No logo

Price. You’re priceless. (Bret Easton Ellis)

One of the first of many homespun philosophies I heard on the Level One umpiring course was this little gem: Badly dressed umpires will give bad decisions. It reminded me of my old dad insisting I should never leave home in anything other than proper leather shoes when my adolescent years (early seventies) coincided with the original obsession of Adidas and Puma footwear. There were plenty of door slams and gerunds as I fought for my human rights to wear trainers, to no avail.

And while I do make a serious effort to look the part for a Saturday League encounter (assiduously preparing my kit on a Friday evening), I draw the line on being a moving sandwich board for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). The blousons we wear in our League do have ECB, our Association logo and manufacturers and distributors Duncan Fearnley’s logo. I don’t have a problem with that, we pay a reasonable fee to our Association towards the cost of the blousons. As a devoted patron of Aldi, I know all about value – I’ve caught out a number of so-called informed friends who can’t tell the difference between a £1.80 bottle of branded ketchup (think 57 not out) and Aldi’s 59p in-house version. The blouson is  not the problem, it is a simply literal cover-up for the rest of the apparel.

I’m laying out my match-day paraphernalia as my colleague enters the changing room. Like many of the umpires I stand with, he is adorned head to toe with English Cricket Board Association of Cricket Officials (ECBACO) branding. His homage to the seventies Saturday night Generation Game conveyor belt includes a hat, casual polo-shirt, bag, umbrella and once he is fully changed, match-day polo shirt, trousers, socks, ball-counter, hand towel and sleeveless sweater. The only thing missing is an ECB tattoo on his index finger, although with a nickname of Dr. No (a reputation of not raising his finger), there won’t be much brand recognition for cricket’s governing body to monetise.

I have never been a dedicated follower of fashion, other than a penchant for a decent pair of shoes. Over many years I purchased Dr. Martens which combined quality with style. But that relationship came to a fractious end when I found an online outlet selling a decent leather shoe with the DM longevity and quality with a sixty percent cheaper price tag.

For umpiring, I am perfectly happy in a long-sleeve, button-up cotton white shirt, a comfortable Panama-style hat (a version of which I bought in the ubiquitous middle aisle of Aldi for under four pounds) and robust white sports shoes, each of which can be purchased from Sports Direct or Primark at a fraction of ACO-branded gear. I can assure my Association and the ECBACO that my decision-making and match management are not compromised just because my shirt is not adorned with logos.

So it is with some angst that I present you with the following delicacies available in the ECBACO umpires’ catalogue. For ninety-five pounds (take a moment to absorb that price) you can proudly sport the ECB, ACO and supplier Duncan Fearnley logos on a woollen sweater, which is of course is just the job on a Hotter than July afternoon.

Fancy a holdall to carry your stuff from the car to the pavilion? At Sports Direct you pay ten pounds which includes that company’s logo. In the ACO catalogue you pay thirty five pounds for  a comparable bag which is probably made in the same sweatshop as the branded version. But of course, for the extra twenty-five pounds, you have the honour and privilege of advertising the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley brands on your arduous trek of fifty meters.

And the mother of all marketing scams is the staggering four-hundred-and-sixty-nine pounds offer for the Match II Ultimate Pack, or as I prefer to call it, Match II Money Heist. This selection of goodies includes an on-field jacket, trousers, shirt, sweater (nope, not the ninety-five pound woollen version, rather the one that will give you an afternoon of electric shocks to help concentration as the sassy leg-spinner bamboozles you and the batter). As if that rip-off (the price, not the blouson Velcro) does not bring enough money into the ECB coffers, the pack also includes a ball counter (starting price ninety-nine pence on Amazon), bails (starting price three pounds a set on Amazon) and a small towel for rainy days, free from home but having the ECB, ACO and Duncan Fearnley logos dries the ball so much quicker.

I don’t have an issue with ECB outsourcing the production and sale of these items through Duncan Fearnley, it makes reasonable economic sense. My problem is how the ECB uses its brand tentacles to squeeze umpires’ pockets. Don’t the good folk at ECB headquarters realise that without umpires, there is no recreational cricket? I doubt that the ECB CEO Tom Harrison (2020 salary, five-hundred-and-twelve-thousand pounds) spends sleepless hours worrying that it will take an umpire the best part of a season to pay for the Match II Ultimate Pack.

