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Umpiring - Age no impediment, or guarantee


Teenagers showing early promise deliver old lessons.

Never work with children or animals, WC Fields famously cautioned.

Having put my hand up to umpire in this month’s JG Craig Under-15s competition, I’ll confess the quotation might annoy some of the players I umpired. Of course, they’d insist they outgrew childhood years ago.

But having coached the Prahran Cricket Club’s Under-16s for two summers in the Nineties, I can attest that most adolescents are a hell of a lot closer to childhood than the solid citizens, many of them cricket tragics, who organise these off-piste cricket events.

The Craig Elevens were selected from 28 clubs around Melbourne and played on the clubs’ professionally prepared turf wickets.

Being allocated an umpiring gig between Elsternwick and Ormond teenagers at the latter’s Gunn Reserve home ground induced a flashback. It was 25 years ago, at Prahran CC in my second coaching year, when my crude attempt at social engineering brought everyone undone. Problems emerged when the three rebellious sons of disadvantaged parents (two single mothers; the third, a father in jail) refused to accept match-day instructions from the private-schooled doctor’s son I’d chosen as captain. And, yes, the lad lived in Toorak, which I learned as I did the rounds to gain 15 parents’ signed assent for the coming well-meant coaching stint.

The season was at stake so we paid the ransom. Counter-intuitively, I chose Phillip as our new captain. He was the loudest, most rebellious and natural leader of the three amigos, and I hoped responsibility might sandpaper (oops!) his rough edges, hasten maturity and moderate his behaviour.

On the morning of Phillip’s second match in charge, Melbourne’s Saturday papers ran a story about the theft from his club of a valuable 18thcentury bat, taken from its cabinet. The same day, as he buckled his pads at our Orrong Road ground, Phillip was approached by two policemen, who spoke to him at length. Three evenings later, the bat was found – slipped into long grass near the practice nets.

A swap back to the original appointee as captain brought us to a behavioural plateau before we bottomed out again.

Now, in late January 2020, on the night before my one-day Craig Shield match, I email a friend: “I feel keener than ever to get my decisions right. The judgment and annoyance of 11 kids in unison is something I’d rather avoid. Big burly blokes I can handle!”

Semi or total blindness and deafness aren’t entirely umpiring myths because, for just over a year now, I’ve been wearing hearing aids. Early in this JG Craig one-dayer, out on the paddock, my left-ear aid made its first ‘ping-ping-ping’, which is a 15-minute warning of a battery dying. Not the start I’d dreamed of.

Sixteen overs later, a huge appeal, part baritone, part soprano, told me there had been a caught-behind as the lads of Elsternwick struggled towards 112 on a mostly benign wicket. (Ormond would pass the total with the loss of a single batsman.) The absence of visible deflection from the Elsternwick bat elevated hearing as the only apposite sense to guide me, and the slight breeze at my back carrying the sound away hardly helped the prosecution’s case. The Ormond appeal was convincing enough, but the reaction to my still-holstered index finger made it clear: the lads of Ormond were ropeable. Trouble is, when you’re half deaf . . .

Lessons: new batteries go in on Friday nights, without fail. And while the World Health Organisation defines adolescence as the years between 10 and 19, I won’t be using age to typecast people, or predict behaviour, in future. Fact is, the JG Craig fraternity on show revealed maturity and discipline befitting, say, 45-year-olds (also known to get over-the-top cranky).

No, me and my hearing were the problem. At a subsequent umpires’ meeting, suspecting our honchos would have received and read the captains’ assessment of me and my partner, I met one of the brass and explained that my laughingly-described defence would be a re-run of a time when, as a journalist, I reported a flood for ABC radio news in Echuca and ran afoul of the law; learned also that an excuse can land you in worse trouble than the offence.

Echuca is where the Goulburn and Campaspe rivers meet the Murray, and the banked up waters from flooding in May 1974 played havoc with my Morris Minor’s brakes. In fact, I wore out the soles off my runners, which, stuck out the door at the end of stilt-legs, became a surrogate braking system. I had filed my final report and was heading back to Melbourne. Decelerating via my right leg as I approached intersections became the key element of my driving, but I hadn’t yet mastered the art when I dribbled into one crossing and stopped, sadly, in the middle of it.

The plainclothes policeman emerging from a grocer’s shop had seen my progress. Putting down his bag and then pushing me to safety, he asked the Hobson’s Choice question: Do you have any explanation for entering this intersection against the red light and stopping here? No. So I paid the fine, and the incontestable excuse, “My breaks don’t work”, never made it past my left cerebral hemisphere where thoughts form.

It’s been a constant through my umpiring career that a poor day behind the stumps is followed by a good one. Over the past fortnight, after the JG Craig bout of deafness, it’s been two good days. As we drew stumps last Saturday in our North/South, Second XI match between Ormond (10/161) and Malvern (10/174), co-umpire Paul Seaman and I reflected that neither of us would have changed a single decision, even were we able. That’s pretty rare for umpires; just watch any televised international, with DRS in play!

Last Saturday I left the ground with a smile on my face. Malvern medium-fast bowler Liam Barker put it there. He’s 6ft 4in on the old imperial scale, moustachioed and, on appearance, well suited to playing Mr Darcy or Heathcliff on stage or screen. He’s also an equal-opportunity feminist. Asked to field at third man during his six-over spell, Liam told his captain, “I think you mean at third person.”

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