Catch me if you can

People did change, and a change could be a bloom as well as a withering. (Richard Yates)

When I first started playing League cricket forty seven years ago, pre-season training consisted of a couple of hours of batting and bowling – hardly a proper workout for the first match in May. There was no knowledge or perception of match fitness, indeed the newspaper representing the county I supported would run a pre-season photograph of the pros jogging around a wet county ground in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits accompanied by a headline like Ready for action.

In those days there were a number of top players whose girth would merit an automatic disqualification in today’s game. The likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe, each of whom carried an excess of kilos, would never have made one of  today’s sliding stops a few metres from the boundary or indeed have been one of a double act tag-team making a miraculous catch beyond and inside the rope.

In all the years I played League cricket, the level of fielding was generally poor. From the slips to the cover fielders and beyond, it seemed to be a given in League and indeed some First Class quarters that average fielding was something you just put up with. Sure, there was an occasional great run-out as the cover fielder gathered the ball cleanly and ran out the striker with a direct hit, but those incidents were as rare as rocking horse manure. My memory of League cricket as a player was seeing regulation catches spilled, shots hit directly to a fielder hitting the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the keeper.

So it gives me great pleasure to report that League cricket fielding is so much improved today it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game.  As I walk on to inspect the pitch I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stunt men with arms like tree trunks – the kind of guys you see on reality shows dragging a truck across the Sahara. In my day, the pre-match warm-up was a sly Silk Cut in front of the pavilion followed by a couple of catches in the outfield. Today, it’s an SAS-style miscellany of sprints, squats, ballistic throws to the keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket.

Such is the fielding acumen in the modern game I sometimes think these village blacksmiths are from a distant galaxy on a reccy mission to judge the quality of fielding. In play, I am regularly called on to judge run-outs where Mission Impossible becomes The Happening as a fielder dives, collects and throws down the stumps. Balls that are hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand, a shot bludgeoned directly to a fielder that used to mean a ten-day stay in hospital now merits a cursory dusting down of the trousers and catches to the deep are rarely spilled. I occasionally do a crude calculation of runs saved by brilliant fielding and it’s fair to say that these inter-galactic warriors are saving thirty-plus runs an innings.

I have witnessed hundreds of catches over the years, most can be classed as no big deal, it’s all part of the job. But there is one catch that I think about in the dentist’s chair and in the tundra of Ikea while Mrs Umps is making merry with retractable blinds. And when I’m in the company of cricketing friends I hold forth on this tale because it gets to the essence of sport.

It involves a gentleman I have umpired a few times who falls into the category of very good club cricketer. He bats four or five, fields at first slip and knows the game inside-out. Let’s be generous and describe this player as generously built but he is as agile as any of the guys on the circuit. I like his demeanor when he spills a catch – there is no head in hands, he just assumes his position behind the counter waiting for the next mug to come into the shop. The bowlers know what he is capable of, so when a catch goes down, they do not provide the amateur dramatics of a second rate repertory troupe, so often played out by other bowlers in the League.

The fielding team are under the cosh with a batter sending the ball to all parts of the ground. He’s a young lad with attitude and talent that suggests he will soon be rubbing shoulders with the semi-pros in the Premier League. The opening bowler is brought back to stem the tide and our protagonist contrives to drop a pretty straightforward chance.

Two overs later the same quickie bowls one a tad wider, the batter moves across and drives with power but the ball finds the edge and flies low and very fast. I’m at square leg with a perfect view of the catch – to this day I can see the fielder’s hands pluck the ball out of the small amount of air that was left before gravity prevails. And with the timing and technique of a player at the top of his game he carefully ensures his fingers, and not the ball, are caressing the grass. And to confirm the brilliance of this catch, the batter, who has turned to watch it live, walks off without the usual Umps, did it carry histrionics. It is a glorious moment of sporting prowess.

League cricketers’ meteoric rise to fielding fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch the modern acrobatic dexterity, I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot. Your technical ability and fearless approach have made cricket more exciting and raised the level of participation. To paraphrase Mrs Umps as she settles down to another of her rom-coms, it’s the field-good factor.

