County news February 5, 2015

Willey, Sharp make last stand against ECB


Peter Willey and George Sharp attended a three-day hearing in London © PA Photos

The Central London Employment Tribunal is accustomed to dealing with distraught individuals whose careers have been terminated in their relative infancy. As senior judge Joanna Wade mentioned this week, presiding over the futures of two cricket umpires in their mid-60s, with glowing testimonies as to their unimpaired abilities, is an altogether different matter. Hence the outcome of the age discrimination and unfair dismissal case brought by Peter Willey and George Sharp against the ECB is a hard one for even experienced lawyers to call.

The ECB's final review of Willey, after 22 years as an umpire in both international and county cricket, reads: "Another very impressive year from a very senior umpire whose influence on colleagues cannot be over-estimated. As ever, your match control, overall awareness and presence, and a tacit concern always to serve the game's best interests are sterling qualities for which we are grateful." No reason, you would think, for any employer to wish to dispense with his services. Nor those of Sharp, who has 23 years' experience to his name following a long career as a player.

There is no doubting, too, the willingness of both men to assist younger colleagues. And they have an all-important reputation for being able to deal with any trouble on the pitch. Tales of arm-wrestling between Willey and Ian Botham, however fanciful, have long worked in Willey's favour. Both he and Sharp, however, have reached the statutory retirement age of 65; or at least Willey has and Sharp will have done before the start of the new season. The ECB's take is that they have to make way for younger, newly retired cricketers who wish to stay in the game by ascending from the reserve umpiring list to the first-class panel.

Under changed employment legislation, introduced in 2011, employers have to come up with a justification as to why individuals must retire at 65. In addition to their competence, no one is questioning the fitness of either Willey or Sharp. An optometrist examines the eyesight of every umpire each year and has found no fault with either. There is little, if any, doubting, that they would continue to enhance the game.

One of the prime arguments put forward by Chris Kelly, the ECB's umpires manager, for adhering to a rigid retirement policy, was that he would not wish to have to terminate their careers if and when they began to lose their faculties. John Holder, the retired umpire called in support of his two former colleagues, said they would still be capable of standing in the middle all day, judgements unimpaired, when they were 80. Kelly believes men of their standing should quit when at the top of their game, in a dignified way.

Kelly said that, in not allowing Willey and Sharp to carry on, he had their standing in the game in mind. "I did not want their dignity to be threatened" he said, although he admitted there was no evidence of physical or eyesight deterioration to support the theory. He emphasised the importance of health and safety issues through knowing of three umpires who have struck by balls driven by batsmen.

"The umpires all tell me the game is constantly speeding up and they feel more vulnerable when the ball is hit in their direction," Kelly said. "The physical and mental demands on them are greater. Would it be sensible to have umpires still standing at 75 or 80? I suspect not."

Another aspect emphasised was that Willey and Sharp do not want to leave the game they love. Evidently neither wants to sit around at home. Willey, who made his first-class debut at the age of 16 and has been in the game for 49 uninterrupted years, said in his witness statement that for personal reasons he had not been able actively to seek employment since his enforced retirement. Willey said that his family were concerned he had been suffering from depression over his uncertain future and were worried what would happen to him psychologically if he remained unemployed come the start of the new season in April.

"I have been very distressed that I have not been allowed to continue in my job," he said. "I felt that after 49 years in the game, 22 as an umpire, still respected for my umpiring and as a person around the first-class circuit, all my knowledge was being cast aside because of my age, not my ability."

Sharp, who also gave evidence, said he had been unable to find employment since the end of last season and was undertaking a course in cricket scoring to try and remain in the game. "My loyalty and dedication have been totally disregarded by the ECB when considering my desire to continue. To this day I cannot understand the policy," he said in his statement.

The plain talking of both men was in marked contrast to the long-winded approach of their legal teams, who were not cricket experts and went off, at times, down cul-de-sacs of third and reserve umpires. Asked by Ms Wade about how he would feel if he were to receive a tap on the shoulder by the ECB to stand down, should he continue umpiring, Sharp responded: "I've had the sack before. I got on with life." He told the tribunal he would know when his standards were dropping. "I was offered a two-year contract extension as a player by Northamptonshire when I was 35, but I knew it was time to give up."

A tribunal judgement is expected before the end of February.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ian on February 6, 2015, 17:58 GMT

    @ Steve Turner: I'm with you on this one. Thirty years ago - when life expectancy was significantly less than it is today - leaving work at 65 was appropriate in many instances. Now, being shown the door at 65 is risible. Peter Willey is as fit as many men much younger than he- and both he and George Sharp are experienced and respected umpires. Asking for a couple of years more after long service, provided they retain their high standards on the field - dammit - it should be a rubber-stamp issue. Once again, the ECB is woefully out of touch and making themselves look ridiculous. Would someone remind me of the retiring age for High Court judges? Their adjudications are a little more serious than those of the cricket umpire!

  • Jude on February 6, 2015, 17:37 GMT

    Look at Willey in the photo - he looks fitter than a butcher's dog. His hair is less grey than mine and he's got 2 decades on me. The man exudes health and competence. He's apparently harder than a coffin nail and players respect him because of his standing in the game and the fact he's an excellent umpire. The ECB shoot themselves in the foot so often they must be hobbling around on ragged stumps.

  • David on February 6, 2015, 12:48 GMT

    Lift the retirement age to 70 (but no higher). Also ensure there are fitness assessments each year for the more senior umpires. Perhaps some of the over-70s could even still be 3rd umpires and match referees.... However, Mr Willey, we all have to retire at some point - life goes on and there is more to it than just standing in cricket matches.

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2015, 9:12 GMT

    UK is full of age related laws, most of which are based on ignorant generalisations about age in both children and adults. Laws like this hold up the development of children as well as casting aside experience as in this case. The ignorance and laziness of administators, in working in such a way is laughable and brings them into disrepute suggesting they should be 'retired' out before they do more harm when they are supposed to be acting in the interests of the game or whatever field they work in. Jobsworths all of them but that's what boarding school boys inevitably become.

  • David on February 6, 2015, 8:46 GMT

    The real problem with umpires is not age - it is that some of them are not very good. It is a great pity that the ECB do not use all the footage they collect from counties to analyse umpires' performances and use the results to weed out the under-performers

  • Jason on February 6, 2015, 8:32 GMT

    I can understand the desire to bring in younger umpires and there has to be a limit set, Surely the two umpires could move over to training the next generation of umpires or what would be great is to have an umpire on commentary giving their perspective on decisions made rather than ex-players,

  • Dummy4 on February 6, 2015, 7:21 GMT

    it would be interesting to see how much money the ECB are spending defending the indefensible here. probably only a drop in the ocean of cash they're swimming in, but a huge sum to any grassroots club it could be benefitting instead.

  • adeel on February 6, 2015, 0:47 GMT

    ECB is good at sacking people that matter and make a difference to english cricket and cricket in general...

    if new umpires should be blooded then there are plenty of games of cricket in england and around the world to do it. or maybe make them umpire coaches? or 3rd umpire since it doesn't require physical standing in the game. there are options !

  • Dummy4 on February 5, 2015, 23:17 GMT

    The ECB don't have a leg to stand on.

  • Dummy4 on February 5, 2015, 23:08 GMT

    Don't the ECB just try your patience? Must they make a dog's dinner of everything they're involved in? Instead of taking a sensible approach, they base their argument around what-if situations, and justify their actions based on these imaginary scenarios. It's almost as if they have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.

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