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.








Top of the morning

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.






Dramatis Personae (2)

Who Can It Be Now? (Men at Work)
Profiling the cast of League Cricket, The Musical (second in a series)

The Scorers
In twelve years of umpiring I have yet to encounter a scorer who was less than excellent. The geek persona they are often given is complete nonsense. I have never seen a copy of ‪The Galloping Sausage and Other Train Curiosities hanging out of  a scorer’s bag and I have never met one aged fifty-plus who lives with his mother.‬ Their training and assessment is as rigorous as ours and they are consummate professionals.

Approaching the scorebox after each innings is like waiting to be thrashed by the headteacher at school (Chewing gum under your chair in assembly sir? That’s outrageous). But when a scorer points out you have allowed a five-ball over, you don’t get the begging bowl out. Scorers are not to be messed with.

The Drinks Break
If a human addicted to recreational drugs wanted a cheap weekly fix, all he or she has to do is sign up for a recreational cricket club and midway through an innings go through the ceremony of inserting a liquid fix into his or her body. The sugar rush is surely equal to a line of crack. Welcome to the mid-innings drinks break. I’ve stopped requesting plain water because players who bring these jugs of squash (or as I call them, multi-coloured bags of sugar) cannot believe that a human being would actually not want to drink this liquid chemical cocktail. If it was branded by a couple of hipsters sitting on a hammock in their desk pace inside a refurbished shoe factory, naturellement, it would surely be called Sledge.

The Spectators
It’s rare to encounter more than a few people watching a club cricket match – I don’t count dog walkers or Secret Umps’ mates who occasionally flex their cycling muscles to watch another brilliant umpiring performance. I’ve had the occasional exchange of opinion with spectators, the most fractious involving a gentleman who was shouting from the boundary: He’s no-balling.

Reading these wise posts, you will be aware that Secret Umps is a voice of reason and tolerance, ready to impart goodwill to all men and women (and like my Welsh mate who does not know whether to identify as a man or woman, those who are gender Clwyd). But if there is one thing that gets my goat it is seeing a grown man wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. So at the end of the over I rounded up Mr Other-Umps (it’s posh our League) and we approached the said fashion troglodyte.

He’s no balling, I can see it from here.

Look mate, your not even square to the wicket and good luck to you if you can see the bowler’s front foot from here because I can hardly see the line myself. Enjoy the game and leave the umpiring to us. Oh, and your tie needs straightening.

Overseas players
In our League there are players who come from all parts of the cricketing globe. A few are club pros whose passage is paid by the club and they enjoy a lovely English summer coaching and playing.  Can I have leg stump please sir? asks the South African club pro taking guard. I put the idea of calling me Sir to Mrs Umps and I must say, after being on the receiving end of her negative response, the A&E department worked incredibly hard to free the 240mm trussing needle that had penetrated my abdomen.

I remember an Aussie pro telling me after a game that down under his colleagues show more respect to Messrs Umps than English players. But such is my admiration for the local hearty souls that frequent the pavilions of league cricket, I find that assertion from a Pom incredibly hard to believe.

The Kids
Before my self-imposed exile on friendlies and matches other than Saturday League games, I umpired a few school matches and a couple of county U17 games. Yes, it’s great to see the stars of tomorrow strutting their stuff and occasionally we have a youngster turning out in the League.

When I say youngster, I mean 12-15 and those are rare on the circuit. But cricket is a meritocracy and there are some very good young players who have the ability and temperament to play in adult cricket. When I was serving my apprenticeship in the lower Leagues on behalf of a club, I would sometimes take a lift with the skipper and when youngsters were present, the level of banter noticeably changed from the  dregs of the gutter to a bingo caller in a Darby and Joan tea party.

I really messed up one youngster’s debut. Standing at square leg I did not get out of his way quickly enough and he spilled a difficult catch. But there was no gerund from him, why he even inquired if I was all right having taken a tumble trying to give him some room. I’ll wager that his grandfather never left the house without a pair of leather gloves.

The Bathrooms
I think it’s reasonable to expect a cricket club to provide a decent hot shower after each game – and most do just that. I think it’s poor form to chat to captains and players after a game wearing the same sweaty slacks and blouson. Despite some fairly old pavilions and clubhouses, clubs do their best to keep the lavatories clean but there is nothing worse than coming off the field with a magnificent sunset behind you (think The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro) only to find the remains of the tea break floating in the bowl. Still, in these difficult economic times, some clubs are more flush than others.