 

 

 

Baby you can drive my carbs

Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting? (Tom Wolfe)

The great British cricket club tea is a quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside Changing of the Guard, Wimbledon, Glastonbury and losing on penalties in the World Cup. Given its iconic place in the British psyche, I am surprised that Carry on Umps was not on the roster of these saucy holiday postcard comedies. Sid James would play the home captain as Barbara Windsor (the chairman’s daughter) brings round the home made buns: There’s a couple hanging off the edge, darling. To which the redoubtable Ms Windsor would reply: Ooh ‘ark at ‘im. You ought to keep that bat raised longer than you did last night. Happy days.

The image of a steaming tea pot (no, not a wretched urn), home-made scones, jam tarts, sandwiches generously filled with an assortment of egg, tomato, cheese, chutney and ham – all washed down with a proper cup of tea is embedded in cricket folklore. But as with much of modern life, for some clubs the tea interval has transformed from a delightful half-hour break of merriment into a cricketing dystopia involving a twenty-minute binge of comfort food purchased from the savings shelves of discounting supermarkets.

It is extremely rare to come away from a League match feeling satiated after treading carefully around a minefield of sausage and mini rolls, imitation Kit Kats and miserable white bread sandwiches which, had they been served in prison, would have precipitated a riot. And to compound the felony, some clubs feel no shame in presenting a cup of tea as some kind of capability test consisting of a tea bag, urn, plastic carton of milk (regularly UHT) with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class – stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.

Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I hear time and again from club officials)? Actually, no. There are clubs who know how to do it right, and by that I am not only talking about the food. For me, the ceremony and organisation are equally important.

Occasionally I am dispatched to a particular club that understands the difference between a Wetherspoon gut-wrenching curry and a Michelin Star pub lunch. I eagerly anticipate the assignment, because tea at this club is an experience to savour. It is cricket’s equivalent of the American Bar at the Savoy. After a sumptuous and bountiful round of sandwiches, the tea ladies (mums, wives and girlfriends of the players) bring out trays filled with an appealing melange of scones and cakes. Jam sponge umps? I made it myself. The frisson is tangible and I can feel a tear welling in my eye as I hold out my plate: Well if you made it yourself my dear, it would be impolite to refuse. My goodness, that’s a generous slice.

Set against a backdrop of framed black and white photographs of the visiting nineteen-sixty-four Australian tourists who shared the same pavilion space, this masterclass in presentation and content is beyond the wit of the majority of clubs I visit. What used to be a home-made loaf with an ample filling of cheddar and pickle has morphed into a white-sliced Savers with a square of processed plastic that has nothing to do with the dairy family. When I started playing League cricket, a  home-made cake would boast more tiers than than the one commissioned Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer for their wedding. These days I am confronted with a paper plate of Savers custard creams and mini-rolls invariably spelled incorrectly.

As a bare minimum, every tea should include a table for umpires and scorers. I don’t particularly mind the queue for the smorgasboard but it’s a tad awkward sitting next to the village blacksmith half an hour after I sent him packing with a close LBW especially while he is savouring the delights of Jammy Dodger. The cost of plastic tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the supermarket in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. Can we also dispense with the paper or plastic plates and cups typically found and used in fast food outlets and replace them with appropriate cutlery and crockery? Do we really have to put up with chemically induced supermarket pizzas or sausage rolls? Why are salads and fresh fruit regularly banished from cricket pavilions? And what is the obsession with cheap crisps and Hula Hoops? Cricket teas are winning the arms race carbs war by a distance.

It doesn’t need to be like this. Just as there are guidelines for sight screens and boundary markings, so there should be minimum standards for what constitutes a decent tea. If the wicket plays like a minefield, we have a duty of care towards the players who may end up with a painful reminder of their afternoon’s entertainment.

But there is more to a cricket tea than the quality of sandwiches and Royal Dalton receptacles. It’s tough out in the middle and I need the tea interval to provide me with the enthusiasm and vigour that I had when we started at one o’clock. The last thing I need is to rush the tea, however late we may be. Sometimes tea feels like a relentless pursuit of the clock like the Fritz Lang classic film Metropolis, with players walking around looking for a vacant seat, and a frenetic atmosphere of eating and catching up on social media through smartphones.

Let’s calm down and respect the game by having a civilised half-hour tea with polite conversation and a properly made cuppa. Such breaks complete the day and leave me feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the next three hours throw our way, especially if the groundsman played by Bernard Bresslaw comes in to the pavilion shouting Anyone seen my big brush?

