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  • John Gascoigne

Loneliness of the Long Distance Cricket Umpire


Cricket again! For the national team, the challenge will escalate (Pakistan then South Africa and India) as the summer plays out. For park umpires like me, now in my 25th season, the challenge never varies; everything old is new again.

Even day one, at Jacana, out west near Broadmeadows, brings rapid, and double, confirmation of what I learned long ago: every day of every match throws up a unique circumstance. Today, in the Victorian Turf Cricket Association’s North B1, it’s an Indian batsman, between overs, straightening his own stumps 22 yards from my own set, the first slip and wicketkeeper behind him being too deep in conversation to hear or heed my plea for perpendicular perfection.

Then, as Aberfeldie Park chases 187, a fifth wicket partnership builds that may reverse early setbacks. The same keeper has slid up to the stumps to a slow-medium dibbly-dobbler. As irritating to me as this already-30-run stand is to Jacana are the four trail bikes that skirt, to and fro, the nearby, serpentine Maribyrnong River, sending up a 747’s decibels so that when an Indian batsman cuts at a wide ball sending the trio behind the stumps into an oh-what-a-feeling, leaping appeal, I must turn it down. The leapers’ choreographed unanimity leaves little doubt, but my index finger stays holstered, despite my peacekeeping instincts urging me to raise it … and, quickly, before the moment passes. But it’s passed, swallowed into the vortex of pedanticcorrectness that insists on the affirmation of sight (half a metre’s minuscule deflection) and/or sound (baffled by the dirt bikes’ 95-decibel exhausts). I can’t provide either.

Decently, Jacana’s outfielders hold on to three ‘skyers’ and the Parkers fold for 135, so an hour after my helpless, hapless shrug I figure I may have been granted forgiveness – ‘Park’, without my attachment to its cause, was going to lose anyway. Still, as I shake the captains’ hands after stumps, I can’t help but verbalise my embarrassment, with a little explanation thrown in. In truth, it’s a pitch for consideration to Jacana skipper Corey Waelan, who very soon will be marking my competency card.

Later still, I chat with my mate Greg, mid-50s, who has just umpired his first match and, despite running into fewer problems than my own today, will hear my earnestadvice: don’t apologise to the players, and don’t explain. Hypocrite!

I’ve been promoted a grade for round two. Day one, stumps, in North A1 at Oak Park has St Francis de Sales, with three wickets left, 15 ahead of Taylors Lakes’ 127 after Lakes’ remarkable collapse from 0-103, due largely to its batsmen’s launching of skyers and the Saints’ reliable pouching. Certainly, Sammy Kandage, a recruiter of Sri Lankan players to Melbourne club cricket, has found a beauty for Lakes, with wristy young opener Dilan Chandima, who landed in Australia on September 1, sprinting to 71 to follow his debut innings of 95. It’s not his fault his team has souffled in its first innings and, later, Chandima’s brisk leg-breaks are a handful.

At stumps, I envisage a draw and imagine that the only point of interest likely to lodge in the memory will be the captains, Adam Brodie (Taylors Lakes) and Matt Costello (St Francis) and their association with cricket’s quirks, always likely to be harnessed to the otherwise humdrum.

So it was that I last saw Brodie at a tribunal hearing towards the end of last season as he and other club officials explained why their green-top leapt and spat, putting a batsman in hospital on each day. The second of them had three fractures, two in his ankle as his spikes dug in while he pivoted in hope of avoiding the resounding ‘crack’ to his cheekbone that swelled the side of his face almost to the size of the ball that hit it. As we waited for the ambulance, as I was insisting future batsmen be helmeted, the offended batting team’s club president entered the oval to equally insist the match be called off. It was.

As for the genial Matt Costello and his Saints’ contribution to quirkiness, he and they earned brownie points for ‘fixing’ a saturated bowlers’ run-up by turning an oxy-acetylene torch on it. Through clouds of steam, beneath a hand-directed, moving orange glow, at last could be discerned a swamp turning to somethingdrier but which was merely a brown trampoline. No play foreshortened this day … just no play at all.

But a season later, at Oak Park, the anticipated blancmange second day confirms cricket’s ability to confound. Taylor Lakes skittles the last three St Francis wickets, limiting the lead to 38, then slogs expertly to 5-174 declared, setting the sporting challenge of 137 to win from 33 overs. And so well do the Saints chase, that four is needed off the last ball. Captain Costello — who has fed the strike to big-hitting Kane Robertson, to keep hopes alive (at 6-133) –faces this outright-winning, match-deciding ball in a state of exhaustion and nicks it to the keeper, who drops it – then lobs it to the bowler’s end, 22 yards from where Robertson has run. Stranded together, both batsmen crouch … spent … resigned. A bail is casually flicked from its mooring to complete the run-out, a passive end to a day of dynamic cricket, of constant but acceptable sledging, and the (unnecessary) reminder of us umpires’ central role.

I have raised the finger to the plumbest of lbw’s at the start of this fourth, final innings then find no reason to uphold another four, stentorian appeals against pads being where they shouldn’t. At the end, I shake 22 hands, but long to know: how have I done today? Every umpire wants to know, and he’ll usually get an idea when he hands the captains his official report and shakes their hand or, later, over a beer. But when one captain (Costello) is utterly exhausted, the other (Brodie) desperately disappointed, I know I’ll seek a hosanna in vain. I’m not sticking around – I have a headache and identify with the captains, each slumped on a bench, eyes glazed.

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