Rant Alert! Apologies in advance 😉
Over the last two or three years Third Man has had the opportunity to watch cricket played in a number of so-called Premier Leagues.
The standard of cricket initially appears high. A large number of young county second eleven players are involved as too are former county staff players. Clubmen have to be good to contribute at this level and many do.
The standard of umpiring however is ‘in another league’ – literally and metaphorically.
Generally it is a matter of style over substance. The number of Simon Taufel look-alikes are legion. They arrive at the ground blazered and badged and take the field displaying even more badges. They may know the Laws, but the majority cannot put them into practice especially at this level because they do not have the (hard to define) cricketing nous, nor in many cases do they retain sufficiently keen senses to put them into practice.
Good cricketers are masters of angles. They have developed their own acute sense of psycho-geography. Trajectories are not mysteries for them, but opportunities. They see the future as if unconsciously. Their predictive powers over the trajectory of a cricket ball are keen. That’s how they can play a very difficult game well.
Unless an umpire has played at this level, it is most unlikely that they will have these honed gifts, nor can they be developed. Yet you cannot be a good umpire without them.
The hierarchy of cricket is produced by natural selection. Yet of the 24 people on the field of play during a match, two are unlikely to have gone through that process of selection. Courses, exams and experience are not substitutes for cricketing skill and sharp senses. Even the old player of quality must recognize their failing powers of sight and hearing.
Lack of standing (forgive the pun) and poor performance mean that umpires are causing more and more dissent to take place on the field. For a number of reasons they also seem unwilling to take firm action against action by players that is far from the spirit in which cricket should be played.
Reform is needed urgently, as reforms will necessarily take a number of years to implement. One fact is certain: whatever reforms take place there will not be sufficient numbers of umpires with cricketing acuity described above to feed the demand from all the ‘leagues’, but there ought – and needs – to be sufficient numbers to stand in Premier Leagues, if these elite development opportunities are going to do what the ECB intends that they do and if overt dissension in Premier Leagues is not to influence and undermine the game further ‘down’ the ladder.
Many of the players are now paid legitimately and others illegitimately, so it is not credible to argue that, ‘it’s only a game’. But why umpires turn deaf ears to the rhetoric that takes place not only while batsmen are at the crease but also as they head back for the pavilion once dismissed is beyond comprehension. If as a community we would not tolerate this behaviour in a supermarket, why should we tolerate it on a cricket ground?
Not that batsmen are innocent. Wandering onto a ground half way through a match this Saturday, Third Man saw eight dismissals in four hours play, half a dozen of which were as a result of appeals and umpiring decisions. All six were accompanied by open dissent to a degree in which batsmen clearly believed that they could change the decision. Appealing by the fielding side has reached Wagnerian dimensions. Bowlers stare at umpires for a considerable time. Appeals and dissent are deliberate actions designed to change future decisions in the same match. They are gamesmanship. They are cheating. They are the equivalent of the ‘dive’ and the shirt pull in football. Good people don’t want it in our game.
Wicket keeping now consists not only of glove work but verbal intimidation of the square leg umpire designed to instil doubt in the mind of the umpire and win the next appeal ‘on balance’ (as well of course as intimidation of the batsman).
Captains are as supine as the umpires in stopping this rot that is undermining cricket.
What to do? Umpires receive around £40 for the pleasure of being abused in this way. A new ball costs more than an umpire. Whilst not thinking twice about paying £400 for a bat and £500 for a sub-professional, each player contributes less than four pounds towards recruiting a person who has absolute power over their success with that bat and with the smooth and fair ruining running of their day’s play. Play!
Better former players must be induced financially to remain involved in the game. Umpires must be paid more – but not necessarily the same umpires. The quid pro-quo in these Premier Leagues must be that an umpire has played at the level in which they stand. This may be unfair on the very small numbers who have sufficient skill to compensate for their lack of player experience, but the need for change is too fundamental to allow this to concern us over much. Some candidates are fast tracked by the ECB (?) to become umpires able to stand in First Class Cricket and obviously such status should enable them to stand in Premier League cricket.
To conclude, the threat to cricket comes not from the professional game, but from the semi-professional game. The performance of umpires and player discipline in Premier Leagues must be transformed or this cancer will spread further and deeper into the marrow of the relationships that are the substance of cricket. The alternatives are clear. The choice is Reform or Complicity? Cricket or Not-cricket.