Strangers on a train

I’m afraid to move for fear of getting some of the world on me. (Sergio De La Pava)

I’m at the batter’s end in the first innings and the ball has been smacked over point for a one-bounce four and landed in the heavy rough beyond the boundary.

I like to get the housekeeping sorted around the issue of where to stand early on so as not to compromise the view of the square-leg. fielder. When a pace bowler is on duty and the keeper is standing back, it really is no problem for me to accede to the fielder’s request that I move back so he can have some space of his own for a catch or run-out.

Over the years I have exchanged pleasantries with many square-leg fielders, mainly about the weather, the fortunes of the England cricket team and occasionally in the second innings a Trip Advisor-style rating of the tea.

The search party for the lost ball was on and as I was about to consult with my collegue about the time to add on when my young co-actor sidled over and said: Mind if I ask you a question umps? You are more experienced in life than me. I’m thinking of proposing to my girlfriend, what do you think?

So the umpiring training I had gone through, the exams I had passed, the three seasons in the wilderness of the lower divisions perfecting my technique (steady on) and subsequent postings on the league Panel had now reached their zenith as I am asked by a player to advise him on one of the most important decisions of his life. Up to that point I thought my role was to control a game of cricket, give 22 guys a great afternoon out and interpret the 42 Laws according to my experience and expertise. Now I am an Agony Uncle.

I was certainly capable of giving such advice – assuming Mrs Umps is not reading this I may for instance have said: Imagine, young man, you were facing the raw, hostile and brilliant fast bowling duo of Sir Wesley Hall and Sir Charlie Griffith without a helmet on a wicket that was doing a lot. And as he pondered the analogy I added: At your age, I would advise you to keep your library card rather than make a one-off purchase in Waterstones. As luck would have it, the ball was found and as it was making its way to the bowler I gave the entirely professional response: I’m not the person you should be asking a question like that. Let’s concentrate on the game.

Fast forward a couple of years to the day after the 2016 EU Referendum. We had just finished a drinks break and my batter’s-end co-conspirator had barely said a word to me despite our paths crossing for around eight consecutive overs. And that’s the way, aha aha, I like it – a courteous professional relationship that may occasionally cross a line with a discussion on the England cricket team.

We were walking back to our little office around square-leg when the guy (mid-thirties) said: Bloody mess [the Referendum] umps. They are never going to be able to sort out these negotiations. And it’s going to cost the country billions. Again, my response was to-the-point saying we were both standing where we were in order to play and officiate a game of cricket. But I did have a lengthy chat with the guy in the bar after the game and went home to explain the intricacies of legal negotiations as Mrs Umps served up a delightful cottage pie. (I should add that she has no knowledge of cricket and has never been to a game but like myself, she was greatly disappointed with Referendum result).

Then there was the day Mrs Umps had the car and I made my way to the match by walk/train/walk. I enjoy this way of travelling as I can have a pint after the game or read a book, or just go through the key decisions without the intense concentration that driving demands. My umpiring colleague did me a turn by giving me a lift to the station, thus saving me a mile’s walk.

I boarded the train and was immediately confronted by another difficult umpiring decision. A player whom I had sent packing with a caught-behind was in the carriage. I could tell from his expression that he hoped I would sit with him and I enjoyed a lengthy conversation about the decision and umpiring in general. I often get a feeling about whether a decision was right or wrong in the manner a player who I may have given a marginal decision against shakes my hand after the game. Over the years maybe five players have refused to shake my hand which is a pretty good record for the three thousand players I have umpired in 10 seasons.

This player (whom I had not umpired before) was disappointed with the decision but he walked off without incident and shook my hand with grace after the game. On the journey home we discussed the decision in some depth. He was sure the ball had clipped his pad going through to the keeper (who was standing back) and I heard and saw an edge, as had my colleague who confirmed he thought it was out.

What I particularly liked about this guy was his ability to construct an argument while understanding and respecting an opposing viewpoint. He also gave me important feedback regarding inconsistency of decision-making regarding wides, no-balls and the criteria for coming off for bad weather. This was not relevant to me personally but I have often remarked to colleagues that we can only get better if we listen to what players think and say about us. We know about this in our association and we are given excellent training each year to ensure we are striving for consistency.





Change of pace

Deadlines just aren’t real to me until I’m staring one in the face. (Rick Riordan)

Sports Science degree question: There are two medium-pace bowlers with similar actions. Bowler A gets through an over in around three minutes; Bowler B gets through an over nearer to five. Discuss.

This conundrum regularly plays in my mind as I make the journey home after a game. First of all, let us explode the myths as offered by League cricketers in the bar after a game: There must have been six lost balls that cost us 10 minutes; wickets were tumbling throughout the innings (maximum respect for astute observation); come on umps, we had to rearrange the field with that right-left combo smashing it all over the park; we weren’t that slow; So what if our opening bowler has a long run-up, why should he shorten it?

I take a no-nonsense approach to slow over rates – there is no need for it at any level of cricket. I don’t understand why the ICC does not come down harder on violation of its its expected 15 overs per hour in Tests and 50 overs in three hours for an ODI innings. Yes, things do happen in cricket that stop the natural flow – injuries, lost balls and a camel walking across the square (more on that another time). But there appears to be some kind of expected norm among some clubs that starting tea at 4.15pm when the first delivery started spot on at 1pm is perfectly acceptable (note, that even the most recalcitrant of captains accepts that a 4.20 tea is taking the proverbial).