Hamlet with the wince

It was a sign of low-rent origins, of inferior social status, of poor choice. (Tom Wolfe)

Before I became an official Level 1 Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) umpire, my perception of a cricket club chairman was based on an actual post holder in a club I played for. A retired solicitor and average cricketer, this chairman sported a double breasted blazer (occasionally with a cravat) grey slacks and the finest leather brogues with tassels. He would attend all the home games of the firsts and seconds and nursing a G&T would talk lovingly about amateur football matches he attended with his father, including the 1951 Amateur Cup Final.

Perceptions, however can be a slippery slope. The reality is that the modern club cricket chairman is representative of a wide range of backgrounds and dress codes. I’ve seen chairmen in T-shirts and shorts firing up a John Deere mower before putting the finishing touches to a wicket. I’ve seen them get out of cars that are even worse than mine (although I do have the number plate UMP51; UR 0UT was unavailable). And these days a chairman is likely to be nursing a pint of lager and using the occasional gerund, especially when their prize Aussie import whose passage was paid for by Mr C has been sent packing with a marginal LBW.

What I liked most about my old club chairman was his use of the word winter as a verb. At the last match gathering when, even if we were playing away, we would return to the clubhouse to say our goodbyes, the chairman always said winter well in his end-of-season speech. And these days, at the beginning of an umpiring season, I am occasionally asked: winter well umps? Which, to quote the gentleman from the Fast Show, is nice.

The three seasons I spent in the lower divisions of the league learning the umpiring trade were invaluable. On the pitch it took me around three overs into my first game to realise that an absurd appeal for LBW was simply a test of how easy it was to be cajoled by the fielding side. Everything else fell into place quickly; a cacophony of noise from wicket-keeper, slips and long leg for a caught behind that missed the bat by around a foot; run-out appeal when the wicket-keeper broke the wicket with the ball nestling by his foot; an ex-pro well into his fifties asking me politely at the end of an over why I had turned down an LBW, when his view was from mid-wicket; the best is saved for last, an incoming batter telling me I was not standing behind the wicket as he looked on from the pavilion located at cover point.

But nothing prepared me for senior school more than the encounter with a club chairman in the middle of that first season. It was an away game for the club for which I was umpiring. We all know that this situation is by no means perfect, each side provides its own umpire and yes, given what I have written above, you might not be surprised that an occasional decision is given in favour of your team.

The chairman game (as I subsequently called it) was evenly poised when I gave out  a batter from the opposition who was going well. It was an LBW decision – close but perfectly legitimate to call (pitching on off, impact on middle and off and in my humble opinion, heading for leg stump). It is true that as I got more experienced and studied the profile of bowlers delivering wide of the crease with the ball missing leg, that I may not have given it.

The batter was unhappy and at the tea break he was waiting for me, presumably not to discuss the refurbishment of the pavilion. I was desperate for a cuppa and carbs, and politely told him I was happy to discuss the decision after the game (which, incidentally, his team won).

The player did not appear for the post-match handshake and for me today that would be an immediate Level 1 Unacceptable conduct felony. But after the shower and paperwork with my colleague I went to the bar where the club chairman invited me to step outside with him. In my misspent youth I had seen enough Edgar Wallace to understand what ulterior motive precipitated the request.

This chairman was a long way from Chairman Winter Well. For double breasted blazer and grey slacks read BHS sale; for shoes read one of those local high street outlets where you are overcharged at £12 a pair, and for demeanor read Hamlet 5- pack cigar, tie with stained shirt unbuttoned and – wait for it – a blue T-shirt under the said white shirt (that’s bound to get you swiping right on Tinder and it’s none of your business how I know about this).

But step out I did and the chairman took a deep breath.

Mind if I ask you a question? (As if my response would make any difference).

Are you a qualified umpire? 

Actually, yes, which makes me a rare breed at this level of cricket.

Then why did you give our guy out when the ball was missing the f*****g leg stump?

Because it pitched on off, impact was on middle-and-off and I judged it to be hitting leg.

(Lighting up Hamlet) You haven’t got a clue mate.






The bases of umpiring

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. (George Orwell)

I have a vivid memory of watching my first live baseball match at Shea Stadium, New York, in 1978. I had worked on a kids’ summer camp and it was the night before three mates from the camp and myself embarked on the famous Route 66 New York to Los Angeles road trip. Having grown up watching the sedate world of county cricket, here was an entirely different bat and ball proposition, a night of razzmatazz with hot dogs, a seventh inning stretch appearance of TV dog Lassie and the pitcher being transported to the mound in a golf buggy that resembled Liberace’s bathroom. That’s just not cricket, you may say. But forty-plus years on, it is exactly what cricket has become with IPL. And I believe the game is better for it.