An organisation that turned over one-hundred-and-seventy-eight million pounds in 2018-19 and boasts a four-year broadcasting deal between 2020-2024 worth more than one-billion pounds should be ashamed that umpires are asked to stump up so much money. I am not prepared to pay for a white button-up shirt that costs twenty-five pounds more than my non-branded shirt. And here is the irony, we are regularly advised by our association that umpires should be similarly dressed. While I understand this sentiment around uniformity, umpires already look the same  wearing the association’s blouson, so whatever is underneath becomes irrelevant.

For the intense concentration over six hundred balls; for a payment that is probably around the same as the poor folk who make this absurdly expensive merchandise; for our dedication to cricket and a whole lot more, if the governing body wants to use us for its marketing, there should indeed be a cost – to the ECB. Here’s my  suggestion: Provide the Match II Ultimate Pack free of charge to every qualified umpire in the country. I’d wear those logos with pride.

 

 

 

 

I field good

We live and move in a sea of miracle. (James Brown)

When I first started playing League cricket around fifty years ago, pre-season training consisted of a half-hour of batting and bowling in the nets followed by two hours of drinking. There was no knowledge or perception of match fitness the newspaper representing the county I supported got into the spirit with a pre-season photograph of the pros ambling around a wet county ground in an assortment of ill-fitting tracksuits, accompanied by a caption like Ready for action.

In those days there were a number of top players whose girth was the subject of mirth. You certainly could not imagine the likes of Colin Cowdrey, David Shepherd, Colin Milburn and Phil Sharpe making a sliding stop or being part of a tag-team catching a ball beyond and inside the boundary rope.

In all the years I played League cricket, the level of fielding was generally poor. From slips to covers 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 partaking in or witnessing regulation catches going to ground, shots hit directly to a fielder hitting the rope seconds later and throws from the boundary taking around twenty minutes to reach the wicket-keeper. In one of my first competitive games, I was awarded my team’s  fielding point for a few returns of the ball from third man. I didn’t break down in tears at the ceremony.

Today, it is hard to believe the guys are playing the same game. As I walk on to a ground to inspect the pitch, I am greeted by a posse of A-list Hollywood stuntmen with arms like tree trunks – the kind of guys you see on reality TV 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 wicket-keeper and push-ups for anyone who drops a catch, all coordinated by a sports scientist and director of cricket (whatever those roles actually mean).  I don’t know if Liam and Noel Gallagher are cricket fans, but in two generations League cricket fielding has gone from The Importance of Being Idle to Superstar. I occasionally do a crude calculation of runs saved by these village green acrobats and I reckon the norm is around twenty runs an innings.

Direct-hit run-outs are the new vogue, balls hit like tracer bullets are plucked off the ground with one hand and 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. But the best barometer of this renaissance involves catches in the deep. In the seventies this mine, watch out! routine resembled the set of Harold Lloyd’s slapstick masterpiece Safety Last. Today they are either clutched from the clouds with one hand or two when a fifty-metre run and dive is required.

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 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 very  essence of recreational sport.

It involves a player 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 gentleman as amply proportioned, but despite carrying a few extra kilos, he is as agile as any of the guys on the circuit. I like his demeanour when he spills a catch – there is no head in hands, he simply assumes his position behind the counter waiting for the next punter to enter the shop. Bowlers know what he is capable of, so when a catch goes down, they do not provide the dramatics of a second rate repertory troupe.

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 drives with power but the ball finds the edge and flies low and fast. I’m at square leg with a perfect view of the catch and to this day I can see his hands pluck the ball out of the tiny air bubble 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. 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 fitness and fame is something to be celebrated. As I watch their acrobatic dexterity, I recall how I wasted my years standing (literally) in the same spot. Today’s 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 one of her romcoms with the lower level of the Milk Tray box – 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)

I’m at the batter’s end for the last over before tea. I’m suffering from the heat and desperate for a cuppa. But there’s a problem – the home club teas are dreadful, both the quality of the food and logistics of eating it. I’ve been coming here for a good few years and the teas are enough under par to win the British Open. Today, I have brought my own packed tea made up of leftovers from last night’s magnificent vegetable quiche served up by Mrs Umps. Of course, I’ll join my colleague and the scorers at the tea table, and I’ll have two cups of tea, but until this club can sort out a decent tea, I’m not participating.

