The Secret Cricketer first picked up a cricket bat as a toddler and became a county junior. He secured a professional contract and has been at the coalface of the English county game since, while also appearing for the England Lions. This insider’s account lifts the lid on modern cricket to reveal what life is really like for an English professional in the 21st century. In the first of three extracts from his book, exclusive to Guerilla Cricket, he turns his attention on the men in white coats.
In the same way that football has good referees and bad, so there are decent umpires and others who I wouldn’t put in charge of a fifth XI match. But county cricket is not like the Premier League. There is no VAR, no recourse to instant replays. So when you think you’re on the end of a poor decision the only way of checking is off the footage from the analysts’ camera which is blowing in the breeze perched precariously on top of the sight screen. It’s not a great guide as to whether the ball was outside the line or not.
I think what pisses players off most about umpires is that, unlike a player or coach, a bad umpire won’t get the sack at the end of the season. It’s been a bone of contention among players for many years. In my career I can only remember one umpire having to leave the first-class list for consistently poor performances, and there were other factors in that decision as well.
Generally speaking, it’s a pretty easy job. You can go on until you’re 65 or even beyond and you’re on £50–70k a year with all expenses paid for six months’ work, so it’s a nice lifestyle. I know coaches mark the performance of umpires at the end of every game, but the bad ones still seem to stay in a job. Coaches will take feedback from players when they rate the umpire, but if he thinks the umpire has had a good game, even if you’ve been on the end of an awful decision, it’s unlikely in my experience to sway his judgement.
In the same way players play shit shots, umpires make bad decisions, but good ones have the grace to admit it. You have a lot more respect for someone who has given you out but then has a look at the replay, realised he’s had a shocker and apologised, like a few have done to me over the years. My estimation of the umpire who can take it on the chin and admit their fallibility goes up immediately.
With the technology available now, there should be a system whereby a player can provide constructive criticism anonymously that gets fed back to the umpire. I would say umpires earn more money than probably 50% of county pros, but sometimes I don’t think they do enough to earn it. It’s no wonder the waiting list for an umpires’ job is growing.
You normally know when you find out who is umpiring your game, particularly if it’s in the County Championship, whether it’s going to be all over in three days and you get an unscheduled day off (unless you lose of course, in which case you’ll invariably be called in for net practice).
I remember standing at the non-striker’s end during the opening overs of a game chatting to the umpire. ‘I’ve been on the road for 25 days, I’m absolutely shattered,’ he told me. The next time I spoke to my batting partner at the end of the over I told him that this game would not go into a fourth day. There were 24 lbws, of which he gave 17, and the game barely made it to lunch on the third day. He triggered me twice, the second time when the ball wouldn’t have hit another set. I saw him as he was leaving the ground. ‘Enjoy your day off!’ Hopefully, he detected the sarcastic, rather bitter tone in my voice.
If you bat between 40 and 50 times a season I reckon you’ll be on the end of between 10 and 15 very debatable decisions. In a good season, if I’d scored a lot of runs, most would have gone my way. Sometimes the difference between a good or bad season can be a single dodgy umpiring decision. I remember a game early in the season on an absolute road where I got a shocking lbw on the first morning. I had to watch the rest of the team churn out 650 and the umpire just laughed when I tried to show him the replay. After a few beers at the end of the season, I reminded him it cost me £5k when I ended up eight runs short of a bonus.
But it works both ways. I have had seasons when it has gone my way, the early lbw I got when I was bowling and ended up with five wickets, and the times when I got the benefit of the doubt and went on to make a big score. With the schedule we play, I think umpires generally err on the side of the bowler to keep the game moving. In which case, why didn’t I cultivate relationships with umpires so I would get the benefit of the doubt more often? That happens, but sometimes you’ll get on well with an umpire and he gives you a stinking decision and you wonder why you bothered!
Some umpires can fold under pressure. The players all know who the ‘weak’ ones are. I always knew in front of certain umpires that my chances of being out if I was hit on the pad increased because they struggled when the opposition put them under pressure with incessant appealing.
There would always be certain fixtures when you would see the umpires on duty and wonder how the fuck they would cope with the egos of some of the players. The big teams who can put pressure on the weaker umpires knew it and it would be an uphill battle.
But then at the other end of the scale you had guys like Peter Willey, who was a great umpire and a really nice bloke. If you pissed him off, he would show you what he thought of you which may sound crap but it meant you built a good relationship with him.
The best umpires pull you up gently. ‘Pipe down’ and ‘chill out’ seem to be the favourite expressions of a lot of umpires. If he notices the ball looks a bit dodgy, a good umpire will have a quiet word with the captain and warn them. They communicate all the time, treat the players like adults and if a team transgresses guys like Michael Gough and Richard Kettleborough, for instance, will come down hard on them.
Gough, Kettleborough, Alex Wharf and Ian Gould are all brilliant. I would call them professional umpires. Gunner Gould umpires in a great way and mostly gets the decisions right. He would abuse players, too, but in a nice way. I remember him getting really pissed off with Mark Cosgrove, the Australian batsman who played for Leicestershire when he was behaving like a dickhead. He kept querying his decisions, so Gunner told him exactly what he thought of his body shape which we all found amusing, including Cosgrove.
On one occasion I got some great advice from Nick Cook, who had played for England and played as well as I ever did. These guys watch a lot of cricket so they generally know their stuff and can be great sources of tips and advice. I’ve always wondered why England selectors didn’t consult them more. They have the best view of the players, seven days a week, and can spot a good player.
Good umpires take their time over decisions; they’re composed, they don’t overreact and they’re not trying to make friends. Incidentally, Kettleborough is referred to by the journalists on the county circuit as Umpire Who Boasts. Apparently, when he was playing for Yorkshire years ago, a reporter was overheard in the Headingley press box dictating copy to his newspaper office and came up with ‘Richard Kettleborough, comma, who boasts the longest surname in first-class cricket, comma’ … brilliant.
Tomorrow:The next time I faced Finny I knew I’d do well – the stats said so: The Secret Cricketer on analysts