You Walk Alone With The Ghost Of Time – Australia and Me (Part 1 of a Few)

“Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,’ said Cleopatra, ‘with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!” Charles Dickens

So, Australia. I’ve thought about this for a while now, and remember back to when I did a series on the Blackwash series of 85-6, which people seemed to like, and I enjoyed writing. This isn’t a history of the Ashes, I leave that to wallet chasers like the Analyst and so forth. It’s what Australia means to me. From the early memories, through 81, the 86-7 series, losing the World Cup Final, the juggernaut Aussies of the 90s and early 2000s, to seeing them in the flesh, to the 2010-11 series, the humiliation of 2013-14 to today, and their current plight. It’s going to take a while. If I have the inclination, I can spare the time, as the Pet Shop Boys nearly said. This is a post of Opportunities, after all.

There is, certainly within, me to lurch back to what Ian Botham thought was the curse of Ray Illingworth. “It was so much better in my day”. As India have closed a test series in Australia with a 2-1 advantage and taken home the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, there is time to consider how big an achievement that is for the nation that has most grown the game in the past 30 years or so. But it also makes me look back on the great players of the past that never won a series there for India. While this era may be the time of hyperbole and sell, sell, sell, yesteryear comes with rose-tinted glasses, an in-built editor for the unmemorable, and a forgetfulness for the sub-standard. There was crap authoritarian bullshit in huge supply from the governing bodies. There were players who divided the press, the populace and the players themselves. There were blowhards, know-it-alls, rent-a-quotes and mob rule just as there is today. Today, the players get paid more, and so do the administrators, and even taking for inflation, the people paying this are you and I – directly through ticket prices and subscriptions, or passed on advertising costs for the corporate backers.

So what’s my point, you ask, not for the first time. Well, I’m about to get a bit nostalgic and go back in time a little. The kernel of the idea for this post was planted by Fred’s response to my comment on the current Australian schmozzle over the ball tampering nonsense. I’ve been clear from the start. I think the ban was ludicrous, the reaction over the top, the penance a joke, and the authorities, some of who needed to be taken from the building kicking and screaming, playing the role of sanctimonious, pious hypocrites that I won’t reel back from. These were aided and abetted by a media who have one main role in life – generate heat, to get those clicks and peepers on the TV, to flog advertising. This was a story. The heat generated far outweighed the crime. That it carries on to this day, and Australia submitted meekly this winter to India as a consequence, is bizarre. An act of self-flagellation that will satisfy no-one. A crisis borne of its own self-regard, its own view of the world of cricket. England are not immune from this stupidity. We actually ban players for f*** all, and are told to shut up moaning about it by the authorities, acting with aplomb, the media, acting like ventriloquist’s dummies and the useful idiots in the social media world who clapped the result while not exactly considering what happens next time.

There can be a view taken, and some do, that I hate Australia, and that comment is the basis for what I want to write here. Australia has been the most important cricket influence on me alongside the West Indies of the 70s and 80s. I would watch them at every opportunity. They were an amazing team during the 90s and into the early part of the century. They are the most important series we play in the mind of most.

So with nostalgia firmly in place, for good or ill, let me take you back to my first cricketing memory and move forward. This piece is going to be what Australian cricket means to me, as an England cricket follower, and may take more than one post. Because it’s complicated.

It actually goes back, funnily enough, to a One Day International, probably a Prudential Trophy match, played at The Oval. All I remember about it is that they carried on playing in the pouring rain. I know I remember it because every time this person sat down in front of the TV to watch cricket and it was raining, I would say “well they played out in it in that game at The Oval, why not now?” It appears as though the game may have been this one in 1977 (http://www.espncricinfo.com/series/17145/scorecard/64960/england-vs-australia-3rd-odi-australia-tour-of-england-1977) but my faded memory could have sworn it pre-dated Viv’s 1976 destruction of England – thank god for real facts and not alternative ones. But let’s go from there. Chappell (G) was the danger man. He played the winning innings. Dickie Bird was the umpire in the pouring rain. I have no earthly idea who was playing for England in that game.

1977 was the first Ashes series I remembered, and to be frank, it was no big deal. To me, as a growing enthusiast for the game, my memories, my love for the game, and my fear for England derived from the West Indies team. Not Australia. 1976 was the hot summer, the summer of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Michael Holding. Immense innings augmented by pace. The game at a different level. I knew not of Bradman. I knew nothing of Bodyline. I had a book that told me we won the Ashes after donkey’s years in 1953 when Compton swept the ball to the Gas Holder. But that was it. In fact, looking back, that book had Randall’s cartwheel on the cover, so I would not have known even that.

