In the pre-avian era (that is before Dickie Bird) sales of Tom Smith's Cricket Umpiring and Scoring far outnumbered those of autobiographies that actually described what it was like to stand in Test matches. To an extent this was a tribute to the success of the famous instructional book that was first published in 1957 without Smith's name in its title, yet quickly grew in both length and popularity. But the absence of umpires' personal tales also reflected the status of officials in first-class cricket. Of course they were essential but the game was not about them; rather like children in well-ordered nurseries they were better seen than heard.
This was perfectly understandable; but as subsequent histories have shown it also risked neglecting an important strand of the game's social history. And had not Frank Chester written How's That! in 1956 we would not now have the reflections in retirement of the man who, in the words of cricket historian RL Arrowsmith, "set new standards and raised the whole conception of what an umpire should be."
Immediately after the Second World War the majority of those professionally involved in English cricket shared Arrowsmith's view. Tourists, too, had benefitted from Chester's acute discernment. In the 1938 Trent Bridge Test, he judged that Donald Bradman was caught at the wicket by Les Ames off Gloucestershire's Reg Sinfield. As it happened, it was one of only two wickets offspinner Sinfield took in his single England appearance. But Chester's decision also had an impact on Bradman, who described it as the cleverest ever made against him. And there was no sly criticism lurking within that complement. Rather, it was a salute from the best batsman in the world to the official he regarded as the finest umpire he ever encountered. Nearly 12 years later Bradman recalled the incident with characteristic precision:
"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 overbalanced and Ames whipped the bails off 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."
Chester was only 43 years old when he sent Bradman on his way quite late on the second evening of that game. Had things turned out differently it is not absurd to think he might have been playing, albeit enjoying a swansong, in that Ashes series. A quarter of a century earlier Chester's three Championship centuries and 44 wickets for Worcestershire had brought him praise from WG Grace and a tribute in Wisden. "Having begun so well, Chester should continue to improve, and it seems only reasonable to expect that when he has filled out and gained more strength he will be an England cricketer," said the Almanack. Chester was 18 years old and everyone at New Road called him "Nipper"; 12 months earlier he had been awarded his Worcestershire cap. He had wanted to be a cricketer since his childhood in Bushey. "My future seemed stocked with happiness," he reflected.
In 1914 Chester made his career-best 178 not out against Essex at New Road but a few months later he joined the 22nd Division of the Royal Field Artillery and was soon packed off to join the general madness in France. Having survived the second battle of Loos, he was sent to Salonika, where he was wounded in the right arm by a piece of shrapnel. Gangrene set in and the arm was amputated. Had penicillin been available, Chester's career as a professional cricketer might have been saved.
"When the bitter truth had penetrated my numb brain in the hospital ward in Salonika, I wondered whether life was worth living," he wrote. "My case was psychological as well as physical, for nothing could restore my ability to follow the only trade I knew and loved.
"The initial shock was as much as I could bear… My young heart was bursting with the desire to resume where I had left off but on the bitter battlegrounds overseas I met disaster… To adjust myself physically to new employment was not the only necessity; somehow I had to submerge the mental anguish of not being able to play the game which had been my life."
I realised it was essential for an umpire to concentrate as much as any batsman, that his job was specialised and required the maximum efficiency of all faculties... I would set myself only the highest standards
Chester first umpired a match at The Oval on August 5, 1918. It had taken some persuasion to get him to Kennington and he was wearing a white coat over his hospital blues. The game was nothing more than a one-day single-innings match between an England XI and the Dominions, but Jack Hobbs, Frank Woolley and Charlie Macartney were all playing. The young umpire found his duties fairly congenial and he was moved to be back among cricketers again. It was the only world he knew. "Take it up seriously, Chester," Pelham Warner said. "One day you'll make a fine umpire."
It would be nearly four years before Warner was proved right. In 1919 Chester just about survived on his small pension. His marriage and the birth of a son then made the need for proper employment all the more pressing. In How's That! he revealed without explanation that but for the death of his father he would have become a poultry farmer. Instead he was accepted on to the first-class umpires' list for 1922.
Chester was 27 when he made his first-class debut as an umpire in the match between Essex and Somerset at Leyton. Almost all his colleagues on the list were over 50 and had begun wearing white coats when their services in cream flannels were no longer required. "He regarded it not as a retirement job, but as his life's work and applied to it a shrewd brain and a forceful character," Arrowsmith wrote. But Chester's character was to be tested. His account of life as a rookie umpire surrounded by time-served former professionals reveals yet again the extent to which inter-war cricket was saturated by status and deference.