It is nearly 2pm and the bowler is starting the 13th over, at the end of which I remind the captain that the rate needs to speed up. Don’t worry umps, we’ve got two spinners coming on. If I had a pound for every time that excuse was used, I’d be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean flicking cards into a top hat. The two long-spell spinners certainly had shorter run-ups but in their attempt to find a perfect spot for nine colleagues to stand they may as well have started in the next village.

Of course, all of this nonsense should be sorted out before the players take the field, but with music blaring out a wall of noise as they get changed, there is no chance of discussing the minutiae of who goes where with a right-left batting combo, or indeed what field the opening speed merchant will bowl to.

This organisational felony is compounded by league cricketers who think of themselves as senior players gatecrashing the discussion between skipper and bowler. The result is an over of finger spin that should take three minutes actually taking another 10 per cent of the bowling time because every two balls mid-off should be closer/further out/a tad squarer/actually let’s try a silly mid-off/you know what, let’s go for a second slip. The wicket-keeper is regularly involved in this kind of nonsense with a Masonic-like signalling to the mid-wicket fielder to move back a couple of feet (occasionally, the signal is replaced with Joe, give yourself five just as the bowler is starting his run-up, an expression that makes me want to leave the proceedings and join Mrs Umps at Ikea.).

Then you have a collective can’t-be-ars*d team mentality where at the end of the over, instead of getting ready for the first ball of the next set of six, we have hands in pockets sauntering to their posts with a discussion concerning the work promotion prospects of the wicket-keeper.

Naturallement, Hide becomes Jekyll when the captain finally realises that the rate is now eight overs in 20 minutes. And in an amazing transformation, the fielding side are working like a well-oiled machine. But of course, league cricket protocols demand that the batting side, sniffing the opportunity of a penalty coming to the fielding side, start their own 1970s-style workplace go-slow.

Batting time-wasting is quite an art with a brazen approach to keeping the game static as the batters bring out the deckchairs and two Gin-Gin Mule cocktails when they meet for their end-of-over powow. And League cricket would surely be all the poorer if we got rid of the right of the batter to demand a Werther’s Original wrapper that is hovering around point to be trapped and destroyed. And we can’t let the ubiquitous batter time wasting tactic is it okay if we have a quick drink umps pass without a mention. No problem young man, but it ain’t coming off the fielding side’s allotted time.

Amid this doom and gloom resides the majority of Saturday cricketers not looking for an edge (other than the ones they should be looking for). And it is more than a shame that the few spoil it for the many. We can’t teach captains how to behave, but it is our job to guide them towards an outcome that keeps the game moving and enables us to enjoy a long-awaited cuppa as close to 4pm as is possible.

I speak for all my colleagues when I say we appreciate the efforts of captains and players who do the right thing and get on with their job. And to the players who spend an eternity to get the ball back from wicket-keeper to bowler, or the batters who bring out a Karcher draining pump for their gardening, I do concede that taking a long time over certain tasks in life can actually add to frisson of the assignment.

But not when I am desperate for a cuppa.





Tales of the unexpected

Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing. (Chuck Noll)

For the sake of a discussion let us assume a league cricket match can last for 50 overs per side and that win, draw or tie are on the table. Most games follow a similar pattern where the team batting first build up a decent score (say 250-plus) and the team batting second don’t reach the target but don’t lose all their wickets, depending on the League Rules, such situations end in a draw.

Of course, the team batting second can chase down 300-plus in fewer than 40 overs – I’ve seen that happen. And the team batting first can be bowled out for around 100 and still win the game.

The most significant aspect of cricket is watching a story develop into something that is both unexpected and interesting. In well over one hundred League games I cannot remember an umpiring decision that changed the course of a match. But I can remember some significant shifts of fortune that changed the tempo and ultimately the result of the game. We all remember such heroics – Ian Botham (1981) and Ben Stokes (2019) at Headingley in Ashes Tests are two memorable examples of wins against huge odds.

A similar dynamic can also happen in League cricket, but in my experience it is rare. Usually, a team chasing 250 will not win but also should not lose. There may be unexpected collapses that cause a defeat or an occasional heroic knock that swings the pendulum. But the key point about cricket is its inclination to deliver the expected denouement. Poor bowling, dropped catches and opposition batters in form combine to enable a decent first innings score. And on what is regularly a wearing pitch that takes some spin, it is not going to be easy for the team batting second to win, but it could be a surprise if they lose.

Sometimes the difference between a well-fought draw and hard-to-take defeat comes down to one attribute that is at the heart and soul of cricket – concentration. The population of League cricketers includes a myriad of personalities bringing different approaches to the game. There are cricketers who may have shown some promise as a youngsters but who are happy to enjoy their afternoon without breaking into a metaphorical sweat. Some make a living from mundane desk jobs and when Saturday comes they transform into obsessives once they cross the boundary rope.