1977’s series, won by England, had several memories for me. The Aussie to fear was Greg Chappell. I wasn’t really familiar with many of the others. England gave a debut that series to Ian Botham, and yet his test commencement, great as it was, was overshadowed by a run out. Geoff Boycott, who everyone knew (play a defensive shot out in the street, it would be “who do you think you are, Boycott?) had returned after exile, and came into the team for the third test. A memory of the time is that the series was being played under the shadow of Packer – at the time I never had a clue what that meant (Imagine BOC being around during that!) – and Tony Greig, a favourite of mine, had been sacked as captain but stayed in the team, and some grey-haired posh-speaker had taken his place as captain. The first test (might remember a catch or two, but nothing else) was drawn at Lord’s, the second won by England at Old Trafford. Boycott returned for the third test at Nottingham, and then promptly ran out the prodigal son of Nottingham, Rags Randall himself, and got booed. Mercilessly. I can still picture the head in his hands at what he had done. You can loathe Boycott all you want, but the bloke had some mental resilience. Australia had made 243 in the first innings, and Boycott’s faux pas contributed to England subsiding to 82 for 5. Then came Alan Knott. I remember looking at a TV in some shop window in SE London and Knott and Boycott still being there. They went on, and on, putting on over 200. Boycott made a redemptive hundred. Knott made a match-winning one. Australia set England 180, Brearley made one of his highest test scores to get us on the way to the ticklish total, and Boycott was there at the end for 80 not out. So was Randall. Lovely.

The fourth test of that series was played at Headingley, and this then gets into the realms of how life used to be. I was lucky to be able to go on a summer holiday with my parents every summer, and in 1977 this meant Kalathas in NW Crete. Nothing really happened while we were there. I met my first real-life Americans (they said “hey you guys” a lot and came from the big naval base on the west of the island). My mum had the most momentous strop on the whole family (the only one I ever saw), and as she’s no longer with us, I’m sort of safe to say it. Elvis Presley died. I got stung by a jellyfish – that sort of pain is very memorable. I got wound up by my little brother, turned round to give him a whack, and belted a local kid by mistake (I was 8) – his dad wasn’t pleased.

But the main thing you had to do, before I got a long-wave radio, was to find the shop that sold the British Newspapers. Yes, even at that age I was agog at newspaper writing. I was brought up reading the sports pages of newspapers by my parents. But on holiday finding out football scores and cricket scores was a different, and in some ways much nicer, ball game. If something happened on Thursday, it would be in the Friday paper, which you might get on Saturday, if you were lucky. That weekend, we found one. Boycott had made another hundred. That special one, the hundredth one. Then, every day we tried to find a paper to continue the story. That’s how we found out Elvis died. I’ll never forget where we were – Hania Market. Meanwhile, while Elvis was preparing to leave this mortal coil, England won the match by an innings, regained the Ashes with a 3-0 series lead, and Derek Randall did a cartwheel and ended up on Brian Johnston’s Book of Cricket the following year (a really important book in my cricket life – I still have the remants of it). I saw none of the test, though. Now there’s a problem that still exists today when I go the States. Then you couldn’t watch it. Now you won’t watch it (legally). A game, authorities will never learn.

It never really resonated, the importance of the series, until the next one in 1978-9. By then Australia were decimated by Packer, and the team was a shadow of what could have been put out. It was also the first series I remember where action from far away fields was shown on TV via mid-evening highlight packages. The BBC opened up the geography of Australia to this boy who loved maps. I still wonder to this day when we were going to go to Darwin as we’d visited everywhere else for a test (sorry Tasmania, you were an odd drop at the bottom of the country). We also won, a lot. 5-1. I missed one of those tests on a school trip. Might have been the one we lost. But this was brilliant. England winning easily against Australia. It seemed we reserved our worst performances for Melbourne, but still, mustn’t grumble at 5-1. Of course this was the series of Rodney Hogg. I sort of remember him being really quick. It’s that “sort of memory” we all have of certain sporting events. You think you remember, but you probably don’t. Subsequently, on the recommendation of one of the blog commenters, I got the Graham Yallop book on the series – the fall guy Aussie captain – and it’s superbly bitter. If you can pick it up, get it.