Although complemented on his umpiring by JWHT Douglas and John Daniell, the captains in that game at Leyton, he gave out two other skippers on the first day of a game later that season. (Chester is not specific about the match in question but research suggests it may well have been the Roses match at Old Trafford.) The reaction of his partner made it clear that for some umpires unwritten rules had more power than printed laws:
"As we walked off the field my colleague said to me, 'Boy, you won't last long as an umpire.'
"'Why not?' I demanded in great concern.
"'Because,' came the amazing reply, 'if you give skippers out, you sign your own death-warrant.'
"Now this was a slant on the game which was entirely new to me and I urged my fellow umpire to tell me what happened when he had to deal with a sound appeal against a captain. He disappeared into the pavilion without answering, so I came to my own conclusion."
There were other tough lessons. For example any sense of solidarity that existed between umpires in that era plainly did not extend to a young novice who was rapidly proving himself fitter, more alert and sharper than almost all his colleagues:
"Whereas at the start of my playing career I received nothing but the wisest counsel and kindest consideration from the old professionals, I was favoured with little, if any, advice from the old umpires. They criticised my concentration and complained that I was taking the game too seriously. What rot! Even as a player I realised it was essential for an umpire to concentrate as much as any batsman, that his job was specialised and required the maximum efficiency of all faculties. I made it plain that I would set myself only the highest standards."
County cricketers, on the other hand, warmed to Chester. This was partly, perhaps, because he was a former colleague, but more likely because he plainly knew what he was doing. Just over two years after his first-class debut he was standing in the first of what were to be 48 Tests. All these games were played in England, of course, but they included some of the greatest encounters in Anglo-Australian sporting history: Percy Chapman's team winning the Ashes in 1926; Bradman's 254 at Lord's in '30; Hedley Verity's 15 wickets at Lord's in '34; Stan McCabe's 232 at Trent Bridge and Len Hutton's 364 at The Oval, both in '38; Australia chasing down 404 at Leeds in '48; Trevor Bailey batting 262 minutes for 38 and then bowling down the leg side to secure the draw at Leeds in '53.
Cricket matches as vintages…and Chester tasted them all. Only that last encounter had little bouquet but by then the pain from a stomach ulcer was impairing his judgement and making him far less tolerant of what he saw as histrionic appealing. "Nor were the Australians satisfied with the umpiring of Frank Chester, for so long the greatest of his kind but now in such poor health that he should not have been allowed to stand," wrote EW Swanton of the umpire's single appearance in his last Ashes series.
Yet Chester was only 58 in 1953; in other words he was at the age when some of his contemporaries in the 1920s were just getting used to their white coats. For most of the previous three decades he had established new measures of excellence by which umpiring was to be judged. He did so partly because he saw the job as a profession rather than a means of making a few bob when the main business of one's life was done. One wonders whether anyone before Chester had watched a game of cricket with greater intensity.
"Sometimes you might say he was over-zealous and rhetorical," wrote Neville Cardus, who was not averse to a drop of zeal and rhetoric himself. "He would give an lbw decision with his finger pointing vehemently down the pitch, as though detecting the batsman in some really criminal practice, and denouncing and exposing him on the spot."
It was, Chester might have argued, the best way he knew of doing his work. But he also knew it didn't make up for Salonika.
"There were often times when umpiring was anything but true enjoyment," he wrote. "This was for a variety of reasons, among them the irritating conduct of the players, the poor remuneration between the wars for such long, intense hours, and the fact that it was always to me a poor substitute for the joys of playing."
When the Second World War broke out, Chester grew vegetables to make a little cash and umpired for the London Counties team. His fee for each of those games was £1. Only when his 1948 testimonial raised £3171 (plus nine shillings and five pence) did he know any measure of financial security. Before long, though, the game was to lose a little of its attraction for him. He saw no reason for the gesticulations of the 1948 Australians and sometimes gave his opinion on what he saw as ignorant appeals. By the mid-1950s it was time to go.
Some might wonder what Chester would make of modern umpiring. It is little like asking whether Neville Chamberlain would have gone on Twitter. Even in the late 20th century the job of officials was changing. "I couldn't see why I should stand there and have players looking at me as if I were a leper," Tom Brooks said when he retired in the middle of the 1978-79 Ashes series. A few months later Cec Pepper also saw what was coming and stepped down. "Umpiring at the top now is full of comedians and gimmicks," said Pepper, a notoriously flatulent official who was wont to ask non-striking batsmen if they wouldn't mind kicking his farts to the boundary.
Yet all umpires today owe something to the bloke from Bushey who used to put on a white coat over his civvies and umpire with his trilby at the slightly rakish angle favoured by National Hunt trainers. Occasionally his false arm might remind him of Salonika and the life he had been denied. But then he would crouch down again and watch Verity bowling to Bradman.