The difference between winners and losers (and I class saving a game as a win when it looked all over) is the amount of concentration a club cricketer can muster. So the right kind of batters who need 25 off three overs with two wickets in hand can find a way of coping with pressure and waiting for the bad balls to see their team through to at least a draw. Similarly, a bowler who hasn’t turned his arm all season and is called up to replace an injured colleague can somehow find the confidence to prevent the win for the opposition.

You see the difference in the guys whose concentration cannot be compromised. I remember one young batter who came in at seven down and guided his much more experienced partner through to a fairly comfortable draw. I asked the young man in the bar afterwards what he does as a day job. He was a junior doctor in A&E. For this player, the transference of skills from saving lives to the challenge, concentration and story that must have a happy ending are part of the DNA that this remarkable cohort of players possess. Natural talent is ineffectual if a player is unable to convert it into points for his club because he loses concentration.

Cricket is no different to other sports in its ebb and flow. A batter hits a quick 30 and bowlers take three or four wickets in a five-over spell. But having the ability to control the outcome of a game is beyond the capability of most players I encounter. One game that springs to mind was one I played in around 1975. I was still a teenager playing in a competitive league and we were hanging on for a draw. I came in at eight down and my partner who ended up with a match-saving unbeaten 50 guided me through some pretty torrid bowling. The most important aspect of that match was how he raised his game by keeping his head down.

I did as I was told, barely getting the ball off the square – we saved the game not only through our own efforts, but also because our opponents did not concentrate enough in getting one of us out. They were waiting for us to make the error and that was not going to happen as everything went our way (including two LBW appeals against me that must have been close).

This kind of attritional cricket is about determination, bottle and endurance. And it is also about having the ability to tap into understanding your own ability as a player. In all levels of the game, it is the guy who calls on his bank of knowledge and experience as a bowler or batter – the thousands of balls he has delivered or played – and not letting a moment of madness get anywhere near his consciousness.

I have a lot of time for these players.








Stuck in the middle with you

I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that’s why. (John Steinbeck)

Imagine going on a blind date and the prospective ‘partner’ is a disappointment. You like rock and roll, s/he likes country; you like a pint, s/he likes a short; you say potato while s/he says potarto. But you can’t call the whole thing off because you are umpiring League cricket match together. When the fielders and batters are out in the middle you have to put your musical differences to one side and get on with the game. So whether you like the snap, crackle and pop of Kristina Maria (Let’s Play) or the Caruso of Pop Roy Orbison (It’s over) you are thrust together for the sole purpose of giving 22 people a great afternoon out while ensuring the Laws of Cricket are adhered to and interpreted appropriately.

It has taken me a good few years to know the roster of umpires in the League. And as with any kind of cohort of humans there are some I would like to ‘see again’ and some who don’t rock my boat. But there is one Constant (to name a former Test umpire) – I have the utmost respect for every colleague I stand with because they are all present or former cricket players who qualified as umpires to give something back to the glorious game.

After three years umpiring in the lower divisions of my league  I was apprehensive, to say the least, when I presented myself for duty for my debut Panel game. It went well, I think, despite an LBW I turned down that might have been a tad harsh on the bowler. But that day was the start of a very positive relationship with the 50 or so colleagues I have stood with over the years.

Yes, there have been disagreements about light, state of the pitch, did a certain ball go over waist height on the full and should we have a gentle word in the captain’s ear about whether the keeper’s gobby approach to incoming batters (after all, we wouldn’t want to hamper his chances of being listed in Debrett’s).

The hour or so I have with my colleague before the first ball is bowled is the best part of the umpiring experience. The ceremony is pretty much the same each week. As we squeeze into a space about the size of a red phone box we catch up on the  gossip and compare notes on behaviour. Then comes a few minutes on our respective Mrs Umps (she says I love cricket more than I love her). And then onto the serious business of how we will deal with Law 42 issues, wide balls and ensuring the over rate ticks along nicely.

There is no better feeling that walking out with my colleague five minutes before play starts, placing the bails on the stumps, counting the fielders and giving the ball to the skipper (I always give the ball, throwing it is disrespectful). As soon as the bowler begins his run-up to deliver that first ball, myself and my colleague are in full concentration mode.

Communication is key. Sure, we signal after four balls that two are left but I like colleagues who make eye contact after every ball. A glance is enough – the equivalent of comedian Peter Kay’s three rings sketch. And as if multi-tasking with a bowler’s two feet, where the ball has pitched, impact on bat before pad is not enough, we also keep a record of the score, bowlers’ overs, junior bowlers’ limitations. So it is good to have a workmate to share the burden of guilt when I see I am two runs short of the scoreboard total.

Of course, the quiet nod that a slip catch has fully carried or you were right to give the run-out is very useful for quality assurance purposes. And getting together at the fall of a wicket to tick boxes and reminisce about the kind of shot we would have played in the seventh over a match instead of the departing batter’s attempt to hit the ball into the next village or in some cases, a suburb of the nearest metropolis.

When umpires agree on the basics, the afternoon and early evening go well. But there are occasions when it is not the collective angst of players who are testing my patience, rather it is my colleague. A good football referee is one who is not noticed, a bad one who is noticed too much. The same applies to cricket. An umpire who imposes himself or herself on the match thus turning the cricket experience into a playground for his fiefdom is not going to last long on the circuit. I have seen umpires cross that line in the sand and become obsequiously pally with a particular player or getting on a high horse to demand satisfaction at ten paces from a player he has clearly fallen out with.

