If you aren’t going all the way, why go at all? (Joe Namath)
A few years ago I attended a talk by Paul Baldwin, an umpire on the First Class panel and one of the few to have reached the peak via recreational cricket. He started out umpiring on an RAF base in Germany in 1989 and became a First Class umpire in 2015. Baldwin’s friendly demeanour, along with his excellent communication skills made for a terrific evening. A rare example of coming through the recreational ranks, Baldwin certainly resonated with Secret Umps and I particularly liked his take on umpires’ mistakes: Don’t let it affect the way you umpire the rest of the game. Just don’t do it again. I went home with a spring in my step.
I think it was in my fourth season of umpiring that I got an invitation to umpire a match at Lord’s. You would be right in asking why an umpire at my modest level of qualification would be invited to officiate at the home of cricket. Surely there is a hierarchy of ability which would leave me kicking stones at the bottom of the pyramid and taking cold post-match showers in the second and third tiers of a recreational League for the rest of my days.
I was invited to the Lord’s gig through my work, which is another way of saying I know someone who holds a senior position in a national charity, and he knows I am a qualified umpire. But really, Secret Umps at Lord’s? I mean, would you go to a newly qualified dentist to yank out a wisdom tooth (or in my case, have one put in)?
When the invite arrived in my electronic mailbox I was very excited and pictured myself walking in the footsteps of Bradman, Botham and Richards through the Long Room with a packed members’ enclosure raising their bacon and egg sunhats as myself and my colleague walked onto the ground. But as with all illusions of grandeur, the reality was not quite as glamorous – the gig was on the Nursery Ground (where players have nets before a big match) behind the now not so new Press Centre. So in the space of a few lines of an email I had gone from headlining the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to doing a cover of the guitar solo from Sultans of Swing in my bedroom.
I can imagine the fuss Mrs Umps would make if did I were to umpire a packed house at Lord’s. Her iron would be steaming like Stephenson’s Rocket, my white cricket shoes would be like George Raft’s spats in Some Like It Hot and instead of a hairy ar*e Primark white hat I would be sporting a one hundred pound Harvey & Hudson Panama. (Imagine telling the insurance company you had left a Harvey & Hudson in the changing room of a club cricket pavilion – I can see the groundsman typing in ebay as I write this).
And to make the Lord’s experience even more exciting my colleague is a personal favourite on the circuit. Nicknamed Spreadsheet (possibly because of his wideish XL girth) he loves his Saturday umpiring and shares my definition of officiating as enabling twenty two players to enjoy a game of League cricket.
Being a down to earth character, I wouldn’t let the windfall of a Lord’s appointment change my lifestyle. I’d still take the Sports Direct rucksack with an old tin of Spanish chocolates filled to the brim with my match-day melange. I might consider buying a half decent overnight case so as not to embarrass the concierge while checking in at the Danubius Hotel next to the ground. I would of course expect to pay more in its Pavilion Bar and Grill for food and drink than I normally pay at a Wetherspoons Curry Club night (Thursdays, highly recommended if you have been vaccinated). But really, fourteen pounds for a glass of wine and a draft San Miguel? For that kind of money you’d get at least another three drinks in a Spoons’ round even if the sell-by date on the draft faucet is in Roman numerals.
I doubt I will ever umpire on one of the beautifully manicured Lord’s strips (there’s not much chance of me staying at Danubius, Regent’s Park either). But one of my methods of ensuring one hundred percent concentration in a League game is imagining I am standing at a packed Lord’s with Dennis Lillee or Jimmy Anderson speeding in to bowl while at the other end Tom Graveney or Vivian Richards are waiting. These iconic cricketers are the souls in the shoes of my weekly blacksmith and insurance underwriter so Mr Umps, you’d better be at your best. No thinking of what grub Mrs Umps is serving up tonight, the chances of your team avoiding relegation when the football season starts in August or the whether one of the tea ladies will strike up a conversation (please do not let Mrs Umps see this). And whatever the reaction from bowler or batter, I know I’ve got an appeal right or wrong when I imagine Jonathan Agnew and Phil Tufnell analysing it on Test Match Special.
Agnew: Another great call from Secret Umps.
Tufnell: Yeah. We could hear that nick to the keeper from the stump mic. I think dear old Secret’s edging closer to that Elite Panel.
I regret to announce that the Lord’s story ends on a sad note. Persistent rain in the week leading up to the Nursery End charity gig forced the game to be postponed the day before the event. My contact emailed me ending the message with Next year, perhaps. I am left feeling like Madame Loisel the superbly crafted protagonist in Guy de Maupassant’s classic short story, La Parure. I may never get to walk through the Long Room and I feel cheated. I honestly believe I do possess the skills to carry a Jereboam of champagne to the bacon and eggs members in the pavilion.