England visited Australia again the following year in a curious winter where we played three tests but the Ashes were not at stake. We lost the lot, I remember nothing. Not even the aluminium bat nonsense. I remember us getting into the haughtily named World Series Cricket final and not looking like getting Haynes and Greenidge out in one of the Finals, listened to no TMS when I could get the chance. Given I lived 8 miles from my primary school, the morning run was listening to this day-night oddity on the trek up to Deptford. This was the Australians being flash for flash sake in my eyes. Even then, as a 10 year old, I was quite resistant to the new world order. I loved test matches. ODIs? Not for me.

After I drafted the main part of the post, I realised I had left two main test events out. The Centenary Test played in Melbourne, where the first formal test match was played, and Lord’s for the English version, where the first formal test match in England wasn’t. Summed it up. The first game I never knew was going on, and it passed this young Deptford lad by. Of course, it was famous for Derek Randall’s solo super effort, and the result being the same as the first ever test. The second event was more famous for the Lord’s members kicking off and getting mad about the weather and the reluctant umpires. Oh yes, and Kim Hughes belting the ball into the pavilion. Boycott may even have made a hundred on the final day, but it doesn’t leave a huge impression on me.

I suppose, like most, the mysticism and aura of the Ashes, and beating Australia, derived from the events of 1981. Cricket, it has to be said, was massive in England then. In 1979 we had lost the World Cup Final, and then appointed Ian Botham the captain for the start of the 1980 season. A 1-0 loss to the West Indies was not a bad result, although the weather played a huge part. Botham’s baptism as captain was not helped by the West Indies being on the agenda that winter, and a 2-0 loss barely covered the tour’s story. Thrown out of Guyana, the death of Ken Barrington and an opposition growing into its pomp, coupled with Botham’s loss of form ramped up the media pressure. Without being melodramatic, if Alastair Cook thought that the media were against him in the aftermath of the 2013-14 tour, he’d walked about 2 feet compared to the mile walked in Botham’s shoes at that time. The media were vicious. This was not just the cricket writers, but the front of the paper mob too. Cricketers, and Botham in particular, were that famous.

The first test was played at Trent Bridge. It was a dull, drab, low scoring affair, played under miserable grey clouds. Australia had a little wobble chasing a small total, but got there and took a 1-0 lead. They had an innocuous looking dibbly dobbler bowler (compared to what we’d seen the year before) who kept taking wickets. Botham was out of sorts with bat and ball. England saw the pressure ramping up day-by-day. Botham was a match-to-match captain as Alec Bedser, faced by the froth and fury of a tabloid world, and an establishment mob who saw Botham as an oik, trying to walk a plank that was going to snap.

The concept that Beefy was constantly on trial was not helped when, immediately after the defeat, Alec Bedser, the Chairman of Selectors, announced that Botham was appointed as England captain for the first Test match only. “We have to decide whether the captaincy affects Botham’s play,” said Bedser, with Botham himself trying his best to remain positive over the affair: “It’s better than not being appointed at all.”

Both England and Botham would need a good performance at Trent Bridge to keep the doubters at bay. The Mirror’s “Both on a tightrope” headline summed up the player’s perilous position. – The Guardian – 9 July 2013

After a pair at Lord’s which I missed due to the minor inconvenience of being at school, the legend grew about the stony silence that greeted Botham’s return to the pavilion. As always, it seemed, with Lord’s, this was a bore draw, but England had a big issue. Botham resigned “a minute before he was sacked” (Matthew Engel – Cricinfo). England listened to his sage advice in the now oft-played interview. They picked Brearley as captain. Then came Headingley.

As a 12 year-old I recall the start of Botham’s innings to turn around our fortunes coinciding with attending my little brother’s sponsored walk at Deptford Park. It was a Monday. The first day I knew nothing of the score. The second day coincided with last day of term, so no interest there either. Saturday was sitting in front of the TV, or going out to play football. I saw some of Botham’s 50 in between the horse racing. Then Sunday was a rest day (although we started experimenting with Sunday play in subsequent games – something I welcomed because Sundays were boring), and Monday we were all resigned to defeat. I do remember the Saturday morning being one of the most boring spells of test cricket in my memory. England became shotless. It wasn’t the only time.