At the end of the cricket day, you and your colleague enjoy a drink courtesy of the home club (unless you have sent the captain packing with a dubious run-out).  From the pavilion you look onto the square as the groundsman tidies up the loose ends, the sun is about to set and a splendid Mrs Umps dinner awaits you at home.

The partnership with your colleague has gone well, you have have both worked damn hard and have earned the respect of the captains, and through them the players.

Put simply, it is a good umpiring.




Two sides of the same coin

Let your handshake be a greater bond than any written contract. (Steve Maraboli)

There is no greater sporting ceremony than the captains of England and Australia cricket teams meeting next to the wicket ahead of the first Test in an Ashes series. A moment that celebrates cricket’s past, present and future greatness, the toss proudly announces that the protagonists in the greatest rivalry in world sport are about to lock horns again.

I treat the pre-match League cricket ceremony with a similar reverence, usually arriving earlier than the hour before play stipulation of the League. The assignment of checking overhanging trees, sight screens and pitch markings can wait until my colleague arrives, so I change, don my Panama and join the posse inspecting the wicket.

My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion when you know nothing about the topic, his wise words resonate when it comes to the tittle-tattle of how the wicket is going to play. Over the years, I have seen tracks that look like a minefield providing the perfect balance for bat and ball, and those that resemble a newly laid athletics track play like the beach in the Battle of Anzio.

Compared to the frenzy before a Test match, where former captains provide a workshop on soil erosion as they press car keys, coins and an occasional JCB digger into the surface, the League cricket equivalent is fairly tame with the club captain and chairman in quiet reflection as they peruse the strip. Before I arrive at the square, they will have already decided what to do should the coin land the right way up.

As the game’s preparatory ceremonies unfold, other stakeholders make the pitch inspection pilgrimage and the word from both camps is that this is going to be a good toss to lose (code for each captain does not want to be guilty of making a wrong decision). Unlike football and rugby where the toss is a ceremonial ribbon cutting exercise to determine which team will kick-off, the cricket toss can have a big influence on the result of the game, even before a ball is bowled. 

The general consensus is that it’s better to bat first, with runs on the board adding pressure for the side batting second. So on a day where there is little or no cloud and the pitch looks like a road (cricket parlance for a good batting surface) it would be surprising for a captain to put the other side into bat. But as anyone who has traversed Manhattan will testify, not all roads are equal, and I have seen a few winning outcomes for captains who decide to bowl first under good conditions for batters.

Half an hour before play, the captains join us in the middle. It’s rare that a League cricket match will not follow the same procedures of a Test match with captains sporting a blazer and cap. But really, the young man who appears on the square with a club blazer is doing himself and the club no favours with the accompanying training shorts and flip-flops. And as if we don’t have enough meaningless statistics in our regulated lives, some bright spark has estimated we make fifteen thousand handshakes in a lifetime (it must be true, I read it online). And top of my out of order list involves people whose handshake is like a cheese sandwich in a goldfish tank. While a bone crusher greeting may be a tad uncomfortable, at least it displays a modicum of respect and it always leaves me with a positive impression. 

The pre-toss banter between the captains is more scripted than improvised. Stock lines include asking where we had officiated last week (I can barely remember what I had for breakfast); reflecting on the Kiwi bowler who is out of action for a few weeks; how the club has literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory twice this season; how consistency has been lacking; how difficult it is to get a team together so we are struggling a bit today (aha, some reverse swing psychology making its way onto the village square). And if I was a betting man, I would lay the house on one of the skippers responding to our pre-match talk about Law 42 (players’ behaviour) with the Pavlovian: You won’t get any problems from us, umps. (After the game I make a note that Kaiser Chiefs’ I predict a riot is available in the bar’s jukebox). 

The coin is flipped and I’ve seen captains looking way higher than its trajectory in the hope that divine intervention will ensure it lands with a result. It’s either an immediate we’ll have a bat/bowl or there is one of those uncomfortable pauses you find in job interviews when the candidate repeats the question the employer has asked because he doesn’t know the answer. 

And so the ceremony is complete. But before we head off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fees. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the money to be presented in a sealed C6 envelope with Umpire on the front. But there is an unscientific cohort of one-skipper-in-ten whose Friday night may have included one too many. He empties his pocket with accoutrements that include items that do not require a plug here, along with my payment in the form of creased banknotes and a betting slip that includes the side’s batting order on the back.








The best, simply

Ah, and you, just keep it classy, dude. (Em Pitts)

A few years ago I was in a hostelry with a friend watching the League Two football play-off final. After half an hour minutes of this frenetic, route-one free-for-all, my friend said: The laws are the same, the shirts are similar and there are twenty-two  players on the pitch. But this is not the same game that is played in the Premier League.

Becoming a Panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to officiate some very good cricketers. The dearth of quality in the lower divisions – where two balls an over might trouble a batter – transformed into quality cricket with four decent balls out of six, spectacular fielding and an aptitude to build an innings.

