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 of this frenetic, route one bean-feast, my friend said: There are twenty-two guys on the pitch. But they’re not playing football.
I witnessed this kind of mediocrity in the lower Divisions of the League. Guys coming out to bat with a pad not strapped and fielders returning the ball from the deep with an underarm throw – I sometimes wonder if the poor decisions I made in those three seasons were down to me also catching the mediocrity bug. My elevation to Panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to experience some very good cricket. The dearth of quality in the lower Divisions – where two balls an over might trouble a batter – transformed into four decent balls out of six, spectacular fielding, along with the aptitude and skill to build an innings.
It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoned fours that stick in the mind. Leg-side nudges, balanced cover drives, shot selection (especially leaves outside off stump), perfect judgement of runs and of course temperament combine to enhance the umpiring experience.
These nuances separate the 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. But to make a century you need to know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leg-spinner who is giving you a hard time, in the knowledge that your batting partner has worked him out.
A player who regularly scores well, gets my batting nomination. I’ve seen him score two centuries, both model innings for aspiring club cricketers. An opening bat, from the first over he takes charge with a trademark yes, one, along with a sound defence and the full repertoire of boundary shots on the front 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 breaking the speed limit. I’ve also seen him get out early. His reaction is to walk off without the toys coming out of the pram, 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 making a significant 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, they can still orchestrate a game with their eyes closed. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches, controlled drives and an occasional smack to the boundary.
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 along with 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. I was there to witness such an occasion.
The visitors are down and out chasing a modest one-hundred-and-seventy. Needing around a hundred with only three wickets left, the number nine batter takes guard. While not boasting a particularly athletic figure, he looks like he can handle himself if a heated discussion on metaphysics gets out of hand.
Half an hour after he trudges out to the middle, the total required is under fifty as the young man, seemingly unconcerned with the desperate plight, uses hand-eye coordination from a different universe to potentially change the course of the game. Hitting the sweet spot at a rate that would certainly impress Mrs Umps, he plays text-book cricket shots to all parts of the ground, a few of which reach the next postcode without bouncing.
The superhero is caught in the deep and the other two dominoes fall quickly – the battle is won but inevitably the war is lost. After the game I see him in the car park.
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 seen great sporting icons live – Stanley Matthews, Wesley Hall, George Best and Shane Warne come to mind. But that forty-something cameo innings in the third tier of League cricket is one I will always remember.