 

 

 

Able was I ‘ere I saw LB

It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. (JD Salinger)

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professor of neuroscience who had been researching reaction times involved in a variety of sports. He confirmed something that I had often thought – a footballer’s ability to deliver a perfectly weighted pass taking into account, speed, angle and trajectory is the work of genius. Taking this example into cricket’s Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) should qualify myself and the thousands of League umpires around the world to be similarly categorised.

Before the bowler delivers the ball, I am watch out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, the bowler’s action, follow-through, keeping out of the protected area of the wicket, trajectory of ball, where it pitches and its journey after pitching, how dangerous it may be, whether the batter at the bowler’s end is trying to steal a cheeky metre. And with all of that neatly stored in my consciousness, we then get to the business end of the decision-making process – what happened to the ball’s journey. All of the above have to be signed, sealed and delivered within a few seconds as the village blacksmith (bowler or batter) waits for my verdict.

You might be thinking whether this kind of pressure is worth the effort, especially at my age. True, the alternative is to spend my Saturday afternoon with Mrs Umps on an expedition to the tundra of Ikea. It took me some time to realise that the right decision is not an exact science, it is a judgement based on evidence, knowledge and experience of Law 36 and its caveats.

It’s interesting how bowlers, batters, fielders (even those with the perfect vanatage at long leg) have wide interpretations of Law 36. Of course, the bowler has apprehended a burglar running out of his house carrying a 50-inch TV. But with so many mitigating circumstances, LBW is is a defence barrister’s Shangri-la and if there is any doubt, it ain’t going to be out. I run over the forensics:

  1. Did the ball pitch outside leg stump? If so, the batter is not out.
  2. Was the impact of the ball outside the line of off stump and was the batter playing a shot? If so, the batter is not out.
  3. After impact of ball hitting pad (assuming 1 and 2 are sorted) is the ball heading for the stumps?
There are other factors that mitigate in favour of the batter,  the main one being the prevalence of some league bowlers’ inability to bowl a ball that would make the LBW director’s cut. The only way to deal with an LBW decision is to ignore the screaming bowler, wicket keeper, fielder and tea lady (and of course the batter examining the edge of his bat) and take a few seconds to reconstruct the crime scene before delivering your verdict.

Reactions from batters given out are far worse than disappointed bowlers who tend to take a rejected appeal as part of the shift on the coal face. Sometimes a wicket keeper backs me up, telling the skipper: It was high or going down leg. Quite. So why appeal if you know it was not out? (I think we know the answer to that question).

Batters of course are never out LBW. It wasn’t me guv; I wouldn’t get on the back foot to that kind of delivery; it pitched a mile outside leg stump; if you couldn’t hear the nick of bat onto ball then you shouldn’t be umpiring; way too high umps (defiant in his belief the impact was just below the left nipple).

I am rarely kept awake worrying about umpiring decisions but out of the forty thousand balls I have supervised at the bowler’s end, I occasionally muse over certain judgements. One such decision I am convinced I got wrong came during my first season as a panel umpire where I gave the batter not out on a strong appeal. A useful right-arm medium-pace bowler was all over this middle order batter beating him every other ball. It was one of those appeals that came with all the trimmings – wicket-keeper screaming with both arms pointing to a superior force in the sky and the bowler, having examined the damage, turning round, going down on one knee, Pavarotti style.

My initial inclination was to give it as it met all the criteria (legal delivery, pitched on off and impacted just below the knee roll of the front-foot pad). But in the few post-impact seconds my thought process determined that something was not quite right and I persuaded myself that the impact may have been just outside the off stump and the batter did attempt to to play a front foot defensive shot. I had allowed myself to find a reason not to give it. For some reason, I didn’t have the balls to give it out. This is an important part of the umpire’s learning curve – understanding why you make certain decisions, rather than reflecting on the decision itself.

One I got right stayed with me for a different reason. In my first post-qualifying apprentice season in the lower divisions of the League, I gave a batter out LBW (impact on back foot heading for lower part of middle stump having pitched on middle). As the batter reluctantly trudged away from the crease, instead of acknowledging to the arresting officer that had been caught with his fingers in the till, he said to me: I hit it. I could have felt his collar for the crime of dissent, and to be honest I quite fancied the idea of him spending the night locked in the pavilion changing room while I would be tucking into Mrs Umps’ delicious cottage pie.