Our match fee, which just about covers fuel and a meal deal, comes with an occasional bonus when a batter crafts a century or a bowler chooses that day to produce a magical spell that suggests he has the ability to go far in the game. It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoned fours that stick in the mind. Leg-side nudges, balanced cover drives, shot selection (including leaves outside off stump) and perfect judgement of runs and the temperament to build an innings that combine to enhance the watching experience.

These nuances separate the bish-bash spear-carrying Romans from the few Charlton Hestons on the League circuit. Yes, cricket is certainly a hand-eye co-ordination sport and there are plenty of village blacksmiths who can clear a sight screen before getting caught (literally) with their hands in the Pick ‘n Mix trying to pinch a few more sweets. You can’t display hand-eye natural talent from the pavilion, but you can get to three figures if you know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leggie who is giving you a hard time, in the knowledge that your batting partner has worked him out.

One player who regularly scores well, gets my batting nomination. Under my watch, he scored two centuries, both model innings for aspiring club cricketers. An opening bat, from the first over he takes charge with a trademark yes, one (or two), along with a sound defence and the full repertoire of boundary shots on the font and back foot. And he knows how to get the best value out of his time at the crease, cruising at a steady speed before moving to the outside lane, without lbreaking the speed limit. I’ve also seen him get out early. His reaction is to walk off without the toys coming out of the cot, understanding that this type of incident is statistically rare. I have never seen him get out to a false shot – the guy is class.

Bowlers have different talent genes. A five-over spell that brings three wickets might look good in the scorebook but if twenty of the thirty deliveries fail to make the batter play the ball (not to mention the wides that can push the tally up to thirty-five balls) then the raw talent lottery win is not going to be a jackpot.

The best bowlers are those who can keep the run rate down. And it’s usually the thirty to forty-five age group that have the experience and expertise to construct a field and bowl to it. It’s interesting to see how games can change with a bowler who hits a good line and length. An opening pair are making merry and race to seventy, then on comes a software engineer who keeps the run rate at two an over and causes the openers to lose their heads at the other end. But when you look at the scorebook, the IT hero is anonymous, despite having a huge contribution to the win.

The key component that separates good from mediocre is time. I have seen former Premier League footballers in their last hurrahs playing in a lower League, and despite carrying a few extra pounds of weight (not salary), they still orchestrate the game with their eyes closed. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches here, a controlled drive for two there and an occasional smack to the boundary to one of the two badly bowled balls in an over.

And of course, any fielder can change the course of a game with one throw at the stumps. In all the years I played cricket, it was rare to see such acrobatic feats. It’s hardly surprising that fielding has got so much better with players emulating the Twenty20 stunt men and twenty pound a month gyms churning out men of steel.

The majority of players I umpire are decent players who put in a shift. Some are destined for the Premier Division, and occasionally I hear of a youngster who is on the books of a county. A select few are able to turn in a performance that will be talked about for years. And I was present on such an occasion.

The visitors are down and out chasing a modest one-hundred-and-seventy. Needing around a hundred with three wickets left, the number nine batter takes his guard. Half an hour later the total required is under fifty as the young man, seemingly unconcerned with the desperate plight, uses hand-eye coordination from a different planet to change the course of the game.

There is no happy ending. The superhero is caught in the deep and the other two dominoes fall quickly. In the car park I encounter him with a couple of his teammates.

Where did that come from? I ask. And before he can reply one of his mates answers:

We’d like to know that too, umps.

When I’m feeling low during the long winter months, I occasionally bring this innings out of the vault to raise my spirits. I’ve been present when great sporting icons including Stanley Matthews, Wesley Hall, Michael Holding and George Best have showcased their incredible talent. But that forty-something knock in the third tier of a cricket League is up there as one of favourite sporting half hours.




Persister Sledge

People, in my long experience, want to talk. (J. Robert Lennon)

Imagine the piano maestro Evgeny Kissin adjusting his stool before another magnificent rendition of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and the lead violinist leans over: Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your fu*k-up in Salzburg two weeks ago.

Welcome to the world of sledging, an art form that has filtered down from Test cricket through to the First-class and Minor Counties game before landing on the squares of recreational cricket grounds. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease with a rousing rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new Bodyline as club cricketers seek to gain an advantage in their crusade to win .

Law 42 covers the issue of sledging making it a Level 1 offence (using language that, in the circumstances, is obscene, offensive or insulting or making an obscene gesture). But of course one cricketer’s obscene, offensive or insulting is another’s decent, complimentary or polite. One of the most interesting comments I have heard on a square came from an Australian player who told me that no club player down under would make certain comments he has heard on England’s green and pleasant club grounds. (I certainly did not point out that the gentlemen representing their country with those baggy green caps had been known to use some hi-tech industrial language).

I am reluctant to hand out a Level 1 – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I’ll be honest, I have stood with colleagues who revel in their authority, intervening at the slightest hint of a Law 42 misdemeanour. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than one of Mrs Umps’ coatings and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays (and yes, she owns it the other six days).

For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level 1 (the three categories above Level 1 are so far up the Richter Scale they would be ideal for a Quentin Tarantino sequel to The Hateful Eight (or in this case The Hateful Eight-for). So when a close-in fielder greets an incoming batter taking guard with the next ball is going to put you in A&E, we are all over it like a cheap suit. The fielding captain describes it as banter but I tell him I have done jury service on cases that are one step up from such verbal and physical threats.