So when I got home, England were on life-support, but somehow, someway, Graham Dilley was batting well. Botham was chancing his arm. Now this is what gets a kid truly inspired by the game. Alderman suddenly looked human. Lillee, dominant throughout, not looking too great now. Lawson, tyro Aussie, losing his rag. Ray Bright being ordinary. The deficit decreased. There was still no hope, but this was, at least, exciting to watch. I’d missed many of Botham’s batting tour de forces until then, but now I could watch. Anyone who underestimates the power of visibility in sporting figures needs to take heed of moments like this. You could sense, as the stories of the comeback were being told, more and more people switching over to BBC 2. More and more people willing him, Dilley and then Chris Old on. You sensed it meant so much. The legendary confectionary stall six. The thrashes over the slips, the belt to deep backward point for the hundred, Botham running the first, big sweater on, raising his bat and fist. I sometimes didn’t warm to him as a kid, but you didn’t half love him then. The gesture from Brearley on the boundary to stay there in between the applause for the hundred. All there. Seared in my brain, with or without the endless replays of the game. If this was an epoch in English cricket, mis-appropriated, repeated more times than Dad’s Army, clutched to by England fans during the dark days, then so be it. For it is what sport is about. Victory from the jaws of defeat, attacking and reckless, thrilling and without pressure, it seemed. If you sneer at Headingley 1981, then you are wrong. It made heroes. It gripped people. It is what sport is absolutely all about.

But even me, who did have some grains of optimism, thought 130 to win wasn’t enough. But I was going to watch it all, to the last. My dad was a printer, and he was on the real late shift, so he wasn’t up and about. Mum worked weekdays. My brother didn’t care. So it was me, on my own, in the living room, glued to it. The dodgy first wicket of Wood, who probably didn’t nick Botham’s wide half-volley. Then peace until just before lunch, Australia on 56 for 1. The wickets off lethal short balls to get first Trevor Chappell, and then straight away, the dangerous Kim Hughes, and we were in business. In my head it was now all about one man. Stuff Dyson and his dull first innings hundred. Who could see as dull a batsman as that win the game. It had to be someone getting Allan Border out. Already he had that aura with me. The player to dismiss along with Hughes.

Yallop lasted five minutes, getting another brute from Willis. But with Border there, it was still in their hands. When Old got one through his defences, it was 65 for 5. I thought we had a chance. Willis got Dyson, and then the dangerous Rodney Marsh, who probably brought forth Christopher Martin-Jenkins’ most famous TV commentary “Dilley underneath it….AND HE’S CAUGHT IT”. Lillee gave me heart palpitations before I knew what they were, but when Gatting took the catch at mid-on we could breathe. Willis cleaning up Ray Bright (after two drops in the slips) and then wheeling away in delight had me waking up Dad. I think he was pleased to be woken up with the news.

You can’t put a price on experiences like that. But what did it tell me of Australia? Well, at this time all that had happened was they bothered to put a full team out only at home. They were riven by Packer. They had decent bowling. But they hadn’t embedded themselves in my cricketing soul. The West Indies had. It was important to beat them, but you did not feel like you were beating the best.

I’ll pick up Part 2 from Edgbaston 1981, and take it up as far as I can, probably to the inflection point on the relationship. The 1987 World Cup Final and then the 1989 Ashes. I’d love to hear any memories you have from the late 70s, Headingley etc. All I can say is that I never had a favourite Aussie player, I never particularly cared about playing them, I never measured England on the Australia axis. They were beaten in England, and we could beat them there (I didn’t know any better).

Obviously since those days I’ve bought and read a lot on the above matches. The pictures above are from some of the books I’ve snaffled on Amazon SecondHand Books, or at cricket book stalls. The rivalry is such that now reading about your childhood memories reinforces the views of the day, basked in the hindsight of what was to come a few years later and the Aussie total domination. It’s what makes the game special. It’s why it should be treasured. I look forward to writing Part 2. I genuinely enjoy stuff like this.

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Nostradamus And The Ghosts Of Cricket’s Past

With the Indians triumphant in Australia, South Africa dominating against Pakistan and New Zealand comfortably beating Sri Lanka in the end, it’s that time of year when cricket news is in short supply and the various media outlets (or those that are left) look for something (anything) to fill their pages with until the new English season begins.