At Shea Stadium that sweltering August night, I remember the packed house under floodlights, the moment where time stood still before the pitcher swivelled into action, the endless possibilities from each pitch and the uniforms that respected the traditions of baseball.

However much you love a particular sport, a referee or umpire is nothing more than a functionary and until I understood the significance of that word, I took some hard knocks.

Before and after a game there is much to do. I leave Umps Towers at 10.45am and return around 8.45pm. Around two of those hours are taken up with travel with a further two hours of umpiring duties before (checking the pitch, boundary, overhanging trees, captains’ briefing, toss) and after (paperwork, a drink and discussion in the bar).

Then there is the small matter of officiating six hundred balls. In the bad old days you would regularly get county and Test matches where two hundred represented fast going in a day’s cricket. With heavier bats and six-pack physiques the pace has quickened but there are times when there is not much action. While some of the younger players on the circuit like to tee off from ball one, most batters understand that watching from the pavilion is not as profitable as building an innings in the middle. I like these unremarkable passages of play – numbers on the scoreboard may not be cranking over but the tension is palpable. I can imagine a few bowlers desperate to accompany the look they give a batter who was ready to have a go but thought better of it with the immortal Dirty Harry line: Go on punk, make my day.

Those six hours on the field demand concentration, judgement and decision-making skills. The combination of Laws, League regulations and player management duties is a tough assignment and an umpire cannot afford a ball off duty (including at the striker’s end). I have developed a routine – it is interesting that the times I have been found wanting usually come when I deviate from it.

The bread and butter stuff is now hardwired into my system as I hear the bowler approaching. I’m watching for back foot; front foot; where the ball pitches; where it is going onto; is the bowler running into the protected area; is the ball legal; does it meet the criteria for a possible LBW or caught behind; is it a wide ball? Oh, and all this inside a couple of seconds – so no pressure.

Some balls are delivered, left alone and go through to the wicket-keeper. Others are defended and dribble out a few feet. Some are thumped to the boundary, others are nudged to a place where no fielder is in place for a single. Some balls ignite the action button so I position myself for a run-out. Others demand a judgement on whether a catch has carried to a fielder. Like the pitcher moment of truth at Shea Stadium, the list of possibilities from the ball leaving a bowler’s hand are endless.

Aside from the routine of remembering the weekly shopping list above, I also look over to my colleague after every ball (in case he has spotted something) and take a couple of paces out of my office while updating my ball counter and run clicker. And then at the end of the over, I fill in my scorecard while keeping an eye on the behaviour of the players as they cross for the next. (If you have been a follower of this blog you might have noticed that players sometimes have differences of opinions, and not only with the opposition).

Fans provide passion, players entertain and we umpires are functionaries that enable the game to flow. It is when umpires bring emotion into their work that problems arise. Failure is unforgiving. You can be on top of the minutiae with the ball counter, run clicker, scorecard and over rate. But a fall from grace can come from nowhere.

Such an incident occurred late in the season in a game where both sides had an outside chance of promotion. It was the second over of the first innings and the batter had hit consecutive off drives to the rope. He hit the next one straight and I triggered to jump out of the way. But in his follow-through the bowler got a finger on the ball and inadvertently diverted it onto the stumps. I gave the backing-up batter not out. It was a bad decision.

The batter only got a few runs and it had no effect on the game. But I had a bad day because I could not get it out of my mind. And here lies a truism about cricket umpiring. The magic of the moment from Shea Stadium is not a panacea of joy and poor decisions are accidents at best and bad judgement at worst, waiting to happen.  You have to be equally alert for every ball and base your judgement on knowledge of the Laws and your experience as a player and umpire. If you get wrapped up in emotion then you are simply projecting the role of spectator into the role of umpire.

Of course these split-second judgements are difficult. We are not paid the big bucks (steady on, ed) to have a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine. I wasn’t expecting the bowler to get a finger to the ball, I was off balance, I saw the backing up batter get back, but I didn’t see that his bat was not grounded. I thought he must have got back. And I learned an important lesson – when anything can happen, it will.









Heavy mettle

God, I hate judgmental people. They’re so mean…and fat.  (John R. Lindensmith)

One of my earlier cricket memories was watching the late Harry Pilling batting for Lancashire in the nineteen-sixties. Harry was a diminutive sportsman but in over two decades he knocked up north of fifteen-thousand runs. And let’s not forget that one Donald George Bradman came in at around five-and-a-half feet and retired with a Test average just south of a hundred.

