Six summers have passed since I umpired a match and, like injured players returning from a spell, I wonder whether eyes, ears and judgement can suffice in the highly competitive, highly populated Victorian Turf Cricket Association.
Like all cricket tragics, I'll watch any match going. Being in the best position on the park to do so, and being paid $120 ($130 if on my own) for the privilege, implies a compact of assumed umpiring competence, enough not to subvert the balance of the combatants' relative skills.
Apart from one match this season, I've umpired on my own, end to end, as we don't have enough umps to stretch over 80 matches across Melbourne.
The solo experience confirms my long-held view that umpiring with no break in concentration makes my judgement sounder than coming into and out of solid concentration, as happens when every alternate over is adjudicted at square leg, where some "switching off" to observe cloud formations is a given.
2012 is my 21st year of umpiring and the second match of the new year has brought me to Fearon Reserve, Williamstown.
Beneath the seagulls, we're wedged between a mini-botanical garden and, two hundred metres to the west, the sparkling waters of the bay.
On day one I've done well, apart possibly from giving out, lbw, a Williamstown opening batsman who tells me during the tea break that it pitched outside leg stump. I tell him I don't agree, but he adds that even one of the Spotswood players told him "it wasn't out". But for rest of the day I'm happy with my decisions, even one caught behind that is sheer guesswork, though lack of any dissenting action from the batsman tells me I've got away with it.
As Williamstown takes the field late in the day, the opening over contains three wides. The bowler is extremely bolshie, dropping the f-word, and when the third ball whistles over the return crease necessitating my throwing my arms wide, he lets me know what he thinks of my decision. I decide to play him at his own game, saying: "I didn't write the f---ing laws".
I'm connected to a memory of taking on the school bully a lifetime ago. Then, I landed a blow with my longer reach. Prone in the dirt, we stalemated in mutural headlocks before the principal arrived and expelled us for the day. Now in Williamstown, the bowler, like the bully, has entered unfamiliar territory. Umpires are supposed to wear "it", the verbal detritus, as well as caps and pullovers. "What did you say," the bowler demands. But I'm giving him no more ammunition and there, apparently, the matter rests. It might help that I've already established a good relationship with Williamstown captain Zoran Havranek.
On the second, final day, this senior 2nds match draws to a prolonged, tense climax, Spotswood's last two partnerships adding about 80 to win the contest. The sledging intensifies with edged boundaries and a slowing run rate as Spotswood's survival imperative (4-29 overnight) is replaced by a seeping awareness of a most unlikely victory. It's duly delivered by the last pairing.
The susurrus of surf from day one has been replaced by a dull roar as a strong northwester drives the waves to shore, a sound strong enough to baffle the sound of leather brushing willow.
But my challenge today is lbw appeals. I grant two and reject five, and my confident rejections draw howls of disbelief, which far from intimidatingc me, raise my hackles, which later I imagine is my unconscious donning of armour to handle the verbal testosterone.
Despite the demands of walking end to end, I always find distractions to balance the drama on which I'm adjudicating. An intrigue: on the bay's horizon, above wind-swept, gray-blue water under overcast skies, a ship on the horizon is vertically disected by a light pole on the foreshore. If I move a metre to the right, or to the left, surely the pole's relationship to the ship will move correspondingly left or right. But it always disects completely in the middle, confounding even my nugatory grasp of trigonometry.
Much later, on bending down to pick up the ball, I look to the horizon. The boat has lifted above the line where sea meets sky for the logical reason that the â€˜ship' is in fact a short crossbar attached to the pole. Meanwhile, Spotswood last two partnerships counfound everyone, taking it past the goal of 165. The fact most players, and both captains, shake my hand after stumps raises hopes of a good report.
I'm a rusted-on cricket lover, but as the 2011-12 season begins at Hallam Reserve, Pascoe Vale, the oxide flakes are on full display. In this North B1 match, I'm hammering one set of stumps into the batting (â€˜popping') crease as I hear the words, "Excuse me".
But I don't expect absolution. The stumps belong in the bowling crease, and I'm performing the rules football equivalent of putting the goal posts in the centre square.
My folly is being pointed out by West Coburg captain Matt Roberts, who I figure is likely to repeat it in his written assessment. Even a fault-free match won't bring redemption. But I go close, I figure, the one hitch being that when Melyston-Hadfield captain Peter Gleisner is caught behind, the bowler is directly between me and the keeper and I blurt out, "I didn't see it" then wait a few seconds and on seeing the ball being held high, I raise my finger. I've given the right decision but not come to it elegantly, as Peter points out after the match. "You should have consulted with the square leg umpire," he says, and, of course, I agree.
I grant only one lbw appeal, bringing no hint of protest, and turn down four others. Two nicks through to the keeper are feather touches, which I uphold on the faintest of sound -- again no protest. So I feel that I've got all my decisions right. After stumps, Peter shouts me a beer. Has he forgiven me or is it just a stubby of compassion?
For round two, I'm in Strathmore (north division). I start well, but the day turns into a shocker. I give Strathfield's opening batsman not out, thinking the ball for a caught behind may have come off his pad. In the next over he tells me it did, but there's huge dissent from Keilor. Later, after tea, I give him out caught behind (for 45), and when he flicks the bails off I take no action.