Unless the ECB does something monumentally stupid again, which is by no means out of the question, the media looks to pad their pages with the ‘player rankings of the last series’ or the ‘10 best innings by our saviour Sir Alastair Cook’. We at BOC are not entirely immune to this, so we have come up with a few things that we’d like to see in the year ahead, that are unlikely to happen. This is meant as a humorous take and something not to be taken seriously, unless any of the below does happen, then of course we will claim credit through our fantastic cricket insight:

  1. In an effort to garner more favour with the London masses and to get with the times, Lords declares that every Saturday at the Test will be a ‘no toff’ day. Ticket prices are reduced for the day, the champagne tents are all shut and anyone wearing the egg and bacon colours, a blazer or red trousers is automatically refused admission. Though fancy dress remains banned (some things will never change), the Saturday at Lords is something all players begin to look forward to due to the more lively atmosphere and the lack of ‘Hooray Henrys’ sleeping off their long lunch in the member pavilion.
  2. During one of the T100 ball trials, Tom Harrison is hit square on the head from a Jos Buttler six and sadly suffers a permanent brain injury. After a long search through a top headhunter, the ECB finally secure their wish of finding someone with Harrison’s knowledge and foresight and hire Barney the Dinosaur. Though there is initial scepticism from the public about Barney’s credentials for the role, however he soon wins the public round by cancelling the T100 forthwith commenting ‘any stupid animal’ can see this a total dog of an idea.
  3. Adil Rashid has a stunning World Cup in England and finishes as the top wicket taker with 24 wickets at 11. To make things even more special for Rashid, he hits the winning runs in the final against India and reveals a T-shirt with the slogan ‘talk nah Mike’. Mike Selvey works himself into such a furore that he spontaneously explodes.
  4. There are suspicions of foul play in the Ashes, when a recently returned David Warner is seen wheeling in an industrial sander into Lords. This is further exacerbated by two individuals with a striking resemblance to the Marsh brothers dressed up as groundsmen taking a rake to the pitch. The Australian mens team is found guilty and sent home in disgrace and is replaced by the Australian Women’s cricket team. Thankfully the women’s team is far more competitive than their male counterparts finally losing a tight series 2-1.
  5. Colin Graves decides to branch out from cricket and try his hand as a current affairs commentator. Sadly this goes predictably awry when he calls the royal family ‘completely average’ in an interview and that they ‘should be slimmed down and modernised’ to reach out to a new audience, mainly the mothers and children in society. Graves is locked back in his cupboard for the rest of the year.
  6. In a surprise move, both the BBC and Sky Cricket agree on a ‘no dickhead’ rule in the commentary box. In one fell swoop, Messer’s Vaughan, Boycott, Swann, Hughes, Bumble, Botham and Warne are immediately removed from our airwaves. The nation rejoices as they are replaced with sensible cricket focused commentators such as Rob Key, Ian Ward, Alison Mitchell, Isa Guha, Marcus Trescothick and Jeremy Coney. In other news, Michael Vaughan is deported to Australia on a permanent basis so he can join in on the Channel 7 ‘bantz’ and Shane Warne has his passport revoked permanently.
  7. Simon Hughes decides that being the ‘Editor’ of the Cricketer is not enough for his enormous ego. After ranking himself as the most important person in cricket in his magazine, Hughes decides to spread his wings and publish a book re-writing the history of Catholicism, undeterred by having no understanding of the subject nor being a Catholic. Things get particularly strange when Hughes turns up to work every day in full priest attire and declares himself available for the position of the next pope. The Catholic Church outraged by such slander decides to nail Hughes to the cross above the mound stand at Lords. Everyone in the world nods sagely with approval.
  8. Sir Alastair Cook, now no longer eulogized over by the national media after his retirement, even though Sky decides to show his last English century in every rain break, decided to get  back into the national limelight by signing up to ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’. Unfortunately Cook, completely overwhelmed by his surroundings and unable to suppress his hunting instincts, shoots up the whole set killing a number of endangered species in the jungle. Despite all this, Cook finishes an honorable second in the tournament owing to the fact that people keep forgetting he’s there. Jonathan Agnew goes berserk on Twitter.

harrison&graves

The above is meant to be a lighter take on some of the issues affecting cricket in 2019, I mean there is no way that Lords bans the upper classes and lets the ‘Hoi Polloi’ in especially as business people need to be entertained through expensive hospitality packages. The other predictions, well you never know…

Joking aside, there is a serious angle to this article as cricket faces up to one of the biggest challenges that it has faced in a very long time. For me personally, the main thing that I would like to see in 2019 is a return to the game I and many others on the blog first fell in love with many moons ago, no matter how remote that chance may be. Cricket has got lost in the vortex of various power struggles, administrator incompetence, obscene greed and the constant need of the authorities to keep changing the game. The main result of these being that the fans that have followed the game for many years and have ‘put their money in the administrators pot’ are now walking away at an alarming rate. In what other sport, would you get other administrators making whole sale changes to their core game? You don’t see golf reducing the majors to a two-day event, nor would you see tennis being played by 6 people on court or snooker being played over the best of 3 frames, yet cricket can’t help itself, all in the name ‘finding these elusive new fans’ whilst alienating those that have followed the game for 20 years plus.

