June 5, 2014

Who would be a player-umpire?

The pros have to deal with the pressure of high stakes and being shown up by technology, but the village ump's job isn't any easier

The village umpire has to brave the dilemma between sportsmanship and team spirit © Getty Images

Wearing an ill-fitting white coat, the pockets filled with stones, coins, or even one of those shiny metal counters, the amateur umpire bravely takes the field. Despite the club cricketer preparing himself for the summer toiling in the nets, scouring the sports shops for that magical piece of kit that will transform his season, none of us have read an updated rule book. Or, more importantly, psychologically readied ourselves for the key decisions that can fracture friendships and team unity, and even start family feuds.

Although the word umpire derives from the Old French nompere - "not a peer", and thus able to pass judgement without bias - the village friendly is adjudicated by fellow players. In an Authors CC match last year our opening bat, Richard Beard, was struck in front and the subject of a bellowed appeal. His team-mate and fellow novelist Alex Preston was the judge. Paralysed by the dilemma of either dismissing his colleague or fending off the opposition, he chose debate: "Well," he addressed Richard. "Do you think you were out?" I can't recall if Richard had tucked his bat under his arm before the finger went up, but it was the first time I'd heard an umpire ask a batsman to adjudicate his own leg-before. Alex subsequently won the "Decision of the Season" award at our annual dinner.

I like to think there is a tacit agreement between club players, an unspoken contract that no bowler expects anything less than an utterly plumb leg-before to be judged out by one of his friends. There is nothing that causes more foreboding than a skipper who gets a crick in his neck walking back to the pavilion because he's glaring at the wicket, where you're already lobbying the opposition to support your gross error. "He was plumb, wasn't he?" you whimper. "I couldn't not give that." As your weakening voice trails off, so does your position in the batting order. And even if you're sure he was plumb, without the DRS, the path of a ball is eternally subjective.

The father-son umpire-player dynamic is not quite as straightforward. A sporting dad, fearing the slur of favouritism, may over-compensate, and the rap on son's pad accompanied by the squeak of an appeal is enough to send him packing. Then there are the father-son partnerships that are impregnable, where no plumb appeal or middle to first slip will dislodge son from the crease. And beware the batsman taking guard when son is bowling and dad is standing behind the stumps.

"How is that, Dad?"

"That's out, son."

By celebrating the bravery of the player-umpire, I'm certainly not dismissing the service of our professional guardians. Although technology has revealed the limits of the human eye in predicting the path of a 95mph projectile no bigger than an apple, our watching overlords will forever be essential to maintaining the spirit of the game.

If it wasn't for umpire Tony Crafter putting his body on the line between Australia and Pakistan in Perth in 1981, the bat-wielding Javed Miandad might have knocked off more than Dennis Lillee's headband. Only last month, during the Mumbai Indians versus Royal Challengers game did another flashpoint nearly erupt into a Mount Vesuvius. Mitchell Starc bowled a sidewinder at Kieron Pollard as he backed out of facing the incoming delivery. Pollard retaliated by launching his bat. Thankfully neither Starc's ball nor Pollard's blade hit their target. It took both umpires to settle the remonstrating offenders - tempers neither Chris Gayle nor Virat Kohli could cool despite their best efforts at conflict resolution - and I wonder if a yellow-card system, similar to that in rugby, where players are suspended from the game in action, should be considered.

Although the abandonment of a North Leicestershire league game in the 1970s is not quite as high-profile as an IPL dust-up, it was a match that might have been completed with neutral umpires. My father told me that the usual verbals had already been exchanged, and once the batsman and bowler abruptly began trading blows, the players in the pavilion stormed the pitch and warred like vikings. Police were called, the teams fined and relegated, with lengthy bans for both captains. The only good that came from this battle was that my father was made skipper and took the team straight back into the division they had been demoted from.

I've heard exotic anecdotes of players killing umpires, and umpires killing players, but I've personally never seen anything more heated in the professional arena than Mike Gatting versus Shakoor Rana in 1987 in Faislabad. Gatting's finger-wagging was instrumental in changing the way games were officiated: "In some ways it was good for cricket, because neutral umpires came in immediately after that episode," Gatting said.

The importance of neutrality is recognised by the upper divisions of the amateur leagues, who send out armies of men in white coats every weekend. If it wasn't for these dedicated arbiters, the flask-carrying hobbyists who criss-cross the country from park minefield to village green, usually with little more than petrol money and a space reserved at the front of the tea line as payment, perhaps even more friendships would be ruined and pitch battles fought.

However, I'm still glad we can adjudicate our own matches. I enjoy walking out to the middle with the opening batsmen. I get to see how the wicket is playing, which end I might choose to bowl. True, I'm certainly a card-carrying member of the "bowler's union", that affiliation which allows me to be lenient with wides and secretly appreciate the jaffa ball that takes out off stump. And the umpire has the best view on the pitch - just reward for braving the impossible dilemma between sportsmanship and team spirit.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky, was nominated for the IMPAC literary award