So you want to be an umpire?

The Test match umpires have copped a bit of criticism this season, and they have my sympathies. For the past few summers I’ve spent my Saturdays umpiring the local cricket competition and I’ve discovered it’s not always an easy gig.

We play on both turf and matting wickets although sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Weeds grow through the matting and the turf is usually rolled fit for aircraft landings.

I played a fair bit myself at various levels in a variety of competitions then retired comparatively early – just before I turned 50 – a victim of failing knees. My mate Tim plays on with the philosophy that true cricketers never retire, they just move down a grade.

Given that in my last season Tim and I were teammates in an E Grade matting premiership, the opening pair no less, I’m not sure where he pads up now. I thought it more sensible to don the powder blue shirt and crisp black trousers of an umpire.

In the lower matting grades, the teams comprise the captain, usually north of 45 and the one person who understands the game, one or two of his sons and a mate or two from the under 15s who are happy to field on the boundary but wary of facing the new ball, two or three others of middle age who may have been fair cricketers in their prime but can now field only close to the wicket and bat high up the order when there’s no call for quick singles, and a handful of nondescript individuals aged between 20 and 30 who don’t understand the game but think it keeps them fit between cigarettes and beer.

“Where do you want me?” the fielders ask their captain almost every ball.

“Backward of square, half-way to the boundary,” the captain says optimistically, then watches his player shuffle down to long-off where there’s a bit of shade from an over-hanging tree.

Captaincy can be a frustrating responsibility. One once posted a fielder in covers with the brief to patrol everywhere between gully and long off. The fielder was clearly annoyed so I sympathised with him at the end of the over, only to discover that this would be his last game before having a knee reconstruction, an injury his captain didn’t consider serious.

Actually this captain had some justification for his tough approach: the relevant fielder had turned out resplendent in a green and yellow tam o’shanter and blue sneakers. I had less truck for the captain who stopped his opening bowler mid-delivery stride to berate the short-leg fielder who’d turned his cap round backwards, Lleyton Hewitt style: “Never in my team do I ever want to see that, etc etc …”

Most teams position the biggest bloke with the least reliable knees at slip while the keeper is generally the best of the rest. Neither of them can be counted on to catch the ball.

Opening bowlers mark out their run with great deliberation but half-way through their third over decide that coming in off a shorter run will give them more penetration. Their second spell might be the leg-breaks they dabbled with at training. The puffing and blowing gets so bad after the tea break I now have ambulance on speed dial.

One hot day we allowed a puce-faced batsman to retire hurt due to extreme exhaustion. Turns out he’d had heart surgery fairly recently and had been advised by his surgeon to take it easy. We admired his enthusiasm but wished he’d stayed in the shade.

Our league is in the western suburbs where one of the great features is the proximity of so many grounds to the airport. When the wind is blowing right, medium-pacers trundle up to the crease with an A380 rising behind their bowling arm.

Such distractions rarely influence the play, however. With few exceptions batsmen get themselves out, usually swatting optimistically at straight balls.

“Great ball,” they mutter to the celebrating bowler as they head off, convincing themselves their match-winning knock has been truncated by a sensational piece of bowling, no doubt from a bowler unqualified for this grade playing under an assumed name.

Several teams in our league are drawn from the growing communities of migrants from the Indian sub-continent. Irrespective of their ability with either bat or ball, these teams excel at appealing.

A touch of pad, or a near miss surprisingly gloved by the wicketkeeper is the signal for a universal roar. The keeper hurls off his gloves in celebration, the bowler charges down to embrace his slips.

“Er, not out,” the confused umpire responds, wondering if he’s at the same game as the players.

“Down leg, was it ump?” asks the bowler, usually cheerfully.

“By miles. And he edged it into his pads above the roll, and the keeper took it on the bounce.”

These sub-continental teams conduct most of their on-field chatter in Hindi, or maybe Urdu or Sinhalese, or possibly something else altogether. An opposition batter once appealed, claiming it was unfair he couldn’t understand the fielders’ sledging. He argued umpires had the authority to make the opposition speak English.

Caught-behind appeals are usually the toughest for umpires, at our level at least. To bowlers, keepers and slips, every tiny sound as the ball passes bat must be a nick, ignoring other explanations such as bats touching the wicket, pads flapping or ill-fitting helmets shifting. Often umpires don’t even hear the nick, and certainly don’t notice a deflection.

“Didn’t hear anything, gotta give the batsman benefit of the doubt,” I respond quickly. The resulting incredulous profanity I ignore.

Several times a season a spurned bowler responds with “that’s the worst decision I’ve ever seen on a cricket field”.

In a one-sided grand final a few seasons back, the opening bowler was clobbered high in the air by a tail-ender trying to score the missing 93 runs off the penultimate over. The ball landed on top of a boundary cone.

“Six!” I called and signalled, despite the closest fielder indicating it was only four.

“What?” screamed the bowler. “You’re here and he’s there and said it was four! That’s the worst decision I’ve ever seen.”

This season alone, apparently I’ve given the two worst decisions ever seen on a cricket field. Next season I must try to improve.


Hugh Jones lives in Melbourne's inner west and writes about sport and music, despite being long retired from exercise and unable to play a note. He spent most of his working career as a journalist with News Corporation which may explain his view of life.

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