We are also seeing cricket fatigue on a major basis, with the Big Bash a great example of administrators trying to cram as much in, irrespective of quality, to feed the golden goose. The Hundred, if it ever gets off the ground, will be exactly the same. A behemoth crammed into the county season, without any support of fans or the counties, purely designed to try to make the ECB as much money as possible whilst they can still can, badged under the name of ‘growing the supporter base’. Some people are big white ball cricket fans and whilst it doesn’t appeal to me, I can understand the game has an element of skill that is different to the Test arena. What I can’t understand is how anyone bar the gamblers, would want to see the same players play the Big Bash, IPL, T20 Blast, BBL, Emirates T10, CPL, PSL, Hundred, Mzanzi Super League etc week in, week out. That’s without the questionable undercurrent that underlies more than a few of these tournaments.

Of course, the huge influx of white ball cricket has been massively detrimental to the red ball game, as this gets pushed further and further into the extreme margins of many a domestic season. Even if I wasn’t suffering from cricket fatigue especially with regards to the National team, my ability to watch any of the county championship has been massively reduced, with most games now starting on a Monday, no doubt to fit in some more time for the white ball game. Most counties have the opportunity to play on a Saturday once or twice during the season and whilst in the past people would have said that this was down to not clashing with club cricket, the fact that people playing the sport is at an all time low with many clubs unable to field a full side, make this argument completely redundant. This of course, has directly contributed to the reduced quality currently seen within the Test arena, with many players who come into the various Test sides, lacking the quality or patience to become successful at the longer format of the game. T20, T10 or Hundred ball rubbish has completely changed the outlook of many a young cricket player, with many now more satisfied to make money in the shorter format of the game than to hone their skills to be successful at the longer format. This is why we are seeing so many mismatches in the Test arena, with away series wins very much the rarity (well done India btw) as batsmen and bowlers are unable to adapt their game to foreign conditions having been bought up on seaming or turning pitches exclusively. The Test arena is a mess at the moment and I don’t see it improving any time soon. Australia can’t cobble together a decent batting attack, England have had the same problems at opener, number 3 and in the spin department for what seems like an eternity, India’s win away from home is very much a rarity and that was against a poor Aussie side, the South African’s are talented but flawed with the same being said for New Zealand and Pakistan and the rest aren’t really worth writing home about.

As for English cricket and especially the ECB, when they are not actively shooting themselves in the foot, they are busy trying to sting the remaining fans for what they can. £100+ for a day at the Ashes with two poor teams, I’d rather not thank you. The forced hundred ball format, which will probably push the English game further to bankruptcy rather than attracting the new fans the ECB cravenly desires it to. This interestingly enough has led to a number of high-profile, unlikely pariahs campaigning against it on Twitter, not that I would ever suggest that this is rather hypocritical as a number of them could have voted against it in the first place (the ‘this isn’t what they promised line’ holds no sway with me, I wouldn’t trust the ECB to make a mustard sandwich let alone organise a new cricket tournament). The constant pandering to Sky to protect their ‘oh so special’ TV deal, whilst the tacit refusal to acknowledge that taking the game away from ‘free to air’ is a major reason why cricket has become such a peripheral sport is truly gobsmacking. The constant leaking of ‘ECB propaganda’ to friendly journalists (used in the loosest possible terms) to feed to the masses is again shameful – just remember “Alastair Cook good, Kevin Pietersen bad” and another reason why the fan base is both shrinking in size and those that do still follow are completely divided in their views. I could go on, but I think everyone knows that anything else I write will not be a singing endorsement of our administrators, nor do I have a platform that is long enough.

For me personally, this is a particularly sad state of affairs and a big reason why I am not as active as I was on the blog. I used to be a massive cricket fan and more pertinently a fan of the England cricket team. I would get upset when England lost in the Test arena (I became immune to losing in the white ball game some time before) and often it could ruin my weekend, I went on 3 foreign tours and before last year had been to at least one Test day in England for the previous 16 years (and often more than one day). I’ve lost my passion however, as a bit like Dmitri, I write best when I have a bit of fire in my belly and an unjust cause to rile against. However, I’ve got fed up at shouting at the stars for a team I have little in common with against a board that holds its’ fans in complete contempt. Sure I still enjoy watching Test cricket, but these days I prefer watching series that don’t involve England and/or are competitive, which as I mentioned above is more of a rarity than ever these days. I no longer rush back from work to watch the highlights any more, nor do I get up 2 hours before I need to, so that I can watch a session before I head out to work, I’m fatigued and more than a little fed up and the reason for this sits at the very doorstep of both our national and international administrators.

