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Part Three: How To Be An Umpire

We’ve taught you how to be funny, and we’ve told you how to commentate – now it’s time you learned how to officiate the beautiful game. It’s not an easy job, and harder now than ever – while they used to be revered guardians of the game, their every move is now scrutinised by players and commentators.

It’s not for everyone, but if you don’t know how to run the match yourself, you can hardly criticise when you suffer a dodgy lbw shout from the duffer in the white coat. So here, for your attention, are AOC’s tips on mastering the art of umpiring. Remember, these are not to be disputed.

Lesson 1: Watch the itchy trigger finger

It’s the most glamorous part of the job, when a big appeal goes up and you raise the dreaded finger to send the batsman back to the shed. But it’s easy to get carried away. The official training will tell you to take your time, to replay the delivery in your head, consider the various points of law, and adjudicate accordingly. But in the excitement of the moment, it’s been known for officials to lose control of their arm. David Gower recalled in his autobiography a tour match in Pakistan, when an umpire approached the dismissed Mike Brearley during the lunch break “with an earnest look on his face. ‘Mr Brearley, I am terribly sorry. I know you were not out, but I felt my arm going up and I just couldn’t stop it.’” No doubt Brearley reacted affably enough, but you can’t imagine it going down too well these days. So take a deep breath, and try to maintain command of your limbs.

Lesson 2: No cock-ups; no make-ups

Keep your head. “If you think you might have made a mistake,” says Nick Cook, one of the ECB’s elite county umpires and a former player himself, “you have to just forget about it, get on and treat each decision individually. Because players hate umpires who do a ‘make-up’ decision [where you give a decision to make up for a previous error]. Obviously first you want to get most of your decisions right, but no make-ups if you think you’ve made a cock-up.” Otherwise, you could be open to influence from strong-willed players, says Cook. “As an umpire you don’t want to get railroaded by a strong character who puts you under pressure – then you end up making a mistake.” Don’t we just know it. Fine player and great competitor though he is, one RT Ponting could get close to the mark at times, and though the aggressive, finger-pointing pressure he applied to Steve Bucknor and Mark Benson in the 2008 Test against India at Sydney may have helped get a wicket for his team, it was a touch unseemly. It was Bucknor who had been unbowed in the face of Pakistan captain Moin Khan a few years earlier, in 2000, when he famously allowed Nasser’s England to complete a victory in the gloom at Karachi. In general, it didn’t do to mess with Steve.

Lesson 3: Signal clearly

Or else run the risk of misinterpretation. Cricket’s myriad rules require variously complex and, frankly, silly bodily contortions from its officials. AOC learned recently that, to a Dutch lady attending her first game of cricket, an umpire signalling four can easily be mistaken for “a man wafting a fart”, so be clear, and avoid any excessive flourishing (which could be interpreted as wafting) when confirming a boundary to the scorers. Cook has his own cautionary tale: “We usually signal to our colleague with two balls remaining, to make sure we know that four balls have gone. The other night I signalled to my colleague and I had a scratch on my leg at the same time, so I lifted my leg up to scratch my shin. The batsman had just got two down to third man, so the scorers put it down as leg byes rather than runs. We put it right straight away via the walkie talkies but it was a silly mistake.” So, there’s a lesson, aspiring umpires, don’t scratch. Unless it’s really itchy. Then, go nuts, and to hell with the game.

Lesson 4: Keep fit

Ask someone “what’s the most physically demanding role in world sport?” and you’d be taken aback to hear the words “cricket umpire” in reply. But it’s not all tea and cucumber sandwiches being an umps. For a start, you’re on your feet all day, and there’s actually a surprising amount of dashing around to do. Whenever there’s a run out on at the bowler’s end you’ve got to move yourself into position – partly so you can give it out or not out, partly for self-preservation – and that walk from the stumps to square leg between overs starts to get longer come the fag end of the day. “I’ve been meaning to put one of those pedometers on to record how far you move,” Cook says. “It would be interesting to see the yardage you clock up in a day. You’re on your feet for six hours and you are moving about. I think in today’s cricket, the pace it’s played at, especially the one-day game, umpires have got to be fitter than perhaps some people think.” You certainly need to be fairly light on your feet: AOC recently saw an umpire – of significant experience – get comprehensively flattened by a well-fed on-rushing batsman as he struggled to get into position for the run out. The heap of guts and limbs at the bowler’s end would have provided a warning to any aspiring official in need of a bit of fitness training. But it was in no way funny. In no way.