The Venezuelan baseball star Jose Altuve who played Major League with the Houson Astros said this: In baseball, it doesn’t matter if you’re tall, skinny, fat, whatever. If you really have talent and you really love to play, I feel like you can make it. And this is certainly true of a select group of players on the cricket league circuit who fall under the umbrella of carrying a few extra pounds.

When I was younger I played squash at club level. On one memorable occasion I played against an ex-pro in his early fifties who who was more portly than I suspected he might have been in his serious playing days. As this ex-pro peppered the four walls from the middle of the court, I was like a mouse in a psychology experiment scampering around in a meaningless pursuit of the ball. The guy’s hand-eye coordination more than made up for his excess weight, making the exercise a literal chaste experience.

I have written on this blog about the exceptional improvement in fielding over the past ten years. And even with today’s boot camp fitness and the younger players  strutting their abs, there is still good representation of XL cricketers around the League. And I believe this is something to be extremely proud of.

In my youth cricketers were more generously built than today’s players. You wouldn’t give much hope for the likes of Colin Milburn and Colin Cowdrey and later on Mike Gatting in the modern era. In their day fitness was measured in how many pies and pints could be polished off before, during and after a day’s cricket and I am sick of hearing variations of Gatting being spotted having a triple cheeseburger with large fries. I saw him get a county hundred once and I cannot recall a better example of the total humiliation of a fielding side. So who cares if Gatt liked a slice or three of Black Forest gateau?

These cricketing greats would never have countenanced the dieticians, psychotherapists and media officers on today’s county and international payrolls. Not for them a pre-match group hug or bonding week on an SAS retreat, a pre-season amble around the county ground with a Silk Cut behind the ear was the fitness modus operandi back in the day. And despite their wide girth – or in the case of Milburn possibly because of it – they still delighted fans with their immense batting prowess. But in today’s era obsessed with fat shaming, what would social media make of Australian cricket icon Warwick Armstrong nicknamed The Big Ship and weighing in at 133 kilos at the beginning of the 20th century?

It is interesting that I have yet to hear any XL player on my watch to be sledged about their weight although it has not stopped overt criticism of their batting ability. It may well be that in a League cricket circuit where everyone knows one another, that there is respect for the cricketing ability of these players. And make no mistake, as with my humiliation on the squash court, I have witnessed some extraordinary hitting from these stand-and-deliver merchants. Pressing home the point that the cricket text books are wrong and you don’t have to move your feet, these hand-eye warriors can thump a cricket ball a very long way. Accumulating singles, twos and threes is not for them. Aside from wasting their time with running,  this nickel-and-dime short change is not as profitable as the jackpot of the boundary rope.

It is not only acumen with the bat that raises eyebrows. The majority of the XL League cohort are posted at first slip or long leg where they generally remain for the innings. But it is not unusual to find a hefty village blacksmith patrolling mid-off and covers which can be a toxic environment when a batting side let loose in the final few overs of an innings. As a size-friendly sport this is where cricket comes into its own. Of course an overweight fielder is not going to have much chance in winning a race with the ball to the boundary. But with a knack of knowing where the ball is going as soon as a batter plays a shot, these canny fielders arrive at the point where ball meets fielder at exactly the right time to pull off some great stops. It has got nothing to do with weight and everything to do with a knowledge and feel for the game.

Which brings us to Rakheem Cornwall, who plays for Leeward Islands and West Indies as well as being a regular in the Caribbean Premier T20 League. Tipping the scales at 140 kilos, the talented all rounder was described by one of the all time greats Andy Roberts as ‘a real talent’. Yes, he will need to shed a few kilos to get to a better level of fitness but the only thing that really matters is that he is an international cricketer, not just a fat bloke. Like my League, Cornwall serves as a role model for young players who show promise and whatever their weight, will always be welcome in cricket.







Captains’ blog

I prefer to sail in a bad ship with a good captain rather than sail in good ship with a bad captain. (Mehmet Murat ildan)

Mike Brearley demonstrated that you don’t have to be a great cricketer to be a great captain and I am regularly surprised and impressed by the tactical acumen maturity of captains in the League. Unlike most other sports where captaincy is more or less a simple ceremonial call of head or tail, a cricket captain is required to juggle a number of plates (over rates, discipline, morale boosting and creative thinking) as well as perform with bat and/or ball. Cricket captaincy is an art, not dissimilar to umpiring where managing people is as important as knowing the Laws or having a feel and understanding of the way the game is going.