I hope that I’m wrong and equally hopeful that I can regain the passion I had for the game I had a number of years ago and when I started writing for BOC, but I’m not holding my breath. The ECB continues to alienate me from the game I have followed for 25 years and barring a dramatic change in their modus operandi, it won’t just be me walking away from the game but many of those who have supported English cricket for a lot longer. The ECB might not mourn their loss now, but irony does tends to have a wicked sense of humour in the long run.

Standing in the Middle of it

Referees.  Umpires.  Judges.  Whatever the sport, the one appointed to arbitrate on the rules of the game is destined to be alone in their role.  Viewed with tolerance at best, contempt at worst, their errors are highlighted repeatedly, their characters called into question, their motivations considered suspect.

Who on earth would be an official?

Naturally, it’s never as simple as that, and the experience of those passing judgement on the play at the highest level is vastly different from further down the chain, while the experience varies widely between different sports and the conduct of the players within them.  Football referees are routinely abused by players and spectators at professional level, and there are sufficient tales of even worse behaviour at the grass roots to wonder why anyone would wish to put themself through the experience, but cricket, at least, remains a relative beacon of enlightenment compared to many other pastimes with regard to the treatment of the officials.

That’s not to pretend there are no problems, for at Test level incidences of open or masked dissent are legion, while there have been instances in club cricket of serious argument and, lamentably, even violence.  That they remain very much the exception is something to cherish and appreciate, and worthy of exploration as to why that might be,while also paying tribute to those who give up their time to perform a function as vital as opening the batting or bowling.

The most obvious statement to make is that without an umpire in some form, there isn’t a game.  Players can self-umpire, certainly, but it still requires someone to make the decisions and at the very least count accurately to six – albeit the ECB seem hellbent on adding extra complexity for the officials here with the Hundred.  This perhaps is something that sets cricket apart from other sports, for while in all of them an individual can choose to become an umpire, cricket is almost unique in that virtually everyone who has ever played an organised game of cricket will have stood as an umpire as well.  Friendly cricket may be in trouble, but it remains the usual path into more competitive fixtures for young players growing into the game, and few clubs have a permanent umpire prepared to stand all day on a regular basis for all teams.  Thus, the players have to do it themselves, and most players can remember the dawning horror of giving a team-mate out incorrectly, or the sense of pressure from a bowler, usually in a friendly manner, enquiring which of the three stumps that ball might have been missing.  Personally, the one particular incidence of humiliation came from a highly amused bowler gently asking how long one particular over was going to go on for, as I accidentally recycled the coins around my pocket for a second time.

Everyone can tell their own particular tale of woe here, but if nothing else, it taught a sense of understanding and respect for the role of the umpire, and the difficulties therein.  Without ever publicly admitting it, it was years before I learned to get the call of “no ball” out of my mouth in anything remotely approaching a timely manner, so bowlers more or less had a free pass to overstep whenever they were lucky enough to have me in the middle. I simply didn’t dare mention that the one that had just up rooted off stump should have been called by the idiot stood at the bowler’s end, though being by trade a batsman, I probably rejected more than my fair share of reasonable appeals.  Swings and roundabouts.

There were other side effects too, and perhaps it can be argued that the widely held view that batsmen ought to walk can be ascribed to the self-umpiring model – a reluctance to put a team mate in an invidious position; the memory of a tongue lashing from a senior player who was put in that position on the one hand, being that umpiring player put in that position on the other.  Certainly it’s quite common for batsmen to walk in a friendly game while refusing to countenance doing so in a league match.  It’s an approach that might make little sense when viewed from the outside, a certain level of hypocrisy being involved, yet via the peculiar internal logic that applies in every sport, it seems an entirely reasonable way to go about things, and one I always applied personally.  To those who objected to the idea of not walking in a league match, I always countered that not once did a fielding side ever call me back to the middle when they’d benefitted from an incorrect decision.  Equally however, for that to stick, it really does mean accepting the decision of the umpire, right or wrong.

