The scarecrow on crack

With the perfect blazer, anything is possible. (Rashida Jones)

You wouldn’t think that a simple flip of a coin would assume such importance. In football, rugby and a raft of other sports, the toss is a ceremony without meaning and unless there is a slope like a Winter Olympics slalom, or a hurricane at one end of the ground, the toss makes no difference to the outcome of the game. In cricket, the coin-flip formality is a crucial part of the game, even before it begins. 

My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion when you know nothing about the topic and his wise words resonate when it comes to the tittle-tattle of how a wicket is going to play. Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield providing the perfect balance for bat and ball, and those that resemble a newly laid motorway play like the beach in the Battle of Anzio.

Compared to the frenzy before a Test match, where retired captains provide a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and an occasional JCB digger into the surface, the League cricket equivalent is fairly tame with the club captain, chairman and other stakeholders in quiet reflection as they peruse the strip. 

The general consensus is that it’s better to bat first, with runs on the board adding pressure for the side batting second. So on a day where there is little or no cloud and the pitch looks like a road (cricket parlance for a good batting surface) it would be surprising for a captain to put the other side into bat. But as anyone who has traversed Manhattan will testify, not all roads are equal, and I have witnessed  winning outcomes for captains who decide to bowl first under good conditions for batters.

The captains join us in the middle. Being the tolerant chap that I am, I don’t expect them to be sporting a blazer, cap and cravat. Unfortunately the days of civility are long gone. (I say old chap, how the devil are you? The last time I saw Celia was at Felicity’s deb party). Only once in eleven years of umpiring League cricket have I seen a captain come to the toss in a club blazer. I would have insisted on a rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow had the jacket not been accompanied by a pair of beach shorts and flip-flops. 

As if we don’t have enough meaningless statistics in our regulated lives, some bright spark has estimated we make fifteen thousand handshakes in a lifetime (it must be true, I read it online). And the top of my bang out of order list involves people whose handshake is like a cheese sandwich in a goldfish tank. While a bone crusher greeting may be a tad uncomfortable (occasionally necessitating a visit to an osteopath, but that’s a back story), at least it displays a modicum of respect and always leaves me with a positive impression.  

The pre-toss banter between ourselves and captains is more scripted than improvised. Stock lines include asking where we had officiated last week (I can barely remember what I had for breakfast); reflecting on the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how the club has literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season; lack of batting consistency; how difficult it is to get a team together so we are struggling a bit today (reverse swing psychology making its way onto the village square).

If I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian: You won’t get any problems from us, umps. (After the game I note that Kaiser Chiefs’ I predict a riot is available in the bar’s jukebox). And a League cricket match cannot possibly start without one of the captains spouting the First Commandment: All we ask is that you are consistent with decisions on wides (followed by a forensic breakdown of events at a game that took place seven seasons ago).

Taking a step back to align himself with the stumps, the captain says: I mean, umps, he didn’t give a wide for this as his arms extend wider than a scarecrow on crack.. The other captain then joins the pile-on with tales of inconsistency. Sometimes I wonder what these fellows do in their leisure time other than build up a portfolio of decisions that go against them.

The coin is flipped and I’ve seen captains looking way higher than its trajectory in the hope that divine intervention will ensure it lands on the right side. It’s then an immediate We’ll have a bat/bowl or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer has asked because he doesn’t know the answer. 

And right on cue the two lines are delivered like two low-level repertory theatre actors with a bit part.

Hmm, definitely a toss to lose. I wish I’d called heads/tails.

Yes, second one I’ve lost this season. I’d have batted/bowled.

Handshakes all round and and the ceremony is complete. But before we head off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fee. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the money to be presented in a sealed C6 envelope with Umps on the front, although I’m not sure the skull and crossbones are also necessary. There is, however, an unscientific cohort of one-skipper-in-ten whose Friday night may have included a drink or two.

He empties his pocket with accoutrements that include items that do not require a plug here (think of a nineteen-fifties barber in a white tunic murmuring about something for the weekend). The payment appears in the form of rolled banknotes that may have been used for nefarious purposes, along with a flyer from the local kebab shop and a betting slip that includes the batting order on the back.