, socks, ball-counter, hand towel and sleeveless sweater. The only thing missing is an ECB tattoo on his index finger, although with a nickname of Dr. No (a reputation of not raising his finger), there won’t be much brand recognition for cricket’s governing body to monetise.
I have never been a dedicated follower of fashion, other than a penchant for a decent pair of shoes. Over many years I purchased Dr. Martens which combined quality with style. But that relationship came to a fractious end when I found an online outlet selling a decent leather shoe with the DM longevity and quality with a sixty percent cheaper price tag.
For umpiring, I am perfectly happy in a long-sleeve, button-up cotton white shirt, a comfortable Panama-style hat (a version of which I bought in the ubiquitous middle aisle of Aldi for under four pounds) and robust white sports shoes, each of which can be purchased from Sports Direct or Primark at a fraction of ACO-branded gear. I can assure my Association and the ECBACO that my decision-making and match management are not compromised just because my shirt is not adorned with logos.
So it is with some angst that I present you with the following delicacies available in the ECBACO umpires’ catalogue. For ninety-five pounds (take a moment to absorb that price) you can proudly sport the ECB, ACO and supplier Duncan Fearnley logos on a woollen sweater, which is of course is just the job on a Hotter than July afternoon.
Fancy a holdall to carry your stuff from the car to the pavilion? At Sports Direct you pay ten pounds which includes that company’s logo. In the ACO catalogue you pay thirty five pounds for a comparable bag which is probably made in the same sweatshop as the branded version. But of course, for the extra twenty-five pounds, you have the honour and privilege of advertising the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley brands on your arduous trek of fifty meters.
And the mother of all marketing scams is the staggering four-hundred-and-sixty-nine pounds offer for the Match II Ultimate Pack, or as I prefer to call it, Match II Money Heist. This selection of goodies includes an on-field jacket, trousers, shirt, sweater (nope, not the ninety-five pound woollen version, rather the one that will give you an afternoon of electric shocks to help concentration as the sassy leg-spinner bamboozles you and the batter). As if that rip-off (the price, not the blouson Velcro) does not bring enough money into the ECB coffers, the pack also includes a ball counter (starting price ninety-nine pence on Amazon), bails (starting price three pounds a set on Amazon) and a small towel for rainy days, free from home but having the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos dries the ball so much quicker.
I don’t have an issue with ECB outsourcing the production and sale of these items through Duncan Fearnley, it makes reasonable economic sense. My problem is how the ECB uses its brand tentacles to squeeze umpires’ pockets. Don’t the good folk at ECB headquarters realise that without umpires, there is no recreational cricket? I doubt that the ECB CEO Tom Harrison (2020 salary, five-hundred-and-twelve-thousand pounds) spends sleepless hours worrying that it will take an umpire the best part of a season to pay for the Match II Ultimate Pack.
An organisation that turned over one-hundred-and-seventy-eight million pounds in 2018-19 and boasts a four-year broadcasting deal between 2020-2024 worth more than one-billion pounds should be ashamed that umpires are asked to stump up so much money. I am not prepared to pay for a white button-up shirt that costs twenty-five pounds more than my non-branded shirt. And here is the irony, we are regularly advised by our association that umpires should be similarly dressed. While I understand this sentiment around uniformity, umpires already look the same wearing the association’s blouson, so whatever is underneath becomes irrelevant.
For the intense concentration over six hundred balls; for a payment that is probably around the same as the poor folk who make this absurdly expensive merchandise; for our dedication to cricket and a whole lot more, if the governing body wants to use us for its marketing, there should indeed be a cost – to the ECB. Here’s my suggestion: Provide the Match II Ultimate Pack free of charge to every qualified umpire in the country. I’d wear those logos with pride.