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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tobacco Road

Give me golf clubs, fresh air and a beautiful partner, and you can keep the clubs and the fresh air. (Jack Benny)

In my early years on the Panel, each appointment resembled a cricketing blind date. More Soulmates than Tinder, they were the perfect induction into League umpiring, with the more seasoned colleagues helping me navigate the murky terrain of match management. Older and wiser after ten years on the Panel, I realise just how much I have benefited from being with an Association and  colleagues who always have my back. Club captains may have a different view on umpires (surely not, ed) but we are committed to providing an excellent service.

The courses and training days emphasise the importance of teamwork, but this represents a small percentage of an umpire’s job description. Sure, issues like the weather, behaviour and signalling require collaboration. But essentially the coalface of umpiring is a lonely place that demands intense concentration and commitment. When you are confronted with a raucous LBW appeal that can determine the result of a match, you are on your own.

Being an old rocker, my perfect umpiring associate would be the cricket loving Mick Jagger – but you can’t always get what you want. I’ve collected a vault of knowledge and wisdom from my partners and I get on well with them. One thing that disturbs me is when a colleague walks into the changing room bedecked head to toe in Association of Cricket Officials (ACO) merchandise. My Savile Row umpiring couturier is Primark & Primark – I have no appetite in donating twenty-five hard-earned pounds to the England Cricket Board/Duncan Fearnley sharks for a shirt with a logo when I can have an equally functional garment from PP for a quarter of the price. There is a small cohort of umpires who think like me on this issue, we can’t understand why the ECB thinks its okay to fleece the people who give  so much to grassroots cricket.

But for me, of far greater significance is an umpire who manages the game like a parking enforcement officer on crack. If you like being the centre of attraction, umpiring is not for you. Our role is to serve, not antagonise – the players are paying us through their match subs, so giving a bowler a warning for shouting sh*t after being hit for successive boundaries is in itself deserving of a Penalty Charge Notice. These vigilantes represent a small minority of the Panel and they need to kerb their enthusiasm.

And yes, of course we should conduct ourselves in a courteous and professional manner but a touch of humour helps the afternoon move along nicely. It’s a week after the 2011 Royal Wedding and the opening Saturday of the season. The captain is adjusting the field as the bowler marks his run-up. We’re ready to start and the captain shouts: Come on Will, you know where to put it. I couldn’t help myself: That’s what Kate said last Friday night.

In my second game on the Panel a wicket goes down in the first over. I move over to have a quick chat with my colleague who is hand rolling tobacco. This ceremony is repeated at the fall of further wickets and during the drinks break. The practice may not be recommended on courses and CPD days, but if you want an example of the perfect umpire, look no further. He has complete control of the game, and enjoys maximum respect from colleagues, captains and players.

I’ve seen different colleagues dip into a sandwich, check a mobile phone and conduct a conversation with a friend standing on the square leg boundary. But nothing comes near to the heroic umpire who found himself stationed next to a pile of dog excrement at square leg. At the end of the over he got a plastic bag from the pavilion and ignoring my idea of moving the mess to turd man, he placed it well away from the unsuspecting public.

The best example of teamwork involves a colleague who can see that I may have got a decision wrong and he keeps me on track so I can concentrate on the remaining overs. The game’s going the batting side’s way in the second innings (fifty required, seven wickets in hand) when a sassy finger spinner comes on at my end. Fifth ball of the over I hear a loud nick to the keeper and give the batter out. My colleague confirms it’s a good decision with a discreet thumbs up. The next ball has exactly the same outcome and again my colleague hears the nick (I suspect the noise carries to the car park). Another wicket falls next over, and six-down with fifty to get now has the tension of a marathon start line.

First ball of sassy spinner’s next over and there’s a huge appeal for caught behind, and because bat and pad are enjoying an intimate moment, I’m not sure about the decision. I give the batter out and it is fair to surmise that he is not impressed as the bowler (with a hat-trick) and wicket-keeper are joyously line dancing. I walk over to my colleague:

‘Not sure,’ he says. ‘Maybe pad first, but the first two were definitely out.’  At the end of each over he checks on my mood with signals of encouragement. The batting side get home by one wicket and the captain politely questions the third caught-behind before warmly shaking hands. One thing for sure is that the umpire with fingers the same yellow as a fluorescent tabard would not have given it.