Example 1: Sometimes a captain takes a punt and brings on a bit-part bowler who is only playing because one the regulars is apparently down with what I call SWIPS (Stag-Weekend-in-Prague-Syndrome). The makeshift bowler’s two wickets for few runs does not win the game, but it does check the spike in the runs conceded column. Example 2: Placing a fielder in a position yet to be covered in the coaching text books might bring a surprise catch. Example 3: Calling back the star pace bowler to clean up the tail becomes a nightmare as the blacksmith and a university undergraduate throw caution and their concrete bats to the wind hitting thirty-plus in a slapstick ninth-wicket stand. There are many more such examples in the Secret Umps vault.

Captains come in all shapes and sizes – lawyers, plumbers, teachers, estate agents, PR consultants to name but a few of the day jobs. From Hooray Henrys to firefighters, the skippers represent all rungs of the social and professional class ladder. Yes, the old Gentlemen versus Players fixture is a thing of the not so distant past, and I am pleased to report that in our League meritocracy defines captaincy appointment and long may that continue.

Over the years, I’ve had full and frank discussions over key decisions (including an unfortunate snub by a skipper at the post-match handshake following a protracted on-off-for-rain dispute). But I’m going to say this loud and clear. Every captain I have umpired knows the game of cricket inside out. Unfortunately, that quality alone does not make a good captain.

Rather than getting tetchy about losing the toss or a bowler serving up the occasional long hop, a good captain focuses on what he can control. Keeping up with the over rate, organising field placing, and keeping an ear on unacceptable banter.

A cricket captain is a player, tactician and mentor before, during and after a match. The best cricket captains think before they act and are not emotionally affected by decisions that go against their team. Bad captaincy includes straying into the role of victim (aka interpreting umpires’ decisions as a personal slant) and collecting incidents throughout an innings as a bartering tool for retributive justice. I’ve had the pleasure of being at the bowler’s end when a captain who is bowling screams howzat after he makes a right mess of the batter’s wicket. In the bar after the game he acknowledged that this kind of thing was unnecessary, but sporting an Emoji-style expression he reminded me that that a few decisions had gone against his team.

I like it when a captain uses us as a reference point for decisions to be made: How many overs has Blondie got left? Can the kid have one more in this spell? Are we behind on the over rate? And I like it even more when a skipper acknowledges the bleedin’ obvious. The lip (get at him Blondie; nice one Blondie) between balls is becoming tiresome so I have a quiet word in the skipper’s ear and it ceases for the rest of the innings. I note a player late for a game parks his car over the boundary rope and we have a quiet word with the captain – the car is moved back.

I know it’s hard to believe but occasionally Secret Umps has been known to make a mistake on the League Regulations, (but never on the Laws). The fielding captain pointed this out with the diplomacy of a Harvard-educated official presenting his credentials to the Court of St James. With the greatest respect umps, (I already like the cut of his jib) I thought we agreed on two drinks breaks.

The post-match bar is the perfect setting for improving. Back on Civvy Street after a decent shower and with a pint of soda water and lime cordial I regularly seek out the captains for an informal debriefing. It is the time and place where I listen and learn. I’ve seen captains become feverish about one delivery (out of six hundred) not being signalled as a wide while not being seemingly perturbed by an opposition refusing to walk when given not-out.

And here lies an important issue for umpires. Each captain brings his temperament to a game of cricket and reacts accordingly. Provided his and his team’s behaviour are congruous to the Laws of Cricket, I don’t care if his persona is chirpy or miserable. Umpires need to understand that we are dealing with human beings in stressful situations and not impose ourselves on them. In the post-match bar chats, captains who see a bigger picture on how we performed are umpiring gold. So when a skipper tells us we should have taken charge of the opposition’s continuous banter or us not giving enough feedback on over rates we can take that on board the next Saturday and beyond.

On the other hand, a captain who internalises a decision to the extent he reminds me of it the next time I saw him (a year later), are less helpful. But I still took the reminder in the best spirit.




















Mrs Umps – just one more thing

An ideal wife is any woman who has an ideal husband. (Booth Tarkington).

A few months ago while having dinner with Mrs Umps and our younger 20-year-old son, I recounted a telephone conversation I had that day with someone I knew through work. He told me he had a relation who worked at the Donald Bradman Museum in Bowral, Australia. My son asked: Who is Donald Bradman? I politely placed my cutlery on the plate, digested a portion of Mrs Umps’ delicious flan and answered: The greatest cricketer of all time, to which my son replied: That’s why I’ve never heard of him. 

