VCE: The Travails of the Umpire

Graham Fitzmichael marches back from the wicket with a countenance that is the personification of thunder. He manages to maintain his normally tranquil temperament but the gloves and pads are shoved into the kit bag with a certain level of venom. Confidently facing a medium pacer, Fitzmichael took guard almost a foot outside of the batting crease, hoping to take the initiative. Three balls into the innings, Fitzmichael undertook a significant step down the wicket and played a forward defensive shot to a potentially menacing delivery. His judgement is an iota errant and the ball thudded into the knee roll of his front pad. Predictably, the opposition launched a hearty appeal but Fitzmichael is confident that the appeal will be turned down for any number of reasons. Ergo, he was horrified to glance up and discover Roger Locke had raised the index finger on his right hand and sent Fitzmichael on his way back to the boundary. Disgust and borderline fury are written across his middle-aged features.

“I don’t mind being given out but that was beyond a joke.”

“Did you hit it?”

“Nope…”

“Pitched outside leg stump?”

“Nope, I was almost halfway down the pitch and must have been struck outside off. We really need to get everyone au fait with the lbw laws cos we are diddling ourselves with these ridiculous shotgun decisions. Oppo’s appeal and the finger goes straight up.”

Graham Fitzmichael’s consternation illustrates an entertaining slice of village cricket life. Teams umpire their own matches and that engenders its own amusing interludes, unless one is the player on the wrong end of said interludes. Unless the batsman is stood three inches in front of the stumps, the lbw law is a veritable minefield for the village cricket umpire. Apocryphal consensus dictates that if a batsman is struck on the pad and the ball would have continued to hit the stumps, the umpire may give him out. Life and cricket are never quite so simple. There are a number of variables which need to be taken into account. Did the ball pitch outside leg stump? Was the batsman struck outside the line of off stump? Was he / she playing a shot when struck outside the line of off stump? Was the ball ‘doing too much,’ i.e. swinging or spinning in order for a definitive, dismissive decision to be doubtful?

Crucially, an umpire needs to be cognisant of such variables prior to making a decision. Simply raising his / her finger after a batsman / woman has been struck in line with the stumps is sure to provoke the wrath of one’s team-mates, particularly if said team-mates understand the lbw law. Confident umpires know that the best way of arriving at an lbw decision is to mentally question whether there is a reason why the batsman is not out. Ergo, any of the aforementioned variables come into play. Employing such a modus operandi when delivering one’s decision adds an air of confidence and authority upon the matter which usually diffuses any potential cause celebre, the bowler and fielders more accepting of a rejection accompanied by a well thought out response. Unless the batsman has retreated back onto his stumps and doubt is but a wishful notion, confidently declaring that the batsman was “struck outside the line of off” or “missing leg” or “probably going over the stumps” is enough ammunition to dissuade even the most convinced of appeals.

Possessing such authority and confidence is a capricious beast though. Dispatching an umpire not possessing said characteristics can engender the opposite effect. Post one particularly dubious decision, the umpire responsible simply proclaimed, to the wronged batsman, that he knew that he wasn’t out but he simply couldn’t stop his finger from rising! Pressure and persuasion created by a convincing appeal can oft intimidate umpires into making decisions that they know to be incorrect.

 

Umpiring also requires a modicum of judgement in another distinct area: calling of wides. At village cricket level, there is an unwritten rule that umpires are generous in what is deemed a wide due to the modest standard at which the game is being played. However, the advent of Twenty20 cricket and the presence of the Indian Premier League on terrestrial television in recent years have blurred the boundaries somewhat. The etiquette of wide calling has, in some cases, become another of umpiring’s cause celebres. Most teams will maintain a liberal attitude to wide calling, despite the stringent policies adopted throughout the highest levels of the sport. However, certain teams will take advantage of such leniency. Predictably, the assumed liberal attitude is adopted when said teams field first; somewhat wayward bowling spared additional concessions courtesy of the forgiving nature of the umpires. Upon the change of innings however, the quid pro quo arrangement is rendered irrelevant. Deliveries travelling an iota down legside are instantly called wide whilst a similar penalty is applied after another batsman moves toward the leg side in order to heave the ball through the covers, only to miss what in reality was a perfectly decent delivery just outside off stump. The opposition quickly become cognisant of the tactics but are powerless to curtail the trickle of cheap, free runs despite bowling deliveries that were perfectly acceptable during the first innings. Such tactics prove particularly popular when a team requires a handful of runs in a close run chase. Nevertheless, the nefarious tactics tend to erode the general, yet oft fragile, bonhomie between two teams, setting a trend for future contests.

Of a similar ilk is the issue surrounding the calling of no-balls. Whilst over-stepping is a fairly simple judgement for the umpires, no-balls called for height can prove a particularly murky business, especially amongst players not completely au fait with the rules. Normal convention dictates that the umpire at square-leg should judge whether a delivery is illegal but if said umpire at square-leg is not aware of the law there is the potential for a modicum of chaos. Clifton Magna skipper Tom Harrington discovers that such a deficiency in knowledge can prove particularly frustrating. Playing against Furze Forest, Clifton’s Mike Coker bowls a questionable delivery which appears to be above waist height at the point it passes the batting crease. The umpire at square-leg stands motionless and the batsman attempts a pull shot toward the mid-wicket boundary. The ball ricochets off of the edge of the bat and soars into the ether. Clifton’s fielder at extra-cover saunters in to complete the catch amid cheers of delight but the moment the ball hits the palms of his hands, the umpire at the bowler’s end decides to call a no-ball. The umpire at square-leg remains unmoved. Harrington is irked by the decision, not because he believes it is incorrect, as he had his suspicions that the delivery was above waist-height, but rather due to the timing of the umpire’s call: at the moment the catch was taken. An earlier call would have been roundly accepted by the Clifton fielders. For a moment or two, the square-leg umpire remains confused as to why the batsman has been given not-out.

 

With umpiring proving such a tactical nuance of the village game, a certain onus and responsibility falls on the team skipper to source said arbitrators from their team of eleven. (Some teams enjoy the luxury of a travelling umpire but these tend to be few and far between) Thus, when the call for volunteers is uttered few skippers are surprised when some players covertly edge away, conveniently beginning a text message or taking a mysterious telephone call whilst others focus on their batting technique or turn their arm over. Potential adjudicators are thus instantly reduced and some polite, yet persuasive, coercing is required for two non-batting members of the team to collect the clickers and head out to the middle, armed with confirmation from the skipper that a replacement will be sent out once a wicket or two has fallen. (Often a sweetener that materialises a lot later than first agreed)

Volunteering for umpiring duties is not a problem for Chris Thomas but his tenure in the field does highlight one of the latent issues with part-time adjudicators. Standing sentry at square-leg, Thomas happily watches the first four deliveries of an over pass without incident and without any requirement for his intervention. The fifth delivery proves the polar opposite though as the batsman on strike extravagantly pulls a half-track delivery into the leg side. Such an occurrence would ordinarily be of little concern to Thomas but the ball travels directly toward him. Instinct takes over and the urge to raise his hands and complete a smart catch begin to take effect. Thomas begins to move his arms when the reality of the situation suddenly dawns. Within a split second he withdraws his limbs and calmly watches the ball arc over his head toward the square-leg boundary, hoping that no-one has noticed the aberration. One wonders whether Dickie Bird, Steve Bucknor, Billy Bowden et al experienced such mental lapses.

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