It was a sign of low-rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor choice. (Tom Wolfe)
Before I became an official Level 1 Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) umpire, my perception of a cricket club chairman was based on an actual post holder in a club I played for. A retired solicitor and average cricketer, this chairman sported a double breasted blazer (occasionally with a cravat) grey slacks and the finest leather brogues with tassels. He would attend all the home games of the firsts and seconds and nursing a G&T would talk lovingly about amateur football matches he attended with his father, including the 1951 Amateur Cup Final.
Perceptions, however can be a slippery slope. The reality is that the modern club cricket chairman is representative of a wide range of backgrounds and dress codes. I’ve seen chairmen in T-shirts and shorts firing up a John Deere mower before putting the finishing touches to a wicket. I’ve seen them get out of cars that are even worse than mine (although I do have the number plate UMP51; UR 0UT was unavailable). And these days a chairman is likely to be nursing a pint of lager and using the occasional gerund, especially when their prize Aussie import whose passage was paid for by Mr C has been sent packing with a marginal LBW.
What I liked most about my old club chairman was his use of the word winter as a verb. At the last match gathering when, even if we were playing away, we would return to the clubhouse to say our goodbyes, the chairman always said winter well in his end-of-season speech. And these days, at the beginning of an umpiring season, I am occasionally asked: winter well umps? Which, to quote the gentleman from the Fast Show, is nice.
The three seasons I spent in the lower divisions of the league learning the umpiring trade were invaluable. On the pitch it took me around three overs into my first game to realise that an absurd appeal for LBW was simply a test of how easy it was to be cajoled by the fielding side. Everything else fell into place quickly; a cacophony of noise from wicket-keeper, slips and long leg for a caught behind that missed the bat by around a foot; run-out appeal when the wicket-keeper broke the wicket with the ball nestling by his foot; an ex-pro well into his fifties asking me politely at the end of an over why I had turned down an LBW, when his view was from mid-wicket; the best is saved for last, an incoming batter telling me I was not standing behind the wicket as he looked on from the pavilion located at cover point.
But nothing prepared me for senior school more than the encounter with a club chairman in the middle of that first season. It was an away game for the club for which I was umpiring. We all know that this situation is by no means perfect, each side provides its own umpire and yes, given what I have written above, you might not be surprised that an occasional decision is given in favour of your team.
The chairman game (as I subsequently called it) was evenly poised when I gave out a batter from the opposition who was going well. It was an LBW decision – close but perfectly legitimate to call (pitching on off, impact on middle and off and in my humble opinion, heading for leg stump). It is true that as I got more experienced and studied the profile of bowlers delivering wide of the crease with the ball missing leg, that I may not have given it.
The batter was unhappy and at the tea break he was waiting for me, presumably not to discuss the refurbishment of the pavilion. I was desperate for a cuppa and carbs, and politely told him I was happy to discuss the decision after the game (which, incidentally, his team won).
The player did not appear for the post-match handshake and for me today that would be an immediate Level 1 Unacceptable conduct felony. But after the shower and paperwork with my colleague I went to the bar where the club chairman invited me to step outside with him. In my misspent youth I had seen enough Edgar Wallace to understand what ulterior motive precipitated the request.
This chairman was a long way from Chairman Winter Well. For double breasted blazer and grey slacks read BHS sale; for shoes read one of those local high street outlets where you are overcharged at £12 a pair, and for demeanor read Hamlet 5- pack cigar, tie with stained shirt unbuttoned and – wait for it – a blue T-shirt under the said white shirt (that’s bound to get you swiping right on Tinder and it’s none of your business how I know about this).
But step out I did and the chairman took a deep breath.
Mind if I ask you a question? (As if my response would make any difference).
Are you a qualified umpire?
Actually, yes, which makes me a rare breed at this level of cricket.
Then why did you give our guy out when the ball was missing the f*****g leg stump?
Because it pitched on off, impact was on middle-and-off and I judged it to be hitting leg.
(Lighting up Hamlet) You haven’t got a clue mate.