But in a one-off highly unprofessional reaction which I now regret, I replied: Get the local paper on Friday sonny, and you’ll see that you didn’t hit it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friendlies – just not cricket

I was just caught up in a life in which I could find no meaning. (Charles Bukowski)

During the months of May through to mid-September, an umpire can find a game to stand in seven days a week if so inclined. Aside from Saturday League games (my preferred tipple) there is a vibrant Sunday League circuit, county and association representative, university, corporate games along with what I politely refer to as gin and tonic cricket (aka friendlies). With a match fee and better than average tea you could make a kind of living from the summer months. But that has never been for me. I’m a Saturday League umpire – nothing else interests me.

I am not against the concept of a friendly if it is played in the right context. So a pre-season match between two clubs in the same league is good for getting the gears moving and finding out whether the Aussie overseas bowler is as much of a real deal as the winter nets suggested. Charity fundraisers are also welcome additions to the summer collection, especially when a celebrity turns an arm over. But I draw a line on the ubiquitous friendly without a cause – I’ve umpired a few and disliked the experiences from beginning to end.

There is something missing from a contest where nothing is at stake. What is lacking in quality at the lower end of the League cricket pyramid is more than made up for in the storyline, tension and drama of a match. Captains of Saturday League teams are plotting and scheming how to win the next match from their Wednesday morning coffee break. There are points and reputations at stake as players react to the pressure. A friendly, by its very definition, bears no resemblance to League cricket. Imagine Quentin Tarantino inserting a tea dance scene into Reservoir Dogs.

Look no further than an MCC friendly. I would not want to become a member of MCC but I have no problem with people who do. They chalk off thousands of days waiting until they are welcomed to the most famous cricket club in the world. And those who still play, scrub up immaculately to continue the tradition with a pressed shirt, bacon and egg tie and slacks. The hosting club also buy into the zeitgeist, ditching the discount supermarket white sliced loaves and mini rolls for a catered tea provided by the local  Italian restaurant. In these situations As I tuck into the Torta Pasquellina I wonder why we are bothering at all with the cricket.

What is lacking in abundance, however, is the edge that defines a contest. The same bowler who trundles in to deliver mediocrity at an MCC Sunday friendly will have have steamed in with a raft of toxic deliveries for his league club the day before. The fielder who would throw himself at a ball to save a run on a Saturday is sufficiently satisfied with a cursory Sunday bend of the back as the ball continues its trajectory. The same turned-down caught behind appeal in the league game on the Saturday that was met with seething rage will provoke nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders on the Sunday.

And whatever the state of the game, by the time the last hour approaches, batters, fielders and umpires have little appetite for the cricket as the club bar becomes enticingly close.

My dalliance with umpiring such games came to an abrupt end following a theatre- -of-the-absurd incident which could only happen in a fruendly. A good League club with a belting track and outfield are hosting a team whose surname is Wanderers. And wanderers they were too, being one of those cricket clubs that only played friendlies.

I am already regretting my decision to stand in this game as I have to keep both ends burning due to the non-arrival of my colleague (interestingly a not uncommon problem with friendly matches). The home club – a strong team in the top tier of their league – are giving eleven players from their seconds and thirds an opportunity to prove themselves. After a few overs it is clear they are going to get a lot of runs for few wickets – something close to three-hundred with five down after fifty overs.

On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling the Wanderers are struggling at fifty-something for three in their reply. But the number three batter has accumulated a fast thirty and while not having the poise, balance and follow-through of a Tom Graveney, he is blessed with the kind of hand-eye coordination that could see him chewing tobacco in Major League baseball or having a hill named after him at Wimbledon. An hour later he is still there having regularly smacked the ball to the rope while his mates at the other end are managing to keep the crease nice and warm.

At around 1one-hundred-and-fifty for six wickets, the odds are still stacked against the Wanderers. And then our Major League Baseball hero nicks off to slip who did his chances of being selected for the firsts no harm by holding onto a difficult low catch. Having left highly incriminating bright red evidence on the side of the bat (not to mention a loud nick that certainly carries to the pavilion car park) it is not necessary for me to raise my finger to confirm the catch. But the batter stands his ground, so I raise my finger to trigger Jo DiMaggio’s departure to the locker room  (I believe a pavilion is called as such over there). And he still stands his ground. Then the captain of the fielding side approaches to remind me that the game will be over very quickly if Jo DiMaggio is given out, so could I perhaps, reconsider my decision?