Three weeks later I’m talking to a different colleague in the changing room before a game. He asks: Did you hear about that hat-trick of caught behind the other week?

Guilty!

I umpired the losing team the week after and their wicket-keeper told me the hat-trick ball was a bit of a swindle.

In the town where he plays his cricket, I would imagine that handing yourself in like that is not quite the norm. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The scarecrow on crack

With the perfect blazer, anything is possible. (Rashida Jones)

You wouldn’t think that a simple flip of a coin would assume such importance. In football, rugby and a raft of other sports, the toss is a ceremony without meaning and unless there is a slope like a Winter Olympics slalom, or a hurricane at one end of the ground, the toss makes no difference to the outcome of the game. In cricket, the coin-flip formality is a crucial part of the game, even before it begins. 

My old dad used to tell me not to engage in a discussion when you know nothing about the topic and his wise words resonate when it comes to the tittle-tattle of how a 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 motorway play like the beach in the Battle of Anzio.

Compared to the frenzy before a Test match, where retired 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, chairman and other stakeholders in quiet reflection as they peruse the strip. 

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 witnessed  winning outcomes for captains who decide to bowl first under good conditions for batters.

The captains join us in the middle. Being the tolerant chap that I am, I don’t expect them to be sporting a blazer, cap and cravat. Unfortunately the days of civility are long gone. (I say old chap, how the devil are you? The last time I saw Celia was at Felicity’s deb party). Only once in eleven years of umpiring League cricket have I seen a captain come to the toss in a club blazer. I would have insisted on a rendition of For he’s a jolly good fellow had the jacket not been accompanied by a pair of beach shorts and flip-flops. 

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 the top of my bang 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 (occasionally necessitating a visit to an osteopath, but that’s a back story), at least it displays a modicum of respect and always leaves me with a positive impression.  

The pre-toss banter between ourselves and 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; lack of batting consistency; how difficult it is to get a team together so we are struggling a bit today (reverse swing psychology making its way onto the village square).

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 note that Kaiser Chiefs’ I predict a riot is available in the bar’s jukebox). And a League cricket match cannot possibly start without one of the captains spouting the First Commandment: All we ask is that you are consistent with decisions on wides (followed by a forensic breakdown of events at a game that took place seven seasons ago).

Taking a step back to align himself with the stumps, the captain says: I mean, umps, he didn’t give a wide for this as his arms extend wider than a scarecrow on crack.. The other captain then joins the pile-on with tales of inconsistency. Sometimes I wonder what these fellows do in their leisure time other than build up a portfolio of decisions that go against them.

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 on the right side. It’s then 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 right on cue the two lines are delivered like two low-level repertory theatre actors with a bit part.

Hmm, definitely a toss to lose. I wish I’d called heads/tails.

Yes, second one I’ve lost this season. I’d have batted/bowled.

Handshakes all round and and the ceremony is complete. But before we head off to liaise with scorers there is the small matter of our match fee. Call me old fashioned, but I much prefer the money to be presented in a sealed C6 envelope with Umps on the front, although I’m not sure the skull and crossbones are also necessary. There is, however, an unscientific cohort of one-skipper-in-ten whose Friday night may have included a drink or two.

He empties his pocket with accoutrements that include items that do not require a plug here (think of a nineteen-fifties barber in a white tunic murmuring about something for the weekend). The payment appears in the form of rolled banknotes that may have been used for nefarious purposes, along with a flyer from the local kebab shop and a betting slip that includes the batting order on the back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next postcode

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 of this frenetic, route one bean-feast, my friend said: There are twenty-two guys on the pitch. But they’re not playing football. 