There are other benefits from being forced to go out and officiate for ten overs (we all remember team-mates leaving us out there for far longer) on a Sunday such as the opportunity when standing at square leg every other over for a pleasant chat with a member of the opposition, particularly as the years rolled by and regular opponents became acquaintances and sometimes even friends.  The social dimension of cricket has always been its greatest strength and its glue, but few sports offer the opportunity for a casual conversation over half an hour in the middle of the game the way cricket does in these circumstances; a particular delight rudely broken only by the panicked alarm of a run out appeal. Indeed, even in the high pressure environment of a Test match, it is common to see square leg fielder and square leg umpire engaged in conversation, let alone further down the pyramid.  Rose tinted spectacles shouldn’t be applied to considering the nature of this self-policed umpiring system, but while it is easy to remember occasional disagreements between teams, the reality is that for the most part, it’s a system that works well with little friction, mostly because only pride is at stake.

The rise of league cricket has changed the dynamic somewhat.  Some leagues still allow this method of player-umpires, particularly at the more junior levels where finding sufficient numbers of people to do the job can be challenging, but it is now more customary to either require a club to provide an umpire or, particularly at County League level, for panel umpires to be neutral decision-makers.  In the former case, it is probably the biggest potential cause for dissatisfaction – there is always an opponent renowned for having an umpire with selective eyesight depending on which side is batting.  Players of course are as one eyed as they always are in any sport in perceiving bias and slights against them while perfecting the cognitive dissonance of being absolutely certain the umpire was spot on when it favoured them.

Panel umpires on the other hand remove this perception, yet they also take something away from a club whose umpire never gets to stand at his own ground in a competitive match.  Players would consider this a price well worth paying, yet it remains a sadness that it is considered necessary, even though it almost certainly is.  Cricket does have an advantage here though, in that while socialising with opponents in the bar after a game has declined substantially in the last 30 years (drink-drive laws have played a major, and entirely justifiable, part in that), there remains the opportunity to chew the cud with the umpires after the game.  It is something that is far rarer in other team sports, and indeed even discouraged in some, the referee disappearing at the end of a game and never getting to know the players, and more importantly, never allowing the players to interact at a normal, human level.  This depends on the club, but the opportunity to see things from the umpires’ perspective is one that perceptive cricketers tend to seize upon, even if only to try to ensure the club in question gets a positive umpires’ report.  But equally umpires are often quick enough to apologise for any error, and batsmen quick enough to accept a decision honestly made even if incorrect.  Or as one umpire less than sympathetically reminded me, if I hadn’t missed the ball in the first place, he wouldn’t have had a decision to make. It is not utopian to note that the facility to talk to each other remains a significant strength in the game, and the aforementioned experience almost all cricketers will have with umpiring allows a degree of empathy not always present in every sport.

Leagues also now tend to require a scorer, a decision that makes sense on every level, not least to the frustrated webmaster of a club trying to make sense of a scorebook requiring entry into Play Cricket that doesn’t remotely add up.  Players common loathing of having to do the scoring meaning that scorers get more appreciation for their efforts than perhaps umpires do.  They also tend to privately regard those who love scoring as being slightly odd, while publicly expressing appreciation and delight for those doing it, a magnificently hypocritical position that’s going to cause the blood pressure of at least one of the authors on this site to rise significantly.

Every bit as much as the unsung heroes within a club who ensure cricket can be played, the umpires (and scorers) are essential to the running of the game.  Those who volunteer may be under-appreciated, but at least cricket appreciates them more than the adherents of many other sports do.  It isn’t that no one ever snaps or mutters at an umpire, but it is that most involved object when it happens, and it really doesn’t happen all that often.  Player behaviour towards each other may have deteriorated in recent times, but the sacrosanct nature of the umpire’s position remains largely in place – and needs to continue in the same vein.

Umpires down the years have been every bit as integral to my cricketing experience as the rest of the game, whether they be right or wrong, or whether they be the Sunday umpire Mike who took enormous delight in signalling byes rather than wides when I’d dived full length down the legside to try to reach an outstandingly wayward delivery from the bowler.  He bloody loved it.

Some of those I played with and against became umpires as their playing careers wound down, and the gentle teasing that as a former bowler they weren’t trusted by any batsman in the entire league was and is an essential part of the cycle of the game and the handing on of the baton.  Umpires at the very highest level might get paid, those below may in some circumstances get expenses, but more often they do so because they wish to give something back to the game they love.

Raise a glass to the umpire.  Without them we don’t have a game.  Raise a glass to the scorer.  Without them we don’t know who has won.