It was such a lovely day I thought it a pity to get up. (W Somerset Maugham)
It was one of those Saturdays where Mrs Umps pulled rank on the car for her occasional jolly to the tundra of Ikea, so I happily made my way by public transport. I had inherited my late father’s punctuality gene – on my mother’s side promptness was defined by arriving at an airport as the plane taxied to its take-off slot. Like my father, I prefer to be two hours early than one minute late and that’s how I found myself on a ten-minute walk from a bus stop to my umpiring appointment a good hour before my colleague would be arriving – and two hours before play is called.
There is nothing more enticing than a club ground on match day, especially when there is the promise of sun and a gentle breeze. On public transport I have the luxury of a book (as opposed to one of those wretched screens that have taken the pleasure out of reading) and I am always happy to walk north or south of a mile from a bus stop to the day’s assignment.
The clubhouse is locked so I park myself on a bench and reflect on how fate has dealt me the kindest of blows, a wonderful summer’s day to be spent officiating a League cricket match. And in two hours, with the sun beaming down on freshly mown grass and a wicket that looks irresistible, I will walk out to the middle with my colleague to uphold a sporting tradition of nearly two hundred years.
At around eleven the clubhouse slowly wakes from its slumber. The captain and his father arrive in a vehicle that exudes status and which puts my eleven-year-old jalopy, now in an Ikea car park, to shame. The father, with whom I enjoy a professional and courteous relationship, is the home club’s long-standing chairman.
Hello umps. First time here this season?
Yes, how are you doing?
Mid-table, as usual. Just to let you know we still haven’t fixed the shower hot water so it will be an army one today, if you don’t mind.
He takes off his jacket and tie and swaps his luxurious wheels for a John Deere wide area mower and heads for the outfield while his son opens up the clubhouse.
And in the following hour the remainder of the home team, the tea ladies, the home scorer and the club barman turn up, each person’s unpaid job description hardwired into their Saturday home game routine. By the time I normally arrive at a ground (an hour before play), the hard work has already yielded an oven-ready cricket match.
The chairman has done some preparatory work on the strip during the week so the wicket only requires a touch of icing and the outfield, already resplendent before he jumps onto the John Deere, is now perfectly fit for purpose. The boundary rope which is not as white as when it was purchased, has spiked plastic flags every few metres to help ascertain whether the ball has crossed the line; the tea ladies are almost ready to add the sandwich fillings; after a rudimentary stock-take, the barman empties the mini-dishwasher from last night’s social; the home scorer checks the electronic remote control panel is working; the liquid sugar fix jugs (drinks) are in the fridge; the match balls are brought to our changing room and the stumps are in place.
And then the visitors’ five-car convoy parks up and their scorer gives my colleague their team sheet. I go to the home changing room for the paperwork. The room is fired up with banter as one chap, back from his honeymoon in the early hours of the morning, sheepishly enters the changing room to a rousing rendition of Oh Sir Jasper Do Not Touch Me. (I was tempted to join in myself but why kick a man when he is down?)
Welcome back Nicky! says the skipper (Nicky is not his real name but apparently he is regularly caught in the slips). Would you like to go down the batting order? I think I can safely say that the last two weeks will be the first time you have used your head. When you get in the queue for the innings break grub, you’ll realise that getting married is like a cricket tea buffet. You choose what you want and when you see what your mate’s got you’ll want some of that as well. And from the corner of the dressing room the Karl Popper of League cricket shares this pearl of wisdom: My missus made sure we got married in the summer and then didn’t let me play a single game for the rest of that season.
It’s now ten minutes to twelve and my colleague arrives. After the pleasantries, we get onto the umpires’ equivalent of the Peter Kay taxi driver routine.
Where were you last week? Who were you standing with?
Yeah, he’s one of the best on the panel. Did he tell you you about his divorce?
Yes. I wouldn’t mind having a natter with him.
Was the home keeper up to his usual tricks? I reckon the behaviour is better than last year.
Couldn’t be much worse. We will/won’t/get trouble today.
Is the hot shower fixed? I was here on the first day of the season and the shower was colder than a penguin’s chuff.
I think you might like to mark the facilities now. Home team’s opening bat Nicky is back from his honeymoon.
I thought he had more sense. Couldn’t see your car when I parked up. Your missus in Ikea again?
And out we go to look at the wicket, outfield restrictions (overhanging trees) and have a quick briefing with the scorers. Then we we call the captains over for the toss. It’s going to be the perfect day.