Peter Willey and George Sharp, the highly respected umpires, have been forced to retire not through failing eyesight or sciatica but as the result of a finding by a judge at a central London employment hearing. They took the ECB to the tribunal last month on the basis of age discrimination and unfair dismissal, but their manager's policy of a retirement age of 65 and desire to promote retired cricketers on to the first-class umpiring list was upheld.
The ruling, which the ECB said backed up a policy that was "in the interests of inter-generational fairness", means that the governing body can continue to move on senior umpires in favour of providing a pathway for those coming in to the profession, regardless of capability. Since a 2011 change to employment legislation, employers have had to come up with a justification as to why individuals must retire at 65.
Willey and Sharp were supposed to have retired at the end of last season but felt they were fit enough to continue. Both were renowned for their firm discipline and respected accordingly by cricketers.
Chris Kelly, the ECB's umpires manager, said that there was no issue with their standards, fitness or eyesight but wanted them to stand down while they were still at the top of their game "with dignity," as he told the tribunal. The salient finding by the judge was that if they were to continue, there would be less opportunity on the first-class list for retired players. Prospect, the trade union, will pay the legal costs incurred by the two men.
"I have a good run but I am disappointed for umpires in future," Willey said. "That's it - I won't umpire at any level now. I'll go and watch my son, David, playing for Northamptonshire, I have a grandson to look after and I'll go on holiday in the summer with my wife for a change."
He and Sharp, his former Northamptonshire colleague who has undertaken a course in scoring in an attempt to remain in the game, will be replaced this season by Paul Baldwin and Russell Evans.
There will be concern for Willey's wellbeing given that he admitted in his witness statement that his family felt he would suffer from depression if he did not stay in the game. Cricket at county and Test level, followed by umpiring, has been his life since he made his first-class debut for Northamptonshire at the age of 16.
"We shall do everything we can to support him," Alan Leighton, Prospect's national secretary, said. "I am not entirely surprised by the finding and I hope this has not soured our relationship with the ECB. Each side will pay their own legal teams, although it is open for one to do so against the other."
Leighton felt this finding could have a knock-on effect in other sports and professions if the retirement age of 65 is challenged again. "But the bigger issue is that first-class umpires are further up the pyramid than football referees, as there are far fewer of them," he said. Other umpires who have remained as fit as Willey and Sharp, notably Ray Julian, have requested to be allowed to stay on beyond 65 in the past, but have been turned down. Dickie Bird would doubtless still like to be umpiring today.
The ECB said: "We welcome the decision, which recognises that our current retirement policy for umpires is firmly based on sound legal principles and not discriminatory on grounds of age. ECB will continue to implement a retirement age of 65 in the interests of inter-generational fairness and in order to ensure that umpiring remains a viable career option for professional cricketers who are nearing the end of their playing careers. We would also like to thank George Sharp and Peter Willey for their contribution to our first -class game and wish them well in their retirement."