How very convivial. Let’s all go for a G&T.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bullseye without a fifty

It doesn’t really matter. Here goes nothing. It will be interesting to see what happens. (Sloan Wilson)

The old English Cricket Board (ECB) Level 1 umpiring course was excellent, although the emphasis on the Laws over match management compromised my confidence in the first couple of seasons. After passing the exam I decided to serve an apprenticeship in a lower division of the League. Panel umpires were not sent to officiate in this dangerous territory so each club had to provide its own umpire. Over those couple of years, I reckon about thirty percent of my match-day colleagues had done the Level 1 course, the other seventy per cent were made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied the challenge of umpiring and others who met the criteria of two eyes and ears.

And with the greatest respect to my colleagues in the games I umpired at this level, some tested my patience. Flip-flops, shorts, baseball cap the wrong way round were regularly the de rigeur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system awarded to the colleague who at least used initiative in actually finding a makeshift ball counter. But seriously my friend, moving six roll-ups from one pocket of your jeans to the other (not to mention lighting one up at the fall of a wicket) to count the balls in an over does not quite fit the zeitgeist of two hundred years of tradition.

In one of the first few weeks on the job I had an unwelcome episode with a fielder who was patrolling the mid-wicket area (which as you know is the perfect view to judge an LBW appeal). I had rejected a raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was high, in fact so high that the great high jumper Dick Fosbury would have struggled to get over it with his patented flip. At the end of the over player ambled over and asked with a touch of sarcasm: So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting umps? (There may have been a gerund thrown in as well). However, instead of giving the player a warning (Law 42, Players’ conduct) for this lip, I spluttered out some nonsense about height. Having voluntarily walked into a contretemps, I earned a slide down the snake.

At this level, the game is a like the collection of tacky prizes on everyone’s favourite 1980s quiz show Bullseye. The occasional Ford Escort, holiday in Estepona or speedboat in the shape of a seventy well crafted runs or a five-for bowling spell.  But the default level is a cheap radio alarm clock (four cow pats an over), an even cheaper cutlery set (a batter swinging at thin air ball after ball) and a collection of rectangular boxes that look like books to keep your videos in (a fielder screaming mine and then not attempting to catch the ball).

The purpose of the lower Divisions is not to find the next big name in cricket, it is to give twenty-tow people who love the game an opportunity to play. And play they did, despite the problems captains have at this level getting eleven players on a team sheet. And because I was a club’s umpire and not on the panel I got to hear the goss. The opening bowler’s at a stag weekend in Prague. So Geoff’s playing. Ah yes, owes-you-a-favour Geoff coming off a night shift resurfacing a motorway and turning out in whites more Faberge than Fearnley before spending three hours in the outfield adjusting his gonads.

There were some notable exceptions. A batter who had graced higher stages of the cricket pyramid turning out occasionally and scoring shedloads along with a couple of lads at university who looked the part. I recognise the importance of giving cricketers of all levels an opportunity to play. But with much of my time in the middle looking like a scarecrow signalling wide balls, I felt like the Bullseye contestants that bet the kitty on the star prize only to fall short of the required a hundred-and-one total as the legendary Jim Bowen tells them Let’s have a look at what you could have won.

The main problem was the lack of tension. A half decent team would rattle up two-hundred-and-fifty  and the journeymen I was umpiring for would be all out for a lot fewer.  And those journeymen would inflict the same kind of damage on eleven other wannabes. Then there was the issue of partiality. I’m sure there is a peer-reviewed study from one of those former polytechnics which is now a  ‘university’ on decision-making by unqualified umpires in the wilderness Divisions of Leagues. Let’s be honest when you have shared a few pints with the club chairman on Friday night, you might feel more cavalier in ensuring your team gets over the line the next day.

I was a rookie and certainly I gave some bad decisions during the apprenticeship years. But I certainly didn’t give any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. They were a great set of guys who served the best tea in the division (come to think of it, in the League) and the bar was always bouncing at the end of play.

After three seasons I swapped the set of Bullseye for the League Panel. I imagined high-roller games with qualified and neutral umpires and scorers, prepared wickets – not Anzio beach – and a minimum of four good deliveries per over and sumptuous cover drives crafted and delivered with precision. Officiating at this  high level, surely the players would appreciate the decisions of a qualified umpire. It was going to be as near to First Class cricket as I would ever get.

Be careful what you wish for.