While sledging can bring some light relief to a tense match situation, it can also turn into cricket’s version of a Twitter pile-on. A batter who benefits from a not-out catch to the wicket-keeper may think he has won a temporary battle, but the ensuing remarks from fielders remind him that the war is still up for grabs. It starts with a gentle aperitif from the fielder at the perfect decibel level that reaches the batter but is hard for the umps to decode:

Fair play bat. You must be good to actually get an edge to that one.

The next over the batter smacks the ball over the bowler’s head for a one-bounce four. First slip joins the party:

Did you hit that one. I certainly heard a noise.

And when he is out around half-an-hour later the bowler sends him off with:

Well done bat. You managed two innings in a one innings game.

This kind of sledging vengeance is unproductive and injudicious because umpires can simply jump in and feel the offender’s collar as they are leaving the crime scene (and I have done so where required). The batter does not have to walk simply because the wicket-keeper and slips twist and shout about a caught behind. If the fielding side is disappointed with a decision, they can vent their feelings by marking the umpire down after the game.

So here’s some advice for wannabe sledgers – if you must engage in this activity, at least use your heads and plough a more informed furrow. Such agile cat burglars of the art often involve wicket-keeper, slips and bowler working in unison. And while they may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, they would certainly make a half decent repertory troupe. A ball that beats a new batter is greeted by the wicket-keeper with a quiet Ooh, he doesn’t fancy it Mustard (the bowler Mustard is presumably a gentleman named Coleman). In the next over, the batter is not piercing the field as first slip enters (stage right) with Outside off Dave, he fancies it (again, not a hanging offence).

Dave of course understands the message and bowls a leg yorker which the batter just manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As Dave walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker that his partner should buy a lottery ticket, it’s going to be his day cleverly sowing another seed of doubt into the equation.  This broadsheet style of considered sledging is more likely to get a result and leaves fewer fingerprints.

My favourite sledging incident involved a couple of Hooray Henrys who were enjoying a pint on the pavilion veranda while directing some unsavoury comments my way at square leg.

Umps, your shirt’s hanging out; what are you up to after the game?; have you got any spare balls?

At the end of the over I rounded up my colleague who could hear what was going on and we called over the fielding and home team captain. He didn’t need to engage in conversation with us, he simply made his way over to the clowns. And before the next over started, Buddies Hollering and the Cricket had already left town.









Hit and run

What is leadership….but the blind choice of one route over another and the confident pretence that the decision was based on reason. (Robert Harris)

Law 38 (Run out) is the ultimate challenge for an umpire. In my three years in the lower divisions I was dishing them out like confetti, pressing the trigger or declining an appeal far too quickly. Over the years I have got much better, mainly through the excellent training my association provides, along with a forensic collection of nuanced examples that have helped me construct a run-out crime scene and act accordingly. Judging a run-out is often a literal too close to call exercise which is presumably why umpires in sell-out stadia have an army of television engineers to do the job for them.

My Run-out portfolio contains a few Laurel-and-Hardy incidents where both batters end up at the same end as the ball is casually thrown to keeper or bowler to politely nudge a bail out of the groove. Similarly, I am not interested in the three-yards-short of the crease variations where the batter knows his fate and continues running into the pavilion. The meat-and-two-veg of the Run out Law is simply whether the batter has made his or her ground.

There are two types of close run-out calls; the pick-up and throw at the stumps from within the thirty-yard circle (whether imaginary or real) and a boundary field and throw that might break most laws of physics with a direct hit, or the more common throw to the wicket-keeper who breaks the wicket while the batters are trying to steal a second or third run. There is also the bowler in follow-through deflecting a straight drive onto the stumps leaving a batter backing up with egg on face in the attempt to poach a run. I’ve been caught on the hop a few times on that one.

Humans are fallible, that is how run-outs occur. I’ve seen established partnerships of seventy-plus come to a dramatic demise because one of the guys sees a run that doesn’t exist and ruins his partner’s weekend. Club level cricket is no different to any competitive sport, the folk that excel intuitively know how to walk the line of seizing the moment without taking unnecessary risks. Run-outs occur because batters are unable to concentrate at the required level all of their time at the crease.

On a close call run-out the batter who gives up on the chase lives in hope that there is no direct hit – catching or gathering a ball to break the stumps takes a surprisingly long time. The batter who uses a bat to make his ground (with or without a dive) at least gives himself a chance. It took me a few years to fully understand the dynamics of this race: the batter who is unhappy with a decision because he is three yards past the stumps does not realise how far the momentum of his despairing efforts has carried him, and more importantly the dive has absolutely nothing to do with where he was as the bails came off.

Similarly, I have seen plenty of keepers give me the look after I turn down a run-out appeal – from their point of view, the bails were off immediately so the batter must be out. Accompanying the look is a triumphant strut to his teammates and high fives all round as if the umpire is abusing the keeper’s human rights by even considering a not-out.

And while fielding has significantly improved, running between the wickets and communication between batters continues to provide a Noel and Liam Gallagher Definitely Maybe cocktail. I remember a game from my misspent youth where I played the ball to short third man and called my partner for a run. Instead of pulling rank as it was his call, he ran and I watched the carnage over my shoulder. I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t best pleased when I returned to the pavilion a few overs later.

