Tobacco Road

Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air. (Jack Benny)

In my early years on the Panel, each appointment resembled a cricketing blind date. More Soulmates than Tinder, they were the perfect induction into League umpiring, with the more seasoned colleagues helping me navigate the murky terrain of match management. Older and wiser after ten years on the Panel, I realise just how much I have benefited from being with an Association and  colleagues who always have my back. Club captains may have a different view on umpires (surely not, ed) but we are committed to providing an excellent service.

The courses and training days emphasise the importance of teamwork, but this represents a small percentage of an umpire’s job description. Sure, issues like the weather, behaviour and signalling require collaboration. But essentially the coalface of umpiring is a lonely place that demands intense concentration and commitment. When you are confronted with a raucous LBW appeal that can determine the result of a match, you are on your own.

Being an old rocker, my perfect umpiring associate would be the cricket loving Mick Jagger – but you can’t always get what you want. I’ve collected a vault of knowledge and wisdom from my partners and I get on well with them. One thing that disturbs me is when a colleague walks into the changing room bedecked head to toe in Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) merchandise. My Savile Row umpiring couturier is Primark & Primark – I have no appetite in donating twenty-five hard-earned pounds to the England Cricket Board/Duncan Fearnley sharks for a shirt with a logo when I can have an equally functional garment from PP for a quarter of the price. There is a small cohort of umpires who think like me on this issue, we can’t understand why the ECB thinks its okay to fleece the people who give  so much to grassroots cricket.

But for me, of far greater significance is an umpire who manages the game like a parking enforcement officer on crack. If you like being the centre of attraction, umpiring is not for you. Our role is to serve, not antagonise – the players are paying us through their match subs, so giving a bowler a warning for shouting sh*t after being hit for successive boundaries is in itself deserving of a Penalty Charge Notice. These vigilantes represent a small minority of the Panel and they need to kerb their enthusiasm.

And yes, of course we should conduct ourselves in a courteous and professional manner but a touch of humour helps the afternoon move along nicely. It’s a week after the 2011 Royal Wedding and the opening Saturday of the season. The captain is adjusting the field as the bowler marks his run-up. We’re ready to start and the captain shouts: Come on Will, you know where to put it. I couldn’t help myself: That’s what Kate said last Friday night.

In my second game on the Panel a wicket goes down in the first over. I move over to have a quick chat with my colleague who is hand rolling tobacco. This ceremony is repeated at the fall of further wickets and during the drinks break. The practice may not be recommended on courses and CPD days, but if you want an example of the perfect umpire, look no further. He has complete control of the game, and enjoys maximum respect from colleagues, captains and players.

I’ve seen different colleagues dip into a sandwich, check a mobile phone and conduct a conversation with a friend standing on the square leg boundary. But nothing comes near to the heroic umpire who found himself stationed next to a pile of dog excrement at square leg. At the end of the over he got a plastic bag from the pavilion and ignoring my idea of moving the mess to turd man, he placed it well away from the unsuspecting public.

The best example of teamwork involves a colleague who can see that I may have got a decision wrong and he keeps me on track so I can concentrate on the remaining overs. The game’s going the batting side’s way in the second innings (fifty required, seven wickets in hand) when a sassy finger spinner comes on at my end. Fifth ball of the over I hear a loud nick to the keeper and give the batter out. My colleague confirms it’s a good decision with a discreet thumbs up. The next ball has exactly the same outcome and again my colleague hears the nick (I suspect the noise carries to the car park). Another wicket falls next over, and six-down with fifty to get now has the tension of a marathon start line.

First ball of sassy spinner’s next over and there’s a huge appeal for caught behind, and because bat and pad are enjoying an intimate moment, I’m not sure about the decision. I give the batter out and it is fair to surmise that he is not impressed as the bowler (with a hat-trick) and wicket-keeper are joyously line dancing. I walk over to my colleague:

‘Not sure,’ he says. ‘Maybe pad first, but the first two were definitely out.’  At the end of each over he checks on my mood with signals of encouragement. The batting side get home by one wicket and the captain politely questions the third caught-behind before warmly shaking hands. One thing for sure is that the umpire with fingers the same yellow as a fluorescent tabard would not have given it.

Three weeks later I’m talking to a different colleague in the changing room before a game. He asks: Did you hear about that hat-trick of caught behind the other week?

Guilty!

I umpired the losing team the week after and their wicket-keeper told me the hat-trick ball was a bit of a swindle.

In the town where he plays his cricket, I would imagine that handing yourself in like that is not quite the norm.