County Umpires

It was a straight one pitching outside the line that did not deviate is a chirp on  leg-before decisions heard every now and again during the cricket season. In the case of  Scott lbw Mahmood 26 during the Middlesex v Lancashire ODC game last summer,  ironic laughter could be heard in the Sky commentary box as viewers were shown the replay, before some understanding, faux or otherwise,  was expressed for the lot of the umpire. Two months later to a cheering nation England’s cricketers were given 6 at the end of the World Cup Final, when, as we now know, it should have been 5.

If a certain ambivalence re wanting the right decision is normal among supporters,  at the umpiring end with the benefit of the doubt given to the batsmen, out decisions when not still seem to be viewed more critically. For the fielding team then the incentive to appeal, loud and appearing sure, is not lessened any by a default of sorts against them.

As a first-up general impression county cricket seems fairly respectful of its umpires and their decisions; at least during the 15 days this one spectator watched, still so. But no question that the players’ body language, facial expressions come with  varying degrees of subtlety and, if much of it is aimed at each other, there are occasions when things gets a bit raw.

Whether for example, Sam Curran  in the Surrey-Kent game below had just feathered one and is standing his ground, getting away with it, or the appealing collective for Kent, who were getting on top in the game, were just frustrated from overdoing it, later in the over the non-striker Dean Elgar was given out lb in what was a rather uncomfortable looking adjudication.

Uncomfortable because the umpire  was, in fact, right both times, even if the fielders had  convinced themselves otherwise, managing the energies, perceptions not easy? Or that he was in fact mistaken twice, or just the first time or just the second,  perceptions to manage just depending? Given the frequency with which players appeal, it is not news that some overs  go better than others for the umpires and while doubtless there were  handshakes at the end of the match, as there are, the game is not rugby, at least not exactly.

So if cricket has its ‘Unbelievable Jeff’ moments who would be an umpire? Over on planet football an ex-Premier League referee giving a presentation  in pre-VAR days suggested there were those who did it for the good of the game, those who would have been players, being on the  pitch much of the appeal of it, and those with certain liking for dispensing law and order: saints, frustrated pros and nature’s traffic wardens so to speak.

While  umpiring comes with some traffic management it has in the past been  done by former players, as it very much was in 2019:  almost all of the umpiring done by those who had played the county game and about a third of it by those who have played international cricket.

Numbers on the individuals are downloadable on the stats page, but it is striking how much the game is dependent on officials that cover all three formats: umpires Bailey and Saggers below stood in more than 30 fixtures last summer as did 11 of their colleagues and in overall terms umpires tend to umpire more than the players play. In 2019 there was a pool of 33, comparable to the playing staff of a large county: umpires umpiring  numbered over 700 over the course of the season,  players playing for a county considerably less. The day of the specialist umpire may yet follow a game dividing, although not all that much sign of it just yet.

Sceptics  of The 100 have some good reasons to not believe, to which add the layer of additional stress of a 4th competition  on those who adjudicate. ‘They have come to see me bat, not you bowl’  WG Grace is said to have said, a line that has made it to the game’s present; with the chief administrator of the ECB having declared its new competition to already be a success, good luck to those minded to give Ben Stokes out lb first-ball, whether it pitched outside the line, or for that matter whether it clearly didn’t.