To make a good run-out call you need to be relaxed. Some umpires set up their stall with a crouching posture that resembles discharging a number two on a Megabus lavatory. Crouching does not help me make a decision. I like to chill out and work with the forensics on the crime scene. Occasionally, when batters are going for a quick two or three and the ball is on the flight path from the boundary, I tell myself that a direct hit is definitely out but the keeper having to break the stumps may be too close to call.

And there is nothing wrong with unsure. On a tight run-out an umpire is making an educated guess, which, at the very least, is better than one made through ignorance. What I have learned the hard way is that I am not going to take the rap for a player’s rush of blood. I don’t wake up on a Saturday morning and relish the thought of ruining a batter’s weekend, although I acknowledge that a close run-out call can have that effect. It’s actually quite a simple proposition – if you don’t try and steal an extra run, it’s unlikely you will be in danger. If you and your partner are communicating in Morse code (yes, no, wait, okay, yes, maybe, hang on, wait, yes, yes, yes, no) then your chances of making it to the other end become slimmer by the second.

I turn down more run-outs than I give. If it’s too close I give the batter the benefit. No amount of screaming, high fives and back-slapping is going to sway me. Wicket-keepers and fielders regularly acknowledge that I am right not to uphold an appeal because they too are unsure. I’m consistent on Law 38, if there is enough evidence I will give it. If you don’t want to do the time, then don’t commit the crime of trying to pinch runs.








Two for the road

Everything can change at any moment, suddenly and forever (Paul Auster)

The ground is situated close to an A-road and even on a Saturday there are enough wagons and testosterone fuelled bikers to edge the decibel scale northwards. This ain’t no quaint village green, it’s a hardcore concrete jungle. The ground is in walking distance of the kind of aspiring middle class housing estate that provides fodder for edgy playwrights to humiliate people who are trying to better themselves. Despite the noise and surroundings, this gritty cricket outpost is one of my favourite grounds on the circuit and warrants a couple of urban tales.

The first involves one of the rare breed of modern day League cricketers who sleep better at night having done the decent thing in a situation where it’s much easier not to. The noise from the A-road that traverses the ground and a strong wind combine to make cricket a bit of a chore. An opening bowler is all over the place, No-balls, loss of rhythm and courting trouble with leg-side wides.

The batter, a diminutive, middle-age guy is a left-hander who nudges and nurdles  singles and then every few overs unleashes a perfect square cut and cover drive that reaches the boundary before he finishes the follow through. The bowler sends another one down the leg side and as I am trying to work out if it is a wide, a half-hearted appeal goes up from keeper and first slip. Nothing comes from the bowler other than a flick of his wrist suggesting he needs to have better control of the ball. I decide against the wide and turn down the caught-behind. Even if he has feathered the ball, with half a dozen Eddie Stobart trucks in convoy on the A-road, there is no chance of me hearing a damn thing.

And then comes the denouement that is pure improv, rather than scripted. The batter composes himself and walks off, bat under arm, divesting himself of helmet and gloves. Still reeling from this guilty plea, I give the reverse decision signal and we move on. At the end of the game I have a brief exchange.

I walk. I don’t mind batters who don’t. It’s nothing to do with sportsmanship. But I get well pis*ed off when I’m given out when I haven’t hit it. And with a cover drive follow-through flourish that Tom Graveney would be proud of, he leaves me with this gem: And when you see me walk, like today, you need to up your game umps. You got the decision wrong.

Two seasons later I am back in the hood. A medium pacer with the nagging line and length is getting on the batter’s nerves. The bowler is too good for him. The fifth ball beats him and right on cue the bowler follows through with the stand-and-stare routine while the batter goes through the motions of the shot he meant to play. Like many League cricketers, this particular assignment is beyond his pay grade.

One ball to go and I’ll be at square leg thinking about what I have to do at work on Monday morning (bad practice, we are trained to give the same concentration while standing at the batter’s end as we do at the bowler’s end). However, when the keeper is standing back I have found that square leg provides the perfect habitat for a spot of R&R.

The sixth ball of the over is delivered and fate conspires against me. There’s a loud appeal for caught behind as bowler, keeper, slips, tea ladies and dog walkers go up in a choreographed harmony straight out of the Busby Berkeley portfolio. Unfortunately, the timing of the appeal could not be worse as a truck driver who is hurtling down the A-road chooses that very moment of alleged bat on ball, to sit on the horn. On the way home I have a vision of him leaving his mobile phone in the house, with the extra minute collecting it causing a perfect noise storm at the time of impact of ball on bat, or pad.

One of the many reasons why I am in favour of attracting younger men and women to umpiring is that their hearing is so much better than the over-sixties cohort that currently  makes up the panel. As I moved from fifty to sixty it became clear to me that sound was anything but clear. I recognise that at certain times this can be an advantage, especially when Mrs Umps is in one of her Ikea moods. Unfortunately for batters, my hearing is sharp for edges to the keeper but I do have a problem when peripheral noise gets in the way, and an A-road is the perfect place for the noise bug to mutate.