The British cricket club tea is a quintessential national institution that stands proudly alongside Changing of the Guard, Wimbledon, Glastonbury and losing on penalties in knockout stages of football tournaments. Given its iconic place in the British psyche, I am surprised that these teas were not on the Carry On roster of  saucy comedies. Sid James would play the home team captain as Barbara Windsor (the chairman’s daughter) emerges from the pavilion kitchen with a tray of home-made buns. Sidney: There’s a couple hanging off the edge, darling. Barbara: Ooh ‘ark at you. I ‘ope you can keep that bat raised longer than you did last night.

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 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 for me to come away from a League match feeling satiated after treading carefully around a minefield of processed sausage rolls, imitation KitKats 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 bag shaped like a pyramid, a warm carton of milk (regularly UHT) with a sell-by date in Latin and the real touch of class; a stir-it-yourself plastic spoon.

Is this desecration of a hallowed tradition really about saving money (an excuse I regularly hear 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 – it’s the ceremony and organisation that whet my appetite.

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 offer my empty 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 a visiting touring side boasting some of the greatest names in cricket, this masterclass in presentation and content is beyond the wit of the majority of clubs I visit. What used to be a baked loaf with an ample filling of cheddar and pickle has morphed into a white-sliced 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 Albert Hall. These days I am confronted with a paper plate containing Savers custard creams and bourbons with a similar taste.

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 have sent him packing with a close LBW, especially when the front of his cricket sweater has become a receptacle for a jammy dodger. Touches of some class like tablecloths, bread from the local bakery (or even the supermarket in-house version), teapots and home-made cakes is surely worth the expenditure. We should 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. We can surely replace chemically induced supermarket pizzas with salads and fresh fruit. And an obsession with the crisp family (especially Hula Hoops) is hardly a positive contribution to healthier eating.

I particularly like the entertainment served up by players performing synchronised slapstick as they shuffle along and fill their boots off a makeshift buffet. It’s like a cricketing version of the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis, a feeding frenzy as players devour platefuls of sugared confectionery before an obligatory session on the smartphone. I imagine them searching for emojis to accompany a photo they are posting on social media with the caption: Wicked tea.

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 club cricket tea. Let’s calm down and respect the game by having a civilised half-hour with polite conversation and a proper brew. Such breaks complete the day and leave me feeling refreshed and ready for whatever the next three hours may throw our way even if the groundsman (played by Bernard Bresslaw) comes in to the pavilion crying Anyone seen my big brush?

 

 

 

Able was I ‘ere I saw LB

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

Some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting a professor of neuroscience who was researching reaction times in sport. 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 (he compared Wayne Rooney to Mozart). Being able to interpret and execute Cricket’s Law 36 (Leg Before Wicket) should similarly equate every League umpire around the world with the great composer.

Before the bowler has even delivered a ball, I am watching out for back-foot placement, front-foot placement, the action, follow-through, the protected area of the wicket. And with all of this data stored in my consciousness, we then get to the business end of the decision-making process – trajectory of ball, where it pitches and its subsequent journey, how dangerous it may be, not to mention whether the batter at the bowler’s end is trying to steal a cheeky few metres.

All of of the above must be signed, sealed and delivered before I can get my head round an LBW decision which could well ruin the village blacksmith’s weekend. We make decisions all the time, but I doubt there are thirteen people (fourteen if you count your umpiring colleague) staring as you decide to run for a bus on an icy pavement.

At my age there are more sedate Saturday afternoon alternatives, notably an expedition to the tundra of Ikea with Mrs Umps where searching for a flat-pack dining room table in the warehouse can be equally as taxing as an LBW decision. It took me some time to realise that making the right LBW decision is not an exact science, it is a judgement based on evidence, knowledge and experience of Law 36 and its caveats.

Of course bowlers, batters and fielders (even those with the perfect view at long leg) bring their own interpretation to Law 36. Naturally, the bowler believes he has apprehended a burglar running out of his house carrying a 50-inch TV. But with so many mitigating circumstances, Law 36 is is a defence barrister’s Shangri-la, and if there’s any doubt, it ain’t gonna be out.

