Chester's unique place in cricket, 1954

Thirty years as an umpire

Vivian Jenkins

Umpires, like week-ends off and the water supply, are apt to be taken for granted. Until something goes wrong, that is. Then they assume a vast importance. Indeed, one might go further: it is only when they make a mistake that their talents get the measure of attention they deserve. Homeric nods, as it were, or recognition by way of omission. Then the full blast of publicity sweeps down on their uncovered heads, and doubtless, through sleepless nights, they wish themselves anywhere but there they are. Messrs. Scott and Barlow, who stood--nearly everything--in Australia in 1946-47, could enlarge on this theme.

Never, for instance, can there have been such a hullabaloo about a mere mark on the bat as attended the dismissal of Edrich, l.b.w., in the Third Test, at Melbourne; never such worldwide clamour over so infinitesimal a noise. Bradman, Hutton, Bedser, Miller and the rest were swept from the stage. Every headline, every purple outpouring of the more indignant scribes was let loose on the unfortunate official concerned. He became front page news. Indirectly, no greater tribute to umpires and their functions could have been paid.

Infallibility, it seems, and nothing else, is good enough. Even Len Hutton or Alec Bedser is permitted an occasional lapse from grace. But umpires, never. It prompts the paradoxical thought that the Perfect Umpire, assuming that such a one ever existed, has probably never been heard of by the world at large. He made the mistake, in Irish parlance, of never making a mistake.

Of all the umpires of modern times no one has figured more largely, both in print and popular esteem, than Frank Chester. It is safe to assume, then, that he has made his mistakes. But, if so, they have been remarkably few, and have served to accentuate, not minimise, his virtues. If anything, he is the exception that proves the rule. His good points claim more attention than his bad ones.

What umpire, for instance, could hope for a bigger tribute than the following? Sir Donald Bradman, if anyone, should know about umpires--he spent more time than you or I or almost anyone else in their immediate vicinity. In his book Farewell to Cricket he has this to say of Chester: "Without hesitation I rank Frank Chester as the greatest umpire under whom I played. In my four seasons' cricket in England he stood for a large percentage of the matches and seldom made a mistake. On the other hand, he gave some really wonderful decisions. Not only was his judgment sound, but Chester exercised a measure of control over the game which I think was desirable." From an Australian, and the most famed one, on a topic he could well be forgiven for regarding with a somewhat jaundiced eye, this is praise par excellence. It emphasises Bradman's severely analytical approach to the game, with sentiment and prejudice ruthlessly pruned.

Elsewhere in the same book Bradman makes reference to what he described as "the cleverest decision ever made against me." At Nottingham in the First Test of 1938, the records show him as having been dismissed in his side's first innings, for 51, c Ames b Sinfield. Says Bradman: "The ball turned from the off, very faintly touched the inside edge of the bat, then hit my pad, went over the stumps and was caught by Ames whilst all this was happening amidst a jumble of feet, pads and bat. I slightly over-balanced, and Ames whipped off the bails for a possible stumping. There was an instant appeal to the square-leg umpire who gave me not out, whereupon Ames appealed to Chester at the bowler's end, and very calmly, as though it was obvious to all, Chester simply said 'Out, caught,' and turned his back on the scene. It was one of those remarkable pieces of judgment upon which I base my opinion that Chester was the greatest of all umpires." No one claiming admission to an umpiring Valhalla could hope to produce a better reference.

Recently there have been one or two dissentients among international cricketers of slightly less imposing stature, but Bradman's opinion is the one likely to last. If there is one small chink in Chester's armour--and recent duodenal trouble has not improved it--it is his disinclination to suffer fools, and more particularly knaves, gladly. He has been known to embellish an answer to an appeal with some forthright comment of his own. "Not out, and that was a very bad appeal" fell from his lips on one occasion to a very famous bowler on an international occasion at Lord's.

Some may cavil at this, feeling that the umpire's function is discharged by the unadorned yea or nay, and no more. If that is so, the corollary applies, surely, that the players also must behave themselves. Bowlers who throw the ball down in disgust, fielders who appeal for l.b.w. from all points of the compass, batsmen who mutter as they retire to the pavilion cannot go unchecked for ever. It is asking too much of human nature. They, too, transgress the unwritten laws, and any faults they profess to find in the umpire merely mirror their own action. To the young player, by contrast, making his first appearance in the big match Chester could be kindliness itself. I speak here, as many others could, from personal experience.

Hearing, eyesight and knowledge of the Laws of the game are laid down by Chester as the three main requisites in an umpire's make-up. Impartiality, of course, he takes for granted. "You never umpire for this team or that," he says, "you just umpire."

Some village green officials of our acquaintance may object to the imputations, but cannot quarrel with the maxim. Give the batsman the benefit of the doubt is another catch-phrase with which Chester holds no truck. There never should be any doubt, he says. Wherein he voices a doctrine of perfection beyond most people's scope. It's all right for him--you can hear the objectors massing to their own defence. But to Chester himself the remark comes naturally, and does not offend the hearer familiar at first hand with his talents.

What manner of man is this--the most famous umpire of our time--with 56 Tests behind him, a record unapproached and, unless infants in arms take on the job, unapproachable? Tallish, but sparely built, with a slight stoop when at the wicket--occupational perhaps, in quest for eternal no-balls--he might easily be taken for a Cockney, but for his accent and the certain fact that he was born in Hertfordshire. He has, above all, the Londoner's intense awareness of all that is going on around him, and the quick and witty response. His eyes are his most striking feature, quick, alive, ever ready to pounce on the unusual. In another sphere he might have made his mark in the C.I.D.