I witnessed this kind of mediocrity in the lower Divisions of the League. Guys coming out to bat with a pad not strapped and fielders returning the ball from the deep with an underarm throw – I sometimes wonder if the poor decisions I made in those three seasons were down to me also catching the mediocrity bug. My elevation to Panel umpire presented me with an opportunity to experience some very good cricket. The dearth of quality in the lower Divisions – where two balls an over might trouble a batter – transformed into four decent balls out of six, spectacular fielding, along with the aptitude and skill to build an innings.

It is not the towering sixes and bludgeoned fours that stick in the mind. Leg-side nudges, balanced cover drives, shot selection (especially leaves outside off stump), perfect judgement of runs and of course temperament combine to enhance the umpiring experience.

These nuances separate the 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. But to make a century you need to know how to manipulate the strike to avoid the sassy leg-spinner who is giving you a hard time, in the knowledge that your batting partner has worked him out.

A player who regularly scores well, gets my batting nomination. I’ve seen him score two centuries, both model innings for aspiring club cricketers. An opening bat, from the first over he takes charge with a trademark yes, one, along with a sound defence and the full repertoire of boundary shots on the front 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 breaking the speed limit. I’ve also seen him get out early. His reaction is to walk off without the toys coming out of the pram, 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 making a significant 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, they can still orchestrate a game with their eyes closed. A talented batter who reaches a half century will continue annoying the fielding side with deft touches, controlled drives and an occasional smack to the boundary.

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 along with 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. I was there to witness such an occasion.

The visitors are down and out chasing a modest one-hundred-and-seventy. Needing around a hundred with only three wickets left, the number nine batter takes  guard. While not boasting a particularly athletic figure, he looks like he can handle himself if a heated discussion on metaphysics gets out of hand.

Half an hour after he trudges out to the middle, the total required is under fifty as the young man, seemingly unconcerned with the desperate plight, uses hand-eye coordination from a different universe to potentially change the course of the game. Hitting the sweet spot at a rate that would certainly impress Mrs Umps, he plays text-book cricket shots to all parts of the ground, a few of which reach the next postcode without bouncing.

The superhero is caught in the deep and the other two dominoes fall quickly –  the battle is won but inevitably the war is lost. After the game I see him in the car park.

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 seen great sporting icons live – Stanley Matthews, Wesley Hall, George Best and Shane Warne come to mind. But that forty-something cameo innings in the third tier of League cricket is one I will always remember.

 

 

 

Tarquin and Icarus

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

As Evgeny Kissin adjusts his  stool before another performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto Two, the lead violinist leans over: Oy Kissin, you won’t be here for the third movement mate; I heard about your mess-up in Salzburg.

Welcome to the world of sledging, yet another gaining-an-advantage arrow in a cricketer’s quiver that has filtered down from Test through to First Class and Minor Counties cricket before landing on England’s village squares. The days of fielders doffing their club caps while clapping a batter to the crease with a rousing chorus of For he’s a jolly good fellow are long gone. Sledging is the new Bodyline in which words speak louder than actions.

Law 42 covers sledging, making it a Level One 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 banter, a word often used by captains apologising on behalf of one his troops.

One of the most interesting comments I have heard about sledging came from an Australian who told me that no club player down under would make the kind of comments he had heard on some of England’s green and pleasant grounds. (I assume he has not heard some of the industrial language used by players sporting iconic baggy green caps, especially since stump mics have caught them with fingers in the till).

I am reluctant to hand out a Level One – I don’t want cricket to be sanitised to the extent that appropriate banter is off the menu. And that is why I always go through what is acceptable with my colleague before the game. I regularly tell captains that my red line is if I hear anything worse than a Mrs Umps’ coating (the bar’s set high) and that the players should remember that I own the red line on Saturdays while accepting her ownership the other six days.

For me, the so-called offence has to be an obvious Level One – the three categories above that Level 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).

A slip fielder greets a nervous young batter with: The next ball is going to put you in A&E. We step in immediately, with the fielding captain apologising and describing it as banter. I tell him I have done jury service on cases that are one step up from such verbal threats.

While acceptable 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 result of the war is yet to be decided.