We are paid the big bucks (half a tank of petrol) to judge if the ball pitches outside leg stump. If so, the batter is not out. Is the impact of the ball outside the line of off stump and is the batter playing a shot? If so, the batter is not out. And after impact of ball hitting pad (assuming the two points above 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 even make the LBW director’s cut. The only way to deal with an LBW decision is to ignore the screaming bowler, wicket keeper, fielders, tea ladies, dog walkers and the batter examining the edge of his bat, then take a few seconds to reconstruct the crime scene, before delivering a verdict.

Reactions from batters given out are far worse than disappointed bowlers who tend to take a rejected appeal as part of the coal face shift. Occasionally, a well parented wicket-keeper backs me up, confirming to his teammates high or going down leg. So why appeal if you know it was not out? (I think we know the answer to that question). In short, batters are never out LBW. Not me guv; I wasn’t on back foot; it pitched a mile outside leg stump; couldn’t you hear the nick; way too high (pointing to his right nipple).

I am rarely kept awake worrying about umpiring decisions, but occasionally one muscles its way into a dream I might be having about scoring the winning goal in an FA Cup Final. In my first season on the League Panel, a useful medium-pacer is all over the batter like a cheap suit and the ball thuds onto the front pad on the knee role in front of the middle and off stumps. It is one of those appeals that comes with all the trimmings – wicket-keeper screaming with both arms pointing to a superior force in the sky and the bowler vociferating on one knee, Pavarotti style.

My initial inclination is to give it out as it appears to meet the criteria for releasing the guillotine blade. But in a few post-impact seconds my thought process is blurred – something is not right and I persuade myself that the impact may have been just outside the off stump and the batter has attempted to to play a front-foot defensive shot. I have allowed myself to find a reason not to give it out – and on the way home I ask myself whether I actually have the bottle to make these decisions.

This incident taught me a key lesson – understanding why we make a particular decision. It’s like doing jury service where evidence eclipses the defence QC’s mitigation – there is no room for sentiment. Today, with ten years experience under my belt, a similar scenario would end with me ruining the village blacksmith’s weekend.

One LBW decision I got right should be used on a Continuing Professional Development course for umpires. It’s my first post-qualifying apprentice season in one of the lower Divisions of the League and I give a batter out LBW. As he  reluctantly trudges away from the crease, instead of acknowledging to the arresting officer that he has been caught with his fingers in the till, he says: I hit it. I could, of course, feel his collar for the crime of dissent, and to be honest I quite like the idea of him spending the night locked in a pavilion changing room while I’m tucking into Mrs Umps’ delicious cottage pie.

What follows is written with remorse and I beg your indulgence. In those early days, I was a rookie umpire without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Terms and Conditions relating to match officiating. I can assure you that such an incident could never happen again. Indeed, since that fateful incident, I may have got some decisions wrong, but my match management has always been highly professional.

As the fielding side celebrate the LBW decision with high fives, I decide to get clever and react to the batter’s I hit it with a riposte of my own: Get the local paper on Friday sonny, and you’ll see that you didn’t hit it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dull as dishwater

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

During the months of May through to September, an umpire, if so inclined, can find a game to stand in seven days a week. Aside from Saturday League games (my tipple of choice) there is a vibrant Sunday League circuit along with county, association, university, corporate and what I politely refer to as gin and tonic cricket (aka friendlies) to accommodate umpires looking for games. With a match fee and better than average tea you could make some kind of living from the summer months. But I’m a Saturday League umpire – nothing else shakes my pebbles.

I am not against the concept of a friendly, provided 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 have 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 they leave a bad taste that reminds me of the dishwater that Pret a Manger presents as an Americano.

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 to the toss before the game. Points and reputations are at stake with the pressure mounting as the match story unfolds. By its very definition, a friendly bears no resemblance to League cricket. Imagine Quentin Tarantino inserting a tea dance into Reservoir Dogs.

Look no further than an MCC friendly. Wannabe entrants to this most famous of cricket clubs chalk off thousands of days waiting to sport the bacon and egg tie and jacket. And those who represent this club in friendlies will scrub up immaculately with a pressed shirt, tie, slacks and a jacket that comes with a zipped cover rather than a brown paper bag from Primark.

The host club buy into the spirit, ditching the discount supermarket white sliced loaves and mini rolls for a catered tea provided by a local Italian or Indian  restaurant. As I tuck into the Torta Pasquellina I wonder why we are bothering at all with the cricket. Add to the mix a bartender of repute serving the umpires with a post-match complimentary drink of choice and you might think that this is how the good Lord brainstormed the perfect Sunday afternoon.

