1989

The outrageous Cec

Stephen Thorpe recalls a great character, legspinner, legpuller and umpire Cec Pepper

Stephen Thorpe recalls a great character, legspinner, legpuller and umpire Cec Pepper

When Cecil George Pepper joined the umpiring ranks, that hardy breed who had so often during his playing days been the butt of jocular jibes and the source of much malcontent, it was without doubt the ultimate cricket irony. The Adelaide Incident of 1946, or more specifically a contretemps with umpire Jack Scott, proved a turning point in life right at his career's outset and the ensuing years up to retirement in 1963 had been a perennial litany of anti-authoritarian stances, including his periods as a Lancashire League professional, when he admitted abusing umpires as a gimmick of self-promotion.

The old warhorse George Pope, pro at CLL club Heywood after his England and Derbyshire days, informed the Rochdale pro that `the important thing in this game for a professional is not how well you play but how much personality you project. You must keep people talking about you'. Australian golf star Norman Von Nida, a close associate, advised him similarly: `After the Bradman row all you need to do is keep on abusing umpires and you'll stay in the public eye.'

Humour was always a strong element in Pepper's character, a trait that enlivened many a match in which he played or stood, and which sometimes rebounded on him. Malice, though, was never really an accompanying byword. Perhaps recalling an exchange in his final year in the Lancashire League, Pepper decided to join the list. He'd apologised to Harry Wood, a dyed-in-the-wool Lancastrian, for his over-zealous, loudly exclamatory appealing coloured with sundry expletives. Wood told him not to worry, `it were all part o't'game', and then retorted after the next appeal, `Not out, you fat Australian bastard!'

Eddie Phillipson first prompted the move, and was supported by Lancashire secretary Jack Wood. Then when Billy Griffith was approached at Lord's he thought it a splendid idea and `just what the circuit needed'. He tempered his opinion somewhat later. A quarter-century ago no entrance test or hearing and eyesight requirements were necessary and Pepper accordingly joined the list as a matter of course for the 1964 season. Many observers were surprised that his forthrightness endured the next 15 years, but at that time remuneration was negligible and umpiring was never seen as an attractive vocation.

So Pepper stepped out at Trent Bridge on May 6, 1964 to stand in his first match. Much later he recalled he started umpiring to put something back into the game and (chuckling) `to find someone as good as me. I'm still looking!' If he was intent on making an early impression he certainly had the desired effect. In inimitable style he introduced for the occasion a new line in sartorial elegance - specially-made cotton coats adorned with loops for bails, and set off by fetching tassled golf shoes.

Most players found him an excellent umpire, forthright, honest and, most importantly, receptive to badinage. He rarely made a mistake and treated all players as friends, contending that the first impression on considering an appeal was correct nine times out of 10. Peter Wight, currently the longest-serving umpire, started at the same time and had met him at Burnley back in 1951. They later became the first two foreigners to stand together in a first-class match. He remembered Pepp as `very outspoken and boisterous, but well liked and extremely generous after play, and he listened as well as talked'.

He never distanced himself from the players and was greatly appreciated as a true character, and is remembered, along with Arthur Jepson and Bill Alley, as the last of the real personality umpires. H. D. Bird is a `character', of course, but one of a different genre, an Establishment man.

Players sometimes misinterpreted Pepper's post-match camaraderie. Once, at Westcliff, he joined the Essex team on a particularly heavy night-time session then dismissed seven of them the following day, earning a sobriquet from Hampshire's benefactor Bob Cottam: `It's Alan Ladd - the fastest gun in the west!' Such fraternisation was instrumental in Pepper never graduating to the Test panel. Donald Carr told him as much when criticising his closeness to the players, and the ill-feeling engendered over the allotment of Tests to a narrow circle of umpires continually rankled with Pepper and eventually led to his departure from the game in 1979.

