Two for the road

Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever (Paul Auster)

The ground is situated close to an A-road and even on a Saturday there are enough wagons and testosterone fuelled bikers to edge the decibel scale northwards. This ain’t no quaint village green, it’s a hardcore concrete jungle. The ground is in walking distance of the kind of aspiring middle class housing estate that provides fodder for edgy playwrights to humiliate people who are trying to better themselves. Despite the noise and surroundings, this gritty cricket outpost is one of my favourite grounds on the circuit and warrants a couple of urban tales.

The first involves one of the rare breed of modern day League cricketers who sleep better at night having done the decent thing in a situation where it’s much easier not to. The noise from the A-road that traverses the ground and a strong wind combine to make cricket a bit of a chore. An opening bowler is all over the place, No-balls, loss of rhythm and courting trouble with leg-side wides.

The batter, a diminutive, middle-age guy is a left-hander who nudges and nurdles  singles and then every few overs unleashes a perfect square cut and cover drive that reaches the boundary before he finishes the follow through. The bowler sends another one down the leg side and as I am trying to work out if it is a wide, a half-hearted appeal goes up from keeper and first slip. Nothing comes from the bowler other than a flick of his wrist suggesting he needs to have better control of the ball. I decide against the wide and turn down the caught-behind. Even if he has feathered the ball, with half a dozen Eddie Stobart trucks in convoy on the A-road, there is no chance of me hearing a damn thing.

And then comes the denouement that is pure improv, rather than scripted. The batter composes himself and walks off, bat under arm, divesting himself of helmet and gloves. Still reeling from this guilty plea, I give the reverse decision signal and we move on. At the end of the game I have a brief exchange.

I walk. I don’t mind batters who don’t. It’s nothing to do with sportsmanship. But I get well pis*ed off when I’m given out when I haven’t hit it. And with a cover drive follow-through flourish that Tom Graveney would be proud of, he leaves me with this gem: And when you see me walk, like today, you need to up your game umps. You got the decision wrong.

Two seasons later I am back in the hood. A medium pacer with the nagging line and length is getting on the batter’s nerves. The bowler is too good for him. The fifth ball beats him and right on cue the bowler follows through with the stand-and-stare routine while the batter goes through the motions of the shot he meant to play. Like many League cricketers, this particular assignment is beyond his pay grade.

One ball to go and I’ll be at square leg thinking about what I have to do at work on Monday morning (bad practice, we are trained to give the same concentration while standing at the batter’s end as we do at the bowler’s end). However, when the keeper is standing back I have found that square leg provides the perfect habitat for a spot of R&R.

The sixth ball of the over is delivered and fate conspires against me. There’s a loud appeal for caught behind as bowler, keeper, slips, tea ladies and dog walkers go up in a choreographed harmony straight out of the Busby Berkeley portfolio. Unfortunately, the timing of the appeal could not be worse as a truck driver who is hurtling down the A-road chooses that very moment of alleged bat on ball, to sit on the horn. On the way home I have a vision of him leaving his mobile phone in the house, with the extra minute collecting it causing a perfect noise storm at the time of impact of ball on bat, or pad.

One of the many reasons why I am in favour of attracting younger men and women to umpiring is that their hearing is so much better than the over-sixties cohort that currently  makes up the panel. As I moved from fifty to sixty it became clear to me that sound was anything but clear. I recognise that at certain times this can be an advantage, especially when Mrs Umps is in one of her Ikea moods. Unfortunately for batters, my hearing is sharp for edges to the keeper but I do have a problem when peripheral noise gets in the way, and an A-road is the perfect place for the noise bug to mutate.

So at this precious moment I am entrusted with making a judgement when the only evidence to give the batter out are the screams from bowler and keeper, and with the greatest respect to the two fellows, it’s not going to sway a jury. The batter stands his ground and I’m having none of it. With the Grand Prix on the A-road, I can’t hear a thing.  I announce Not out. Over bowled. My colleague, walking in from square leg, points to his right ear to confirm he can’t hear anything. The fielders are unhappy, but the batter is soon out and is given a less than polite send-off which includes advice on how to get rid of an alleged red mark on the bat edge.

The incident has no influence on the game’s outcome. But the same finger of fate is at work after the game. Approaching my car, I encounter the fielding side’s wicket-keeper and team-mate. The keeper eases the passenger window down. Thanks umps, hope to see you later in the season he says in tone of voice that suggests he does not actually mean that he hopes to see me later in the season.

And purely for quality control purposes, I ask him with a faint smile: Did he really hit it?

No idea umps, couldn’t hear a thing. At least Dick Turpin wore a mask.