Another Strathmore batsman, on being given out lbw, tells me, as he walks past me: "I smashed it." Yes, I've heard what sounds like wood but believe the ball has hit the pad first. Within the next hour I turn down a caught behind and all hell breaks loose. I hear the edge but see no deflection. Even so, I want to give it out -- but it's as though my finger is stuck; I just can't raise it. Matt, the bowler, who's been friendly and exchanged names with me, says: "John, that's four you've missed" -- a statistic I reject as an exaggeration of one, but his frustration with me has spread through the team.
On day two, I give Keilor captain Danny Law not out when he's about 20 and his team is three down chasing 162 to win. He's batting about a foot outside his crease and the ball hits him on or just outside off-stump. I'm public enemy No.1 as he goes onto make exactly 100. (He's dropped 3 times after my not out.)
I turn down four more lbw appeals, and on the last one of them -- well outside leg stump -- a player says: "It wouldn't matter where it hit, you're not going to give them out." I caution him but don't make a report. Fading light necessitates early stumps and, as they trudge off, a player remarks as though to no one in particular: "There'll be a report on you and it's going to be ugly.'' I concede that my two "not out" calls -- the caught behind last week and lbw today -- have resulted in the reprieved players scoring big runs: Wenlock (of Strathmore, 45) and Law (of Keilor, 100), which exacerbates the friction.
I'll soon know my fate. Our boss/adviser, former first-class umpire Paul Jensen will have the captains' report on me within a few days. Demotion is certain. But I have a new resolve, to act on my first instinct. No more second guessing.
Jensen has taken the counter-intuitive route. For round 3, I'm in the top, seniors division, at a favourite venue, Ransford Oval in Parkville. Generous Jensen and I are both rewarded as my new resolution kicks in. We start half hour late after a wet patch is mopped up, and I'm confident I make no error throughout the day, including at the end when McKinnon's openers face just two overs and there's a raucous appeal for caught behind. The ball goes perilously close to the gloves, but there's no sound or deflection and my rejection is accepted relatively quietly.
On day two, McKinnon passes its 174-run winning target in the 79th over -- after I've turned down a big lbw appeal with Royal Park-Brunswick two runs short. I feel the ball angling in from off stump could have missed leg, and as I leave the ground and farewell losing captain Sean Cooray he assures me it was going to "miss by a mile". I feel I've umpired the perfect match, and wouldn't change a single decision. Ricky Ponting must have felt like this after his redeeming hundred in Sydney.
It's round 4, and I'm down to South A2. Is this reverse counter-intuition, or delayed punishment from snail mail keeping Paul in the dark over my error-ridden round two?
At Albert Park, I have an early disagreement with Aspendale captain Jamie Walker, who's batting and takes a single, claiming a leg bye. But he hasn't moved the bat deliberately towards the ball so I nullify the run with my signal. He says "I don't know the rules". Apart from the fact he means the "laws", I make no comment.
At stumps, I'm confident I've had a day of getting all my decisions correct, and Jamie compliments me, even thanks me for my umpiring. There's no result, day two being rained out. Every so often an umpire sees a player and thinks, â€˜Was this the origins of an outstanding, perhaps first-class career?' So it was on day one as 15-year-old Bailey Dale completed his century a minute before stumps.
Rain makes round 5 a helter-skelter one-dayer and I try to keep up as Middle Park plays Highett in South A2. I'm hoping my only possible fault is a missed caught behind in Highett's innings when I give a batsman not out, but with the Middle Park keeper standing up, I detect no deflection and hear no sound. Behind the wicket, it seems, they both saw and heard.
My girlfriend turns up, which I discover when a photo of me crouched over, chin barely above the bails, turns up on my computer. I've adoped this posture for its sense of being locked closer, physically by 20 centimetres, and psychologically by a sense of enhanced alertness. Think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon . . . but don't think for too long. Old, black and white film footage shows many English umpires adopting the same position.
In Melbourne, December 2010, I'm having one of my better days. Renata arrives at the end of the Highett innings with a bottle of iced tea, cold ale being inappropriate. I'm grateful she's not seeing me at the centre of lynch mob (refer round two).
Round six's opening day at my favourite Woodfull Oval, Middle Park, a five-minute drive matches the iced tea for soothing blandness. I suffer the discomfort of doubt over only one decision: again, a caught behind, now in the Aspendale innings with the keeper standing up. I grant the appeal on the sheer confidence of the men behind the wicket. And the reaction of everyone seems to confirm I've guessed correctly.
Day two of this South A1 match is spoiled at the 60-over drinks break by my copping a $61 parking fine. I have no idea parking limits are in place. The officer who has just pinned the ticket to my windscreen tells me there's a warning at the front entrance, but that is in the form of a 12-inch wide, one-metre-tall column next to the ground entrance that no one would notice amid all the signage around the Grand Prix pavilion.
My cricket-related concern: the players hear my profanities as I express my anger. Two decades, and I've never considered even the possibility of parking fines at a weekend's cricket. "So I can expect a trespass fine next time I walk on St Kilda beach," I say, expletives undeleted, to Parks Victoria's grey ghost. Regrettable, as I've just told a bowler that while I have no personal objection to his using the f-word, I do have at 140 decibels.
For the match, I give out Middle Park batsman G. Perera caught behind (for 67) during his team's successful run chase -- at the tea interval his teammate, 15-year-old George tells me the batsman says the ball hit his thigh pad. I should rise above such jeremiads, but I don't. Such comments laugh at my Quixotian windmill-tilting, at the absurd pursuit of faultlessness.