Steve Bucknor
Time wasting: Steve Bucknor takes a firm line with Moin Khan at Karachi in 2000

Lesson 5: Beware the runner

The umpire’s worst nightmare, a runner. First there’s all the tension over when the injury to the batsman was sustained (before the match: no runner; during the match: fine), and whether or not the runner is wearing all the same padding as the batsman (a missing thigh pad could give a crucial advantage over 22 yards). Then, out on the field, you’ve got an extra man to worry about – a batsman can be stumped if he or his runner are out of their ground, and, with the number of mix-ups runners cause, there’s always a run out on the cards. So you’ve got to keep your wits about you. As Cook tells us: “When you’ve got a runner you’re always told – if you’re at the bowlers end – run towards your colleague, because then you’ll be on the opposite side to the runner [who stands on the off side], so you can see him run and judge the run out.  Well, the first time I did it, I went the wrong side, and I’ve got the runner running behind me (I’m between him and the stumps) and I’m trying to look for him and I couldn’t bloody see him! If there had been a run out I couldn’t have given it because I couldn’t see the bloody runner. It was the first time it happened, and every time I’ve had a runner since I’ve been very careful to run the correct side.”

Lesson 6: Don’t be afraid to play the schoolmaster

No one’s expecting SS levels of ruthlessness (and the black uniform would be totally unsuitable) but sometimes you’re just going to have to dish out a bit of discipline, and it’s even more the case in amateur cricket. Even Cook admits: “At club level I think umpires sometimes have a harder job of it because some club players can, rather than take an inch, take a yard, and push the boundaries too far. Sometimes in 2nd XI cricket when some of the young lads are bristling a bit you just have to take them to one side and explain to them: ‘Oi, cut it out now, and when I see you in the first team in a couple of years hopefully you’ll have learned from this and I won’t have any more problems with you.’ We’re the people who are in charge, we’re the people who can make sure players do what they’re told. If people are stepping out of order, make sure you clamp down on them.” But do it verbally – your arms are for signalling to the scorers, not swinging at unruly players.

Lesson 7: Keep count

Umpiring traditionalists might complain about the inexorable march of technology and its erosion of the official’s authority, but they gave into the assistance of machines many years ago, when they adopted the little clicky ball counter. Certainly, you need some foolproof method for counting the balls: getting it wrong is just about the easiest way available to make yourself look very silly. And it shouldn’t be too difficult should it? Wrong. Cook, who still uses old halfpennies – not a modern counter – to keep track, admits, rather alarmingly: “We lose count a lot”. These days umpires have radio contact with the scorers, who can correct any arithmetical error, but the point remains: whether you favour a “high tech” counter, a set of coins or a pocketful or marbles, counting to six is as crucial a part of an umpire’s role as it has ever been.

Lesson 8: Keep your cool

Cricket arouses passions in us all, and as Cook says: “Whether you give someone out or not out, someone’s always annoyed by your decision.” But as an umpire you’ve got to set an example, and rise above any bad feeling. It’s not always the case. In 2012, a club game between Oswestry and Whitchurch was abandoned after an umpire reportedly headbutted a fielder who disagreed with a call of “not out”. The ump was a player from the batting side, and the episode ended in a bit of a brawl by all accounts. But that’s nothing. In Bangladesh this year, an umpire in an amateur game in Kishoreganj reportedly killed a teenage spectator who ran onto the pitch to dispute a decision by hitting him on the head with one of the players’ bats. We’re all for the umpire’s decision being final, but it shouldn’t be fatal. So by all means take a firm line on dissent, but take a deep breath before quashing a mutiny – violence is not the answer. If nothing else, it’s a nightmare trying to get spattered blood out of a white coat.

Words: Ed Kemp

Click here to read Part Two of AOC’s Designs For Life: How To Be A Commentator

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