Keepers of the peace

History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts (Ian Fleming)

The game ends with a win for the fielding side. I am at the bowler’s end when the final wicket falls. I walk back to collect my bowler’s marker (why bother, they are under a Sov each on Amazon, but still…) and then see the wicket-keeper approach me. I assume he is not best pleased about the two caught behind decisions I did not give: Thanks umps. I know you have given up your Saturday (he clearly does not know Mrs Umps) to come and give us a game of cricket and I just wanted to say how appreciative we are that you have been our umpire today. Tempted as I am, I don’t respond with a paraphrasing of the Peter Cook line: Shoot me down in flames if I err, but do I detect a note of sarcasm in your voice? Honestly mate, I’m not up for a discussion on Who’s the boss daddy.

Then there is the keeper who gets into a strop after I turn down a run-out: He was two foot short of the crease….Yes, he was. But you dropped the ball from the fielder and then broke the wicket. (His team’s scorer gave me a thumbs up as he had witnessed the episode from the score box at deep square leg).

Occasionally there will be a cat and mouse keeper engaging in white collar fraud. I’m at the batter’s end, keeper is up to the stumps to a military medium bowler. A couple of balls come through, collects them and the ball makes its way back to the bowler. Same again next ball, keeper collects, but then waits….and waits….and waits for a nudge of the batter’s back foot…and then takes off bails. Sorry pal, the ball was dead ten minutes ago. This kind of episode is thankfully rare and should not be confused with waiting a split second in the expectation of movement from the batter. I have given a few of them out but they are not easy to call. And a keeper who gets the bails off in a flash and then charges towards the bowler for a high-five not really knowing if the batsman’s back foot has not moved from its position is not going to be on top of  Mr & Mrs Umps’ Christmas Card mailing list.

Every club cricket umps reading this will have experienced what I call a Fright Night wicket-keeper. More Janet Leigh than Godfrey Evans, their screams reach the boundary and beyond and should I not agree with their kangaroo court decision, then the collective mob (the other ten in the field) are ready to lynch Secret Umps (steady on, two Hollywood classics in one paragraph? ed). It works both ways, fellas. You should hear some of the comments made about certain clubs at the end-of-season umpires’ meeting and the subsequent sharpening of our pencils. Okay guys, blousons and pacemakers at the ready, we’re going to march on (name of club here).

There are also some keepers who are clearly double agents spying for their clubs and the local umpires’ association. I made contact with one such agent in my first season on the panel. A huge appeal for LBW goes up from the opening bowler (I could see it missing leg stump). The bowler and his captain at mid-off (perfect view from there skip) are united in their outrage while wicket-keeper George Smiley gestures to the leg side and silently applauds my decision. Later that evening we meet in a nearby Tesco car park where I gave him a quarter of my match fee and we discuss some of the underhand tactics of Stasi CC.

And here lies a paradox. Despite the above, wicket-keepers are the heart, soul and engine of a cricket team. I can point out a number of batters and bowlers on the circuit who regularly produce the goods. But wicket-keepers are a class apart because I honestly cannot remember a bad one (other than when stringers come in while the first choice gloves man is on holiday). And while dropped chances and missed stumpings are rare, brilliant catches in front of first slip and amazing hand-eye coordinated stumpings are de rigueur for these guys. Wicket-keepers take a lot on the chin for the team, throwing themselves to off and leg to save wides from wayward deliveries becoming more embarrassing for bowlers; risking broken jaws as throws come in at a half volley on a minefield of a square; taking on slip duties for the last few overs of an innings; advising skippers on field placings (keepers are particularly adept at this) and even managing to strike a professional relationship with the batter with an occasional quip between balls.

After twelve years on the circuit I have learned that most keepers are likely to be appealing for the right reasons. A good keeper doesn’t need confidence trickster on his CV. And with modern technology, wicket-keepers can see that a caught-behind which looks black and white has a few shades of grey with the noise coming from a ball making contact with a batter’s trousers or pads.

Which brings me to the cricket confession box. It’s nineteen seventy eight and I’m keeping wicket for my university against another university. Early on, the ball is nicked low to my right and I catch it. The batter stays in his ground asking the umpire to make a decision on if the ball had carried. He confers with his colleague and gives the batter out. As we congregate waiting for the incoming batter, my skipper says: Great catch, but did it really carry? I replied with a wink.