Willey not yet ready for life of fishing
Peter Willey is having a beer - only one, mind - in the Robin Smith Suite at the Ageas Bowl, following another long day of officiating in the middle. He has played and umpired in first-class cricket for nearly half a century and yet does not look remotely ready for retirement. Mooching around is not for him. On his days off, of which there are all too few given the amount of travelling to and from fixtures that has to be undertaken, he is in the gym or enjoying his other favourite pursuit, fishing.
Nor does Willey intend on retiring, even though he turns 65 in December. That is the stipulated end-of-career age for first-class umpires in England, but he and George Sharp, an old Northamptonshire colleague, are taking the ECB to a tribunal on account of the employment laws having changed in 2011. Should they win their case - the date of the hearing should be set within the next fortnight - there will be nothing to prevent umpires continuing into old age, assuming they pass the fitness tests which are already in place.
Willey and Sharp are being advised by Prospect, the union affiliated to the TUC, who have acted for football referees and their assistants in the past. The stance that will be taken by Alan Leighton, the national secretary, is that they do not wish to block the advancement of players who wish to take up umpiring in their mid-'thirties, but that a system should be created whereby the least well-performing officials could be taken off the list each year. Even if this could throw up further legal problems.
So does Willey, the epitome of the muscular, silent sportsman whose very stare is sufficient to sort out any miscreants, regard himself as a rampant union man? "Not at all. I am not political. People say I'm a miserable person but I'm not. I just want the game played properly. I am a happy bloke inside. So long as no-one bothers me and my family, or pisses them off, I am okay.
"There will be no bitter feelings towards the ECB if George and I don't win our case. They have been very good to me and I have been lucky to have been paid as much as I have and have the winters off. I would not change anything if I could start all over again at the age of 16. I realise that if I went to the ECB and said I want to carry on umpiring until I drop dead, that would be stupid. But I could do another couple of years - not for the money, but to stay involved in the game. If not, I'll go fishing. I don't want to do any cricket committee or PCA work," he said.
"Not every umpire wants to stay on and not everyone wants me to, anyway. But we have regular health checks and if anyone develops an eyesight problem, that can be corrected. What is more tiring is all the long distance travelling we have had of late for 50-over matches. At least where I live, Northamptonshire, is ideal for getting around the country."
Willey will freely admit that his public persona has been of help to him as an umpire. But, he insists, he has not played on it. Stories of him arm-wrestling Ian Botham are mythological. "I have never done that. I have lost my temper only twice, and both times away from sport. No-one has really given me a hard time and I can spot a potential problem building up. Players respect umpires in county cricket and I believe the standard is excellent.
"At Test level, the match referees need to be stronger. The Anderson and Jadeja incident at Trent Bridge was a case in point. Instances like that can't be good for the game and nor is the involvement of lawyers. In international matches, if an umpire upsets too many people, he will be out of a job. A lot of international umpires don't want to jeopardise their jobs by slapping wrists. How strong is the ICC? Darrell Hair was an umpire who did his job properly. He knew there was ball-tampering going on," Willey said.
The standards Willey maintains on and off the field were inculcated when he began in the game in the 1960s. "I remember appealing when in the field for Northamptonshire at mid off and the Gloucestershire captain, Tony Brown, gave me a bollocking. Now, if the 12th man doesn't appeal, there is thought to be something wrong. I have played and umpired in more than 1600 matches, which I suppose could be a record. I was lucky enough to be born with a talent. Cricket is all I have ever wanted to do."
The ECB, who have negotiated with Willey and Sharp throughout the summer, will take the viewpoint at the forthcoming tribunal that the progression of young umpires should not be blocked by individuals remaining in the game beyond 65. But Leighton said: "I find it very odd that umpires who are performing perfectly well should be removed from the list."
Several members of the first-class panel pay a subscription to Prospect to be represented in any dispute, although it was Willey's own initiative to try to stay in the game through recent employment legislation. If the Hair tribunal hearing in 2007, involving prominent administrators and theatrical lawyers, is anything to go by, we are in for fascinating theatre.