Despite originating from a distant land with no cricketing culture (there is however a thriving recreational League which I played in), Mrs Umps did know something about Bradman. Maybe she had looked at our bookshelves or remembered vignettes from my cricket banter with mates. You know the moral-high-ground warriors I am referring to, railing against Sky Sports getting the rights to broadcast but happy to watch the action on someone else’s TV, conveniently ignoring the fact that I had been donating a monthly fee to the Murdoch clan. And being a far kinder soul than myself, Mrs Umps always provides a cuppa and plain chocolate Digestives for the guys (I draw the line on her sharing her sumptuous apple crumble).

Regularly featured in these missives, Mrs Umps has deserved this posting dedicated to her. And this particular baton has been passed onto me by Lieutenant Columbo and his iconic television detective dramas in which Mrs Columbo is always lurking, but never actually seen.

It became the joke of the neighbourhood. If the umpire ruled me out on a bad call, I’d take the fake eye out and hand it to him. Peter Falk, who played Columbo, was of course referring to baseball with this quote. But I sometimes wonder if the cranky detective with his grubby raincoat and clapped-out car would have made a decent cricket umpire. I imagine a blouson that had never been washed, a white shirt that was allergic to irons and six cheap cigar butts as ball counters. And despite his floundering persona, I am confident that the Lieutenant’s umpiring decisions would be forensically watertight with him adding his catchphrase just one more thing as he gives a disgruntled bowler his cap at the end of the over: Sir, with the angle you’re bowling from, no LA cop is going to give you an LBW.

Unlike Mrs Columbo, who in my humble opinion should have been more proactive in improving her husband’s unkempt demeanour, Mrs Umps understands the connection between a scrubbed-up official and good decision-making. She ensures I turn up to each murder scene (calm down, it’s a club cricket match, ed) looking like a dapper George Sanders with a pressed shirt and slacks. Given the number of times I have forgotten a watch, extra bail, ball counter, sun cream and scorecard, she has instigated a pre-match checklist (not having a clue what each item actually is, let alone what it is used for). And because she is a stickler for these things, she will also make sure that the blouson pockets are emptied after the game. (I have nothing to hide, and anyway, would I be stupid enough to put the telephone number of the racy tea lady from a certain club in my blouson pocket?) Lieutenant Umps would see right through that kind of ruse.

As I prepared for the Level 1 ACO examination all those years ago, it was Mrs Umps who navigated the Holy Bible of Umpiring  to ensure I was preparing the right answers (and while I am on the subject, the LAPD would be all over the lousy graphics that came with the test). Post qualifying,  in the early days when I’d get home after a fraught session with a touchy captain, Mrs Umps would be fussing over the cottage pie after pouring me a glass of the very best white purveyed by Aldi’s top sommelier.

Why do you put yourself through it?

Because I love cricket.

Sometimes I think you love cricket more than you love me. (Long pause).

I would hazard an informed guess that ninety-nine per cent of the umpires on the panel are in the fifty-five-plus age bracket. The largest cohort are made up of umpires like myself who have done a lot of marriage time so anything said in the changing room (think broom cupboard) comes as no surprise.

One hearty soul I occasionally stand with has no post-match cottage pie and wine welcome – his  regular Saturday Night Fever is a Chinese takeaway purchased with a portion of his match fee. Other umpires have stories about having to do the cooking themselves with their wives trotting out the ubiquitous If you’re out all day enjoying yourself then I’m going out to enjoy myself (as if anyone would dream of stopping them). I never get wound up by that kind of thing.  I love cooking anyway, but if Mrs Umps is out, I can be sure something enticing is waiting to be heated.

So thank you Mrs Umps, the intelligent, creative and cultured woman I married all those years ago. Like Mrs Columbo, you are not seen or heard but without you and thousands of other cricketing wives, League cricket would simply not survive. As for my younger son, the apple has fallen in another orchard and it was when I chauffeured him and his mates to a gaming exhibition that I understood my life had become totally meaningless.


Covid Cricket – vaccine lyrical in the Summer of Love

Summertime will be a love-in there. (Scott McKenzie)

It was good to get a few games of cricket during the pandemic. (Note to self, possible opening line of a novel?) Forgoing a post-match shower and drink in return for officiating eight matches was an easy compromise. With a spring in my step I arrived oven ready for each of the assignments.

