The truth is in the middle of funny and serious. (Steve Coogan)
If I had to write a ten-word slogan to entice people into umpiring, it would be this: You can’t beat the joy of an afternoon’s League cricket. Looking back on many years of marriage, I should have recorded every occasion Mrs Umps had given me a coating, but I can’t afford a petabyte of storage. And quality certainly beats quantity in my on-field fun anecdotes collection which adorns my old scorecards and notebooks. Being a jealous type, Mrs Umps once challenged me about writing Excellent tea!! in my notebook assuming this was code for some post-match revelry with Brenda (my anonymity is not compromised here – every tea lady on the circuit is called Brenda). Don’t worry my dear, two exclamation marks is a reflection of Brenda’s delicious jam sponge, not her crumpet.
It’s a cold and windy early May afternoon in which sweaters and heavy bails are required (I always carry a pair of heavy bails – you never know when you may get lucky). The wind then decides we also have to dispense with their services and so we allow the stumps to go commando. I’m at square leg when the ball hits bat then pad before gently rolling onto the wicket. The wicket-keeper is in hysteria mode and I confirm to my colleague that the ball has indeed hit the stump. He sends the batter packing (bowled) but the young man has not abandoned a warm duvet and young bride to have the remainder of his Saturday ruined. With ice frothing on his beard, he puts down his crampon and starts a discussion.
Come on umps, that would never have dislodged a bail. You can’t give it out.
In this case, the velocity of the ball hitting the stump is totally irrelevant (although you do need an appeal, which is always readily available from the barber shop quartet behind the stumps). The batter may well be an expert on the laws of physics and when he types into a search engine No-bails-bowled-touches-stump, he may also become a tad more proficient in the Laws of Cricket.
Can you tell the keeper to stand back umps? He’s not supposed to change where he stands. No. I can’t. I can watch for the keeper and his gloves getting in front of the wicket, but I’m not a personal trainer advising him on the best place to position himself.
A bowler who is courting the popping crease asks me to warn him if he is getting close to delivering a no-ball and I am happy to oblige. The sales executive holding a bat gets busy: Not your job umps, take no notice. Interestingly, when I tell a batter he is standing a distance from the guard he originally requested, I have not heard a fielder complain.
The home side are making merry against some average bowling. A couple of balls go missing in the wooded area behind the boundary rope. The third time it happens, the visiting captain is not keen on any of the used balls on offer. Do you really want us to award the match to your opponents because you are refusing to play? Or will you choose a ball and we carry on?
It’s tough out there in the middle. The job spec highlights The Laws but doesn’t mention concentration, the soul of umpiring. I’m in the zone from ball one to ball six hundred. From time to time it’s good to get out of solitary and enjoy some banter with fellow human beings. Take these peccadilloes noted during ball searches over the years:
Our first slip got fifty thousand followers on Tik-Tok after he posted a video of his grandmother playing cricket in lycra shorts on Skegness beach. (It’s classy, our League).
You won’t believe what happened umps, I left my phone in a minicab last night. They found it and I’m collecting it after the game. (Without that happy ending there is no way I can get any sleep tonight).
Last season, we went looking for a lost ball in the woods, and we saw a couple, well you know, behind a tree. (So that’s three lost balls).
Did you hear what happened on our club tour to Cornwall two weeks ago? (No, but I presume the umps were to blame).
The douze points for this particular entertainment contest goes to the afternoon wedding party in the village church opposite the cricket ground. We started play at one, by half-past they were man and wife and by quarter past two the photos were finished.
At square leg I had the perfect view of the party coming out of the church. We never learn, I mused. And then it hit me. They chose the village church because there was a pub within walking distance and its upstairs room would bear the brunt of the action, not the cricket club pavilion.
The visiting side were fielding and spent the next over discussing the possible modus operandi (more like operandy) of the couple’s night ahead. I won’t go into the minutiae, suffice to say that contemporary young adults have more crusading options than were available in my boring missionary days.
The fun really started around four as we were coming off for tea. I don’t know why the party came en-masse to the cricket ground, perhaps the upstairs room was being prepared for the evening buffet and entertainment (karaoke with the village blacksmith, yes the same one I have sent packing throughout this project). Filled with fuel, the wedding party’s conga line included the vicar, organist and photographer and was accompanied by a rousing rendition of The Engineer Song before the troupe formed a guard of honour to applaud players and umpires into the pavilion.
The groom, with a tie around his neck and his index finger pointing north, approaches me and slurs: Mr Umpire, you’re out! And at that moment I have a vision of Mrs Umps at the tundra of Ikea searching for a doormat and a new duvet cover for the spare room. Congratulations! I say and with my colleague make my way into the pavilion for a well-earned cup of tea, and a generous slice of Brenda’s jam sponge.