It often starts with an aperitif sledge, the kind that the residents of Trieste enjoy as the sun sets on the town’s magnificent promenade. The batter nicks off between the wicket-keeper and first slip for a streaky four runs and the sledge masters are immediately on the case. Pitched at the perfect decibel level in a friendly tone of voice a cold-call scammer might use, the wicket-keeper gives his opinion:

You must be good to get an edge to that one.

A few overs later, the bowler gets an LBW decision in his favour and sends the batter off with this noble gesture:

Well done bat. You had three innings in one.

If players really must sledge, at least they should use their heads and plough a more informed furrow. I quite like the agile cat burglar approach to the art that involves wicket-keeper, slips and bowler working in unison. They may not be as polished as the Royal Shakespeare Company, but 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 entices a false shot with: Outside off Dave, he fancies it.

Dave understands the message and bowls a leg-yorker which the batter manages to dig out – had he missed it, the ball would have made a right mess of the leg stump. As he walks back to his mark for the next ball, he tells the non-striker: Your 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 not only more likely to get a result, it also leaves fewer fingerprints.

Then there is the bearing-a-grudge sledge where disgruntled slip fielder takes a declined caught-behind decision to heart. With alarm clock precision, at the end of each over he proffers some home-spun philosophy to the batter.

The noise off your bat needed industrial ear plugs; nick, nick, nick; you know you hit it. Why didn’t you walk?

My favourite anecdote involves a couple of spectating Hooray Henrys who appear as a match is drawing to its conclusion. They watch from the pavilion veranda and decide that myself and colleague should benefit from their insight and expertise on cricketing matters:

Mr Umpires (sic), your shirt’s hanging out; I’ll buy you a pint after the game; I bet you’ve got a big bag of balls; Raise your bat for us!

At the end of the over I round up my colleague and the home team captain and we make our way over to Tarquin and Icarus. The captain opens the meeting:

Guys, shut it, or go home.

A final hurrah is inevitable:

Don’t be such a killjoy. Mr Umpires (sic), has not given us out! 

And before the next over begins, they leave in car that at the peak of my glittering career would have cost at least a year’s salary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crouching Tiger

Just follow me and run like your life depends on it. Because it does. (James Dashner)

In the first over of the match, the batter plays a glorious  straight drive, the bowler puts a hand out in the follow-through and diverts the ball onto the stumps. The batter at my end is backing up, he swivels and by the time his bat is down, the bails are already off. But I don’t give it out. It is the worst decision I have ever made (the registry office episode thirty-two years ago is for another book).

Law 38 (Run out) is the ultimate challenge for an umpire. In my three years in the lower Divisions, I was pressing the trigger or declining an appeal far too quickly. Over the years I have got much better (despite the incident above) 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. It’s interesting to watch the dynamics between the two batters; some give it the full Joe Orton profanity treatment on the spot, others throw some verbal toys out of the cot as they trudge back to the pavilion. The majority, however, take it on the chin and walk off and only when they reach the  dressing room do they fill the magazine with a full round. I like this respect for the integrity of cricket.

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 wicket-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, called my partner for a run, and then sent him back. Instead of pulling rank as it was his call, he ran and turned halfway down the wicket as I watched the carnage over my shoulder. I arrived back in the pavilion a few overs later and was met with: You ***ing t***. (That was his mother, one of the tea ladies).

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. 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 going to be an Out call 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 (Mr Umps, may I remind you that you are under oath), 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, you won’t be in danger. If you and your partner are communicating in code (yes, no, wait, okay, yes, maybe, hang on, wait, yes, yes, yes, no) then you won’t make it to the other end.

So why don’t I send the batter from the opening paragraph packing? The ball is hit ferociously and could be coming my way. I jump and am off guard. But I see the deflection and that the backing-up batter does not ground the bat in time. I base my decision that the momentary lack of balance is mitigating evidence against a guilty verdict.

On the way home, I think of the ECB Level One course and the experienced tutor’s comment. Give it as you see or hear it. And that is why it remains as a very poor decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.