Sometimes there’s not a better way. Sometimes there’s only the hard way. (Mary E. Pearson)
It’s Friday evening and I get a call from the secretary of the League’s Umpires’ Association informing me that my colleague for the game tomorrow is unwell and cannot fulfil the fixture. News without a but can only mean one outcome. He continues: I can’t find a replacement. We are already one down on the weekend roster.
I know the drill for these situations. There are three options: First, I can take both ends with a player from the batting side taking the batter’s end. Second, I take one end with the said player taking the other end. Third, knowing the scorer of the home team is a qualified umpire, I ask him to take an end and find someone else in the club for scoring duties. I know from experience that the only realistic outcome is for me to take both ends. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
During the three seasons of my apprenticeship in the lower levels of the League, I stood many times with players who officiated from the other end when their club could not provide an umpire. And although umpires attached to a club (as I was) are a better option than a player doing the job, there is still the issue of bias. I remember an incident in my first season of umpiring where I turned down an appeal for a caught-behind from my club’s wicket-keeper. After the game he expressed his surprise that I did not give it – adding the revelatory line: I expect our umpire to give those marginal decisions in our favour.
Having a realistic view of my fate actually eases the pressure as I drive to the ground. The home scorer is not keen to don the blouson, so at the toss I tell the captains I will take both ends, stressing that decisions on stumping and run-outs made by their teammates should be based on facts not pacts. And as a goodwill gesture I instruct them to put my colleague’s expenses behind the bar rather than my pocket.
Prior to this game I had only taken both ends in a couple of Sunday friendlies. Those games were more concerned with the brand of G&T available in the bar than winning and losing. A finger spinner sporting a cravat would politely enquire after a ball made contact with the batter’s pad: Out sir? But with points and local rivalry at stake, a discernible tension characterises a Saturday League encounter. Bowlers charge in screaming spittle with their appeals, and the contest is well and truly on. Hence my steadfast determination to do this double shift.
Because of the extra weight I am carrying, the players give me a wider berth on excessive appealing, along with keeping some of the more vocal elements of their respective choirs in check. I tell the scorers I am not keeping a tally of the runs but everything else remains the same, relentless and challenging – just the way I like it.
But there is one thing missing – the Saturday camaraderie with my colleague. Pre-match banter, gossip from the circuit and the occasional walk down memory lane (Georgie Fame versus The Dave Clark Five) before the serious business begins. That’s when we become a team, controlling the game without imposing ourselves on it, confirming that a catch in the slips has carried, a nod after the fourth ball of the over and a post-mortem at the fall of a wicket. With the short walk over to consult missing, it’s a lonesome afternoon.
On the brighter side, watching the comings and goings of the magician’s assistant is always good fun. Clearly they couldn’t find a modern-style blouson in the lost property box amid the jockstraps, batting glove with no partner, sock with two partners and the stag weekend in Prague T-shirt. So my assistants share a knee-length white lab coat (de rigueur fashion for umpires in the nineteen-fifties). It’s comforting to see the batter who has been found guilty (LBW) returning to the square to undertake his community service. I particularly like the makeshift changing of the guard ceremony where, instead of my assistant returning to the pavilion fully dressed, he meets at Checkpoint Charlie forty yards in from the boundary rope and hands over the lab coat to his colleague. And as he stumbles towards the square while buttoning up, he looks like he’s ready for a shift on the Asda meat counter.
Towards the end of the first innings I’m flagging from the combo of both ends and the August heat. I give myself an extra drinks break and the sugar rush from this bright green slime (aka lime cordial concentrate), sees me through to tea. The empty seat on the umpires’ table reminds me that it is acceptable to avail myself of four egg and cress triangles, two mini rolls and three mugs of tea.
The second innings is much easier, mainly because the visitors conspire to lose by a distance with poor shot selections and two absurd run-outs that their own ‘umpire’ at square leg could not possibly turn down (caught on camera with the swag, your honour).
And at the end of the day (literally, not football manager parlance) I am given a warm handshake by players, scorers and the home club chairman. What was a vision of the set of Carrie as I took the call on that Friday evening became It’s a Wonderful Life as glasses were raised in the bar. Sure, it was a challenge, but carrying a simple message saw me through the afternoon. All those years ago, my Level 1 umpiring course tutor opened the first session with these words: Your job is to give twenty-two guys a great game of cricket. Mission accomplished.