What is lacking, however, is the edge that defines a contest. The same bowler who trundles in to deliver mediocrity at an MCC Sunday friendly has steamed in with a toxic cocktail of chin music for his League club the day before. The fielder who throws himself at a ball to save a run on a Saturday is satiated with a cursory Sunday bend of the back as the ball continues its trajectory to the boundary. The same turned-down caught behind appeal in a League game that is met with seething rage, provokes nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders as the triple-barrelled MCC batter adjusts his cravat ready for the next ball.

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

As we take the field, 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 outing. After a few overs it is clear they are going to get a lot of runs for very few wickets – something close to three-hundred with five down after fifty overs.

The catered tea is indeed the highlight of the day. I sit with the Travelling Willburys and the chat is all about deals, business trips to New York and cars – their expertise on this subject is backed up by a display of luxury on four wheels in the parking lot. It’s too late in my life to linger on what could have been, and we take the field for the second innings. 

On this flat track and against a variable quality of bowling, the Wanderers are struggling at fifty-something for three. 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 smacking the ball to the rope while his colleagues at the other end keep the crease warm.

At around one-hundred-and-fifty for six wickets, the odds are still stacked against the Wanderers. And then the Major League hero nicks off to slip who does 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 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. And still he stands his ground.

The captain of the fielding side approaches to remind me that the game will be over very quickly if The Yankee Clipper is given out, so could I perhaps, reconsider my decision?

How very convivial – pour me a G&T.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fred Karno’s Circus

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 these no-go areas so each club provided its own umpire. Over those three years, I reckon about thirty percent of my colleagues had done the Level 1 course, with the other seventy percent made up of club officials, players’ mates who fancied the challenge of umpiring and others who met the criteria of two eyes and ears, but No balls.

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 often the de rigueur dress code with the mother of all two fingers up at the system awarded to the fellow 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 to count the balls in an over (not to mention lighting one up at the fall of a wicket) does not quite fit the zeitgeist of nearly three centuries 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 vantage point to judge Leg Before Wicket. I had rejected this raucous appeal, not because I was the batting side umpire, but because it was so high that Dick Fosbury would have struggled to get over it. At the end of the over the fielder ambled over and asked: 

So which one of the three stumps wasn’t that ball hitting, umps? (If I remember rightly, there may have been a gerund thrown in as well). 

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 this contretemps, I was sliding down the snake at great speed. With Mrs Umps reading every word of these posts, I wouldn’t dream of equating this metaphor with a registry office.

At this level, cricket is like the collection of tacky prizes on the iconic 1980s quiz show Bullseye. Winning a Ford Escort, a holiday in Estepona or a speedboat is out of the question. 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 with embossed book titles for your videos (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-two people who love cricket an opportunity to play at a competitive level. 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 as he spends 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 shed loads along with some youngsters who showed genuine promise. Sure, I recognise the importance of giving cricketers of all levels an opportunity to play, but signalling so many wides made me look like a scarecrow on crack. I felt like the Bullseye contestants that bet the kitty on the star prize only to fall short of the required one-hundred-and-one total, with the legendary Jim Bowen turning up the humiliation volume with 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. Let me be clear, my soul was not for sale, however many pints I may or may not have shared with the club chairman during the week. 

I was a rookie and yes, I made some bad decisions during those apprenticeship years. But I certainly didn’t make any that knowingly favoured the club I was attached to. They were a great set of guys who served up the best teas in the Division – if not the League – and the bar was always bouncing at the end of play.

After serving my time in the Fred Karno big top, I was rehabilitated and accepted an invitation onto the League panel. Swapping the set of Bullseye for Mastermind, I imagined high-roller games with qualified and neutral umpires, scorers, prepared wickets replacing Anzio beach, a minimum of four good deliveries per over, sumptuous cover drives and groupies from a nearby care home queueing for my autograph. 

I looked forward to teas prepared by celebrity chefs, showers with piping hot water, my name on the changing room door in the Caesar’s Palace font and an International Cricket Council functionary inviting me for an interview to join the Elite Panel of Test umpires. I surmised that officiating at this high level would ensure that players would gracefully accept the decisions of a qualified umpire, while evoking the spirit of Corinthian sportsmanship.

Be careful what you wish for.