Umpires, traditionally, are inanimate and, for all one knows, asleep. No one could ever accuse Chester of this. Intensity is the keynote of all he does. It communicates itself even to those outside the boundary--how much more so, then, to the players. As Bradman says, he not only officiates, he takes control, a rare quality among those who too often are content to stand and wait. In the records his date of birth is given as January 20, 1896, and the place--Bushey, Hertfordshire, where he lives to this day.

From early youth he was nurtured in the game. Gilbert Jessop, R. E. Foster and Frank Mason were among those he watched as an eager schoolboy on the local ground. Ambition fired, he made his own debut for Bushey at the age of twelve. At thirteen he topped the club batting averages. At fourteen, on the recommendation of Alec Hearne, of Kent and England, he sallied forth to qualify for Worcestershire. In 1912, when only sixteen and a half--he won his county cap--surely the youngest ever to do so. In that year the Australians and South Africans were here for the Triangular Tournament, and he played against both countries.

In 1913 he scored three centuries. One of them, 128 not out v. Hampshire at Southampton, was coupled with six wickets for 43 runs on the same day. His batting followed the mood of the times. Stroke play, and if the runs came so much the better. If not, stroke play just the same. At Coalville, against Leicestershire in 1914, he hit 93 in one hour ten minutes. His highest score was 178 not out against Essex, including four 6's off J. W. H. T. Douglas.

As a bowler he served up a mixture of off and leg breaks, and confesses to a moment of youthful pride when he bowled out Tom Hayward at The Oval for only 59--relative failure for the great man and a feather in the cap of the Nipper, as Chester was inevitably nicknamed.

In December, 1914, he joined the Royal Field Artillery, at Lewes. Even in this cricket was behind his choice. Major Allsopp, captain of the Worcestershire Second Eleven, was the battery commander. After surviving the Second Battle of Loos, he moved with his unit to Salonika, and it was there he met with the wound that ended his active playing career. Enemy bombers attacked an ammunition dump he was helping to guard; a splinter of shrapnel led to gangrene and, following many operations, the loss of his right arm. Had penicillin been discovered, we might now be lauding, not an umpire, but a great England batsman.

As it was, he took up the threads again in 1922 by joining the first-class umpires' list. Only 26, he could not have found it an easy decision, and at the end of his first season he nearly abandoned it again. At Northampton he had the disconcerting experience of being refused admission to the ground. One of the gatemen, told that he was one of the umpires, treated it as a joke. "You've made a mistake," he said. "This is a first-class match." Nor did he relent until the secretary was brought to explain.

At his first county match, Essex v. Somerset at Leyton, young Chester was called on to give decisions against both captains, Johnny Douglas and John Daniell, and did his duty according to his lights. Douglas l.b.w., Daniell stumped. "You'll be signing your death warrant if you go on like that, he was warned by his venerable colleague." But Chester has gone on giving captains out ever since, reports to Lord's notwithstanding, and it has increased, not diminished, his stature.

He has seen all the great players of the past thirty years at closer quarters than any man living. Hobbs and Hutton, Larwood and Lindwall, Woolley, Worrell, Tate, Bedser, Constantine, Hammond, Duleepsinhji, Macartney, Mankad and the rest--not through the straining binocular or second-hand on T.V., but right at their elbows. No small recompense for the blow of World War One.

His memory, too, is microscopic. Spend an evening in his company and the tales he tells enthrall. Hobbs's century against Australia at The Oval in 1926--"the greatest innings I ever saw and on the worst wicket"; Herbert Sutcliffe, brushing his hair and smoking his pipe before going in to bat on the same day, then making 161 after declaring beforehand, "I don't think we shall get 70." "What a temperament," says Chester.

Hedley Verity's fourteen wickets in the day at Lord's in 1934--"not a really bad wicket; just a patch as big as a tray where the rain had seeped under the covers, but he kept hitting it all the time;" O'Reilly's bowling at Leeds, five for 66 and five for 56, in 1938--"far from a bowler's paradise, about 50-50 with the batsmen, but what a fighter"; batsmen, bowlers, wicket-keepers, cover-points, outfielders, slips--Chester has a story about them all. A cricketing cavalcade of our time, all in the head of one man.

There have been other umpires, and if we talk so much of one it is because he represents them in the generic sense as surely as Henry Cotton does his fellow golf professionals or Joe Davis the world of snooker. He is the Mr. Umpiring of the brasher columists, and in more sedate circles the authority supreme, Chester says so has settled as many pavilion bets as the photo-finish on the racecourse.

As long ago as 1888 Robert Thoms, the leading umpire of the day, in reply to a questionnaire from the Editor of Wisden about changes in the l.b.w. law, made some trenchant remarks about the new practice of padding up which had crept into the game. "This very unsightly play cannot be termed batting," he wrote, "'tis simply scientific legging." But he hastened to add, "It makes no difference to me as an 'Umpty Dumpty,' although I am a great sticker up for everything fair and honourable, now they at length settle the question."

Therein, surely, lies the germ of an umpire's epitaph through the ages. Umpty Dumpties, Aunt Sallies, call them what you will, there has never been any doubt, in balanced minds, of their being fair and honourable, and ready to interpret the laws as they find them. Mortal, perhaps, in that they are subject to error, but the gods, no doubt, would find umpiring a bore, and the players themselves resent their intrusion. It might spoil the fun. Men like Dai Davies, Alec Skelding, Bill Reeves, Dick Burrows, Len Braund and a host of other ex-players turned umpire stretching back to Bob Thoms himself, and beyond, have enriched the game with their personalities as surely as the great batsmen and bowlers.

Father Time, on his pedestal at Lord's, has the last word. He lifts off the bails for the umpires themselves. But cricket goes on, and as long as there are men like Chester to see fair play it will be in safe hands.

© John Wisden & Co