So at this precious moment I am entrusted with making a judgement when the only evidence to give the batter out are the screams from bowler and keeper, and with the greatest respect to the two fellows, it’s not going to sway a jury. The batter stands his ground and I’m having none of it. With the Grand Prix on the A-road, I can’t hear a thing.  I announce Not out. Over bowled. My colleague, walking in from square leg, points to his right ear to confirm he can’t hear anything. The fielders are unhappy, but the batter is soon out and is given a less than polite send-off which includes advice on how to get rid of an alleged red mark on the bat edge.

The incident has no influence on the game’s outcome. But the same finger of fate is at work after the game. Approaching my car, I encounter the fielding side’s wicket-keeper and team-mate. The keeper eases the passenger window down. Thanks umps, hope to see you later in the season he says in tone of voice that suggests he does not actually mean that he hopes to see me later in the season.

And purely for quality control purposes, I ask him with a faint smile: Did he really hit it?

No idea umps, couldn’t hear a thing. At least Dick Turpin wore a mask.




High Noon

I became as hard as whipcord, but with a brain like cotton wool. (Derek Raymond)

It’s a game played in the best spirit and the visitors are batting in the second innings, around forty runs away from a victory chase with eight wickets in hand. The game is in the bag. A right-left batting combo need a sight screen moving. It’s a nickel and dime situation normally dealt with by a couple of fielders, and on we go.

If only League cricket were that simple, with a polite request being met with a positive and cordial response. This is a perfect storm – no fielder is near the screen but a posse from the batting side are enjoying a leisurely stroll around the boundary rope and happen to find themselves close. I’d be interested to know the origin of this quirky pastime. A batter who is out, along with three tail-enders go for a wander, occasionally stopping to play a makeshift version of bowls using an old match ball and anything that comes to hand as the jack.

The captain of the fielding team shouts a polite request to the posse: Guys, would a couple of you mind moving the screens. No response. The captain, moving a tad nearer to the posse, tries again – still no response.  The head honcho of the posse then crosses the boundary rope and in a this-town’s-not-big-enough-for-the -both-of-us posture declares: Come and fu*king make me.

At this point I have a vision of Mrs Umps asking me to pass her a ball of wool for her latest Etsy craft project while I’m busy watching Match of the Day. I’m engrossed in the redoubtable Alan Shearer’s scientific analysis about the diamond (I still haven’t got a clue what it means) as the request for wool is repeated, this time in a more confrontational manner. I reply: Come and fu*king make me before I am impaled by a single point needle while Mrs Umps is telling the ambulance service: There is a lot of blood….but take as long as you need to, I appreciate how busy you guys are.

I am carrying the MCC Laws of Cricket and the League’s match-day regulations, so handy as it may be in these tense situations, there is no room for even an A6 size version of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Meanwhile the stand-off resembles the set of High Noon – I can see the club secretary in the pavilion bar measuring a finger of whiskey to slide over to the home team captain after he prevails in the shootout.

Myself and colleague make eye contact and immediately hot foot it over to the posse and explain to the head honcho that if he wants to play further games this and next season, he needs to apologise immediately and ask one of the posse to help move the sight screen. And that is exactly what he does, adding the League cricketer’s trump card for defusing such standoffs: Just a bit of fun, umps.

The shock element is not so much that the sight screen incident takes place, rather that it happens at all, given the context of the match. The posse’s team are winning the race by a mile and half an hour later they are in the changing room celebrating with an a cappella version of Oh Sir Jasper. It is the first and only time that I have encountered an issue with a request to move the sight screens.

On the drive home I develop a profile of the head honcho. I tell myself he’s bound to be an insurance underwriter. He has never been issued with a Penalty Charge Notice and he serves as a governor at the local primary school. And on the basis of moving his body over a boundary rope, he goes from being a pillar of the  community to the subject of a TV documentary fronted by Danny Dyer. The following season we meet again and he behaves like the perfect insurance underwriter, despite the fact that he actually works as a dispatch manager in a large warehouse.

I know umpires who would immediately erect gallows on the square on this kind of incident. Yes, making a threatening comment that includes a profanity is certainly a Level 1 offence. And while there are occasions where cricket’s Village People display a Macho Man tendency, surely is it preferable for us to deal with it on the spot rather than add another case to the already bulging League disciplinary file. The fielding captain, already disappointed and working out what he is going to say to the guys after the game, is happy for us to settle it. Our intervention works and we mark the visiting team down on behaviour without having to bother the League.

Aside from winding down after a tense match, the post-match bar provides a treasure trove of material for Research and Development. Having crossed the boundary rope to leave the field, Hyde reverts to Jekyll to become the kind of guy you actually want to share a drink with. This epiphany reveals itself in another game, a particularly tetchy contest in which one player manages to get on the wrong side of umpires, the opposition and even his own captain. Again, a word in his ear from us brings an end to the nonsense. After showering and completing the match paperwork, I join this guy and two of his colleagues at a table.

I don’t touch alcohol when I am driving – a pint of soda water with a dash of lime cordial does the trick. The atmosphere is already jovial as the two sides mingle. What happens on the pitch, stays there. The player gets straight to the point: Maybe I deserved a Level 1. I know I get carried away but they were out of order on those filed placing discussions.

Eager to know what this fellow does for a day job, I reply: I like to sort out issues on the field. What’s your job, if you don’t mind me asking?

No problem umps. I’m an insurance underwriter.