Ah, and you, just keep it classy, dude. (Em Pitts)
A few years ago I was in a hostelry with a friend watching the League Two football play-off final. After half an hour minutes of this frenetic, route-one free-for-all, my friend said: The laws are the same, the shirts are similar and there are twenty-two players on the pitch. But this is not the same game that is played in the Premier League.
Becoming a Panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to officiate some very good cricketers. The dearth of quality in the lower divisions – where two balls an over might trouble a batter – transformed into quality cricket with four decent balls out of six, spectacular fielding and an aptitude to build an innings.
Our match fee, which just about covers fuel and a meal deal, comes with an occasional bonus when a batter crafts a century or a bowler chooses that day to produce a magical spell that suggests he has the ability to go far in the game. It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoned fours that stick in the mind. Leg-side nudges, balanced cover drives, shot selection (including leaves outside off stump) and perfect judgement of runs and the temperament to build an innings that combine to enhance the watching experience.
These nuances separate the bish-bash spear-carrying Romans from the few Charlton Hestons on the League circuit. Yes, cricket is certainly a hand-eye co-ordination sport and there are plenty of village blacksmiths who can clear a sight screen before getting caught (literally) with their hands in the Pick ‘n Mix trying to pinch a few more sweets. You can’t display hand-eye natural talent from the pavilion, but you can get to three figures if you know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leggie who is giving you a hard time, in the knowledge that your batting partner has worked him out.
One player who regularly scores well, gets my batting nomination. Under my watch, he scored two centuries, both model innings for aspiring club cricketers. An opening bat, from the first over he takes charge with a trademark yes, one (or two), along with a sound defence and the full repertoire of boundary shots on the font and back foot. And he knows how to get the best value out of his time at the crease, cruising at a steady speed before moving to the outside lane, without lbreaking the speed limit. I’ve also seen him get out early. His reaction is to walk off without the toys coming out of the cot, understanding that this type of incident is statistically rare. I have never seen him get out to a false shot – the guy is class.
Bowlers have different talent genes. A five-over spell that brings three wickets might look good in the scorebook but if twenty of the thirty deliveries fail to make the batter play the ball (not to mention the wides that can push the tally up to thirty-five balls) then the raw talent lottery win is not going to be a jackpot.
The best bowlers are those who can keep the run rate down. And it’s usually the thirty to forty-five age group that have the experience and expertise to construct a field and bowl to it. It’s interesting to see how games can change with a bowler who hits a good line and length. An opening pair are making merry and race to seventy, then on comes a software engineer who keeps the run rate at two an over and causes the openers to lose their heads at the other end. But when you look at the scorebook, the IT hero is anonymous, despite having a huge contribution to the win.
The key component that separates good from mediocre is time. I have seen former Premier League footballers in their last hurrahs playing in a lower League, and despite carrying a few extra pounds of weight (not salary), they still orchestrate the game with their eyes closed. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches here, a controlled drive for two there and an occasional smack to the boundary to one of the two badly bowled balls in an over.
And of course, any fielder can change the course of a game with one throw at the stumps. In all the years I played cricket, it was rare to see such acrobatic feats. It’s hardly surprising that fielding has got so much better with players emulating the Twenty20 stunt men and twenty pound a month gyms churning out men of steel.
The majority of players I umpire are decent players who put in a shift. Some are destined for the Premier Division, and occasionally I hear of a youngster who is on the books of a county. A select few are able to turn in a performance that will be talked about for years. And I was present on such an occasion.
The visitors are down and out chasing a modest one-hundred-and-seventy. Needing around a hundred with three wickets left, the number nine batter takes his guard. Half an hour later the total required is under fifty as the young man, seemingly unconcerned with the desperate plight, uses hand-eye coordination from a different planet to change the course of the game.
There is no happy ending. The superhero is caught in the deep and the other two dominoes fall quickly. In the car park I encounter him with a couple of his teammates.
Where did that come from? I ask. And before he can reply one of his mates answers:
We’d like to know that too, umps.
When I’m feeling low during the long winter months, I occasionally bring this innings out of the vault to raise my spirits. I’ve been present when great sporting icons including Stanley Matthews, Wesley Hall, Michael Holding and George Best have showcased their incredible talent. But that forty-something knock in the third tier of a cricket League is up there as one of favourite sporting half hours.