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.