I was impressed with how the clubs ensured the safety of players, umpires and scorers before, during and after matches. The cricketing community pulled together to defeat the Covid invader and ensure pavilion bells rallied players and umpires to take up their positions on village greens.

Throughout the truncated season, an atmosphere of reconciliation over conflict prevailed. So good was the etiquette on and off the pitch,  I wondered if a passing spectator might actually be the editor of Debrett’s scouting for punters. And while I prefer the real deal of tension and attrition chronicled in most of these posts I am cognisant of American comedian Jackie Mason’s line: When you get a bill for twenty five thousand dollars from your heart surgeon, you are in no position to argue. And anyway it was good to have a few games of Gentlemen versus Gentlemen.

The additional new edicts for Covid Cricket included how batters should run between the wickets. It was obvious from the first over of the first game that the plan was not going to work. Persuading a batter whose Pavlovian trigger over the past ten, twenty and thirty years had been to run on the off side of the wicket and  suddenly requiring him to run on the leg side is like asking Mrs Umps to give up a Netflix rom-com so I can watch America’s Toughest Prisons (I would think twice before no-balling those guys). Resourceful batters who couldn’t kick the off-side trigger habit conformed by going very wide of the bowler. With the appropriate distancing achieved, by using this common-sense batting and umpiring approach there was no need for reports, fines, suspensions and other deterrents.

Sanitation breaks (which I announced as sanity break) were taken every six overs and it was good to see the batters and bowlers gel (I’ll get my blouson). Umps did not handle the ball; wicket-keepers did not rebuild the castle after a run out or stumping; at the fall of a wicket fielders settled for an elbow nudge rather than a high five; the post-match handshake resembled a masonic initiation ceremony and home clubs did not provide food or drink. I rather enjoyed not having a club tea – on Friday evenings I prepared a healthy alternative spread to the usual carbs feast (although I could not resist including a generous slice of Mrs Umps’ lemon drizzle).

For me the most positive aspect of Covid Cricket was not having to act as an on-field gentleman’s butler. We were instructed not to carry players’ items, passing this burden onto fielders who would balance their bowling colleague’s cap on top of their own and manage the other paraphernalia. A less than scientific estimate suggests it might have saved around ten minutes per innings in not having to go through a Laurel and Hardy routine of accommodating and returning sweaters, sun hats, caps and glasses.

The behaviour of players was exemplary during this cricketing summer of love. On one occasion, after coming off for rain and not going back, both captains displayed a consonance of mutual affection I had never previously encountered. There are a few players on the circuit who should put Picking fights in an empty room as a quality on their CVs but this season’s pandemic brought out the very best human traits in our charges. I found myself physically and spiritually liberated in this parallel cricketing universe where umpiring became an out-of-body experience. By the third Saturday I had swapped the blouson for a caftan and replaced my ball counter with six incense sticks. But I refused to say groovy when placing the bails onto the stumps.

With pavilions out of bounds (save for the lavatories) players got changed outside.  This gave us respite from the Glastonbury-like sound systems pumping out grunge  (the poison of musical choice that occupies contemporary cricket dressing rooms). If in years to come they take up umpiring, I would doubt the veracity of caught behind decisions after their ears have been pummeled by that racket.

What this summer has taught me is that you can take the sweaters and caps off the Umps, expect batters to run down a parallel street, sanitise hands with gel and not touch the ball. But whatever apocalyptic virus is sent to test humanity, League cricketers are hardwired to enjoy a pint or two after a game. So while no player entered the pavilion bar, post-match pails were ordered and quaffed outside. It was indeed a very British queue.

And despite the more genial vibe prevalent during Covid, a raging bull did occasionally crash through the pen to remind us what League cricket is, and indeed should be, all about. My favourite moment of the summer came on the penultimate Saturday. A heavily built quickie bowled a yorker which hit the batter on the front pad. The bowler’s humongous LBW appeal sounded and resembled an elephant’s orgasm, the stampeding frenzy continuing for a good few seconds after I turned it down. But the bowler eventually picked himself up from his begging position and as he walked past me he confirmed what myself, the wicket-keeper and the editor of Debrett’s already knew: Going down leg umps?

Now that’s more like it buddy. Great to have you back.











Days I’ll remember all my life

What was our life like? I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly. (Richard Ford)

From an early age I had grabbed the football and cricket baton from a sports-mad father who spent many a car journey talking about the two occasions he saw Donald Bradman bat, how he blagged his way into the 1951 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Blackpool and how he was offered a trial at the age of seventeen as a goalkeeper for a Second Division club – but apparently he wasn’t good enough.