At the outset Charlie Elliott had advised him to cosset the captains if he wanted to progress, a suggestion that proved utter anathema. Top players also received favoured treatment, `especially May, Cowdrey, Barrington and company, but I never condoned this, I used to shoot'em out no matter who,' said Pepp. Touring captains were another favoured breed and, it was said, always got three knocks. Cyril Washbrook remarked to him that captaincy was worth up to 400 runs a season.

The burly Australian Billy Alley, very much a clone in physique, temperament and outlook, rarely stood with Pepper because Brian Langley, the umpiring co-ordinator at Lord's, purposely kept them apart. Whenever the juxtaposition did arise, there were normally a few additions to the annals of umpiring anecdotes. Alley once asked Billy Griffith, the MCC secretary, before a Middlesex- Essex game, if anyone had ever been sent off at Lord's and remarked that it was a distinct possibility that morning because there were `a few bad buggers in both teams'. `Please, for God's sake, don't do that, Bill,' remonstrated Griffith. `It would be a slur on MCC. What other ambitions do you have left?'

Alley's reply caused absolute apoplexy. Agreeing it was getting a bit late for the Test match panel, he ventured that he still harboured aspirations of umpiring an England- Australia Test at Lord's with Cec Pepper! With real trepidation in his voice, Griffith stuttered, `Oh no, we could NEVER have that!'

Alley did manage two stints as a Test umpire when he was co-opted to deal with the so-called `Aussie element' on Australian tours. The second and last time he was dropped Pepper rang to admonish him: `I told you your big mouth would cause trouble.' It was the last time they spoke.

Pepper's outspokenness was a major hindrance in Establishment eyes and he certainly carried a chip on his shoulder about the lack of big-match work. At umpires' meetings he would get irritated and fume over majority decisions he disagreed with. This forthrightness was much appreciated where it really mattered - on the field - though it was occasionally marked by a certain antagonism towards coloured players. Again, a trait that did not endear him to the hierarchy. Yet in his earlier days as a league professional he'd formed a close friendship with Frank Worrell and called the partnership `the Black and White Minstrels'.

Partly because of this all incoming West Indian professionals beat a path to his door on arrival. He even bought Worrell a £1000 car during his Manchester University days. On reflection, this could have been another reason why he was so popular - such news travels fast in the islands. Worrell paid him back later. Collie Smith too was a great friend and Pepper was present at his death-bed on the fateful night of the car accident.

At the same time Indian Test batsman Vijay Manjrekar was professional at the now sadly defunct Castleton Moor club in the CLL, and given to wearing startling check check jackets. Pepper would greet him with `Hey, Manjy, did you pull that coat off a bloody horse?' and then invariably bowl him. His most acidic remarks were often reserved for coloured players, and Sobers was a popular target, though he regularly paid off the West Indian's gambling debts.

Pepper enjoyed an inauspicious start to the 1972 season and had £120 stolen from his jacket pocket at Lord's during the MCC v Surrey game in April. The club was understandably disturbed, but Cec was philosophical. `Not the sort of thing one expects at Lord's, is it?' he grumbled. By August his humour had returned. For some reason (the distance from HQ may have been purely coincidental) Pepper regularly officiated in Scotland matches, and Warwickshire were the hosts at Edgbaston. Bill Blenkiron had been replaced by Barbadian Bill Bourne at the pavilion end. Brian Hardie, before his move to Essex, was informed loudly by Cec: `Batsman, change of bowler ... same action ... different colour.'

Such lighthearted indiscretions would no doubt have brought charges of racialism in today's more strictured climate but at that time such irreverence was accepted by all as part of the Pepper personality. On another occasion Younis Ahmed was unaware he'd become the object of the umpire's inimitable humour. During the petrol shortage and speed restrictions, at Worcester against the Universities, John Inchmore was edged to third man where Younis, never a popular character, allowed three runs. Inchmore threatened to `do' him, but Pepper lessened the animosity with a kindly aside that the Pakistani was probably unaware that the speed limit had been lifted!

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