In the summer of 1967, at the age of eleven, I went with my parents to Bude in Cornwall for our holidays. We stayed in one of those grand old seaside hotels that provided a resplendent afternoon tea with a resident pianist, followed a few hours later by a hearty four-course dinner (different pianist) and a B-list maître d’hôtel sporting a stained tunic.

The hotel boasted a snooker room with a full-size table. At that time I had seen snooker a few times on our black and white television (yes I’ve heard Ted Lowe’s comment a thousand times) but I had never seen a table live. My dad hung up his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and chalked a cue before rattling off a fifty-something break. I was enthralled as he potted the reds and colours with perfect control of the cue ball.

You never told me you were any good at snooker.

You never asked.

I was okay at football and cricket and at sixteen I persuaded a local cricket club to give me a few games that became three seasons before I left home to make my way in the world. I got some runs, wickets and catches and it was in one of my earlier matches that I got on the wrong side of an umpire for the first (and last) time. I nicked the ball to the keeper but instead of walking, I waited (you never know you may get lucky). After a few seconds the umpire shouted Are you walking sonny, or are you going to make me give you out? This act of humiliation stayed with me the rest of my cricket career and from that day I understood the rules of engagement  (which of course have no connection to the Laws of Cricket).

Nearly fifty years on, and with the boot on the other foot, I give an LBW in which the impact of ball on pad was middle and with the straight delivery continuing its merry way to halfway down middle stump. I get a look from the batter that suggests that my decision will ensure I spend the rest of my life in a dark, windowless room spending all day and night swapping six pebbles between the pockets of a white coat. Someone is angry.

In my playing days, a game of cricket was a liberating experience, an afternoon and early evening full of promise and camaraderie. I always remember the captain’s poignant advice the first time I went out to face the music: If you and your partner are still there, we can’t lose the game. So don’t even think about hitting the ball off the ****ing square. With my head over the ball and allowing bad deliveries to go past the bat I earned the nickname Stonewall Jackson for my ability to grind it out at the crease and earn a draw. I look back on those days as a privilege – the changing room banter, tension in the middle, post-match revelry and smutty jokes on the way to matches. I knew my limitations but I was desperate to jump over the enticing one hurdle that mattered, scoring a half-century.

It happened in 1978 in a pre-season friendly, batting for my university against a local technical college. I was playing well and had reached twenty-something when a finger spinner came on. Ignoring the words of wisdom from my previous captain I got greedy and mistimed a straight drive. I was ready to embark on the long trudge back to the hutch but fate was on my side as the bowler somehow contrived to drop a fairly easy catch. I accumulated another twenty-plus and completed my fifty with a straight off drive for four and repeated the same shot next ball before holding out at mid-off. I can tell you more about that knock than what I had for breakfast today.

If space wasn’t limited I would also tell you about running a marathon, scoring some cracking goals in five-a-side football (I’m still playing at sixty-something) and regular squash matches at club level. I also tried golf but I was completely useless, save for another holiday snapshot. Playing with Mrs Umps on a pitch-and-putt in Norfolk I only went and hacked a seventy-yard three-bounce hole in one. When returning the clubs, the guy from the leisure department of the local authority was not impressed with my demand for a Toyota Avalon, or failing that, a tailored Green Jacket.

My love of sport is confounded however by an insignificant cohort of doom-mongers on the League cricket circuit who choose despair over joy. We come off for rain – Come on Umps, it’s nowhere near bad enough to come off (an hour and a half later they win under a cloudless sky). We call (or don’t call) a wide and out of the bottle jumps the overused term consistency as evidence of an umpire’s alleged incompetence. Then there is the anger displayed over just about anything; a run-out call, dropped catch, batters talking too much between overs, lousy balls that last five overs, scoreboard two overs behind. If only Carlsberg did picking a fight in an empty room….

Compare this with a growing number of gifted teenagers who get regular games with their clubs in the League (some of them also playing representative age-group county games). Talented and driven, their eyes are dancing as they savour every moment of the match experience. Emulating their mentors with bat and ball, they have no bone to pick with Umps; they’re having such a good time, they’re having a ball, just as I did all those years ago.

They will carry the baton for at least thirty more seasons, accumulating runs, wickets and experiences that they to pass down to their children on car journeys. They will tell their young teammates to enjoy every moment of every game and respect everyone on and around the village green. And when they raise their bat for the last time, they might consider giving something back to the game that has given them so much. They may even choose to train as an umpire.