Cricket and conflict

Reflecting a sense of heightened global conflict, international cricket has spent 14 troubled months being riven by its own perceived or manufactured slights.

David Warner doesn’t like Rohit Sharma sneaking a single from an overthrow and then objects to him speaking in his native tongue, Hindi. Michael Clarke threatens to have Mitchel Johnson break James Anderson’s expletive-deleted arm because Jimmy is locked on to his usual yappy, objectionable modus.

The blown-up back page pictures of sportsmen losing it are invariably mirrored down through the ranks, from the vast savannah of club matches to six-year-olds in the backyard who, for bad behavior, will be red-carded by Mum to their room until dinner time.

Offence and indignation, slight and retaliation, punch and counter-punch: sport, including cricket, merges the front and back pages in the eternal tide of action and reaction.

This day, to start the second round of 2015, it’s the turn of reaction: against me. As an umpire for the Victoria Turf Cricket Association in a North B1 match, I pull up my car just short of my assigned Monk Oval, Maribyrnong, fixture to brace for renewed acquaintance with a team I’d managed to mightily offend back in December.

Opposite the ground where I’ll soon be hammering in the stumps, my thoughts run through a mantra of positive thinking as I harness impending reality to perspective: I’m not, let’s face it, going to be kneeling on desert sand in an orange smock under the eye of an ISIS butcher.

I had met my new nemesis four weeks earlier. Its members had shouted at and implored me in vain to accede to their lbw appeals then, at stumps, ignored me when the normal courtesies are exchanged and the players’ thirsty weariness is addressed with beer and showers. But “ignored” was fine with me; collectively they wanted to shove my over-counter down my throat, my pronged wicket-spacer elsewhere.

I’d not so much driven as fled from the home ground of the north-west suburbs club that has a two-word name I shouldn’t reveal but which, in fact, shares the moniker of a particularly fiery New South Wales and Australian bowler of the 1970s and ’80s, followed by a word that describes a detachable, usually-gossamer, woman’s face-covering of the sort worn by Gina Lollobrigida as the Queen of Sheba.

That first game involving this Mystery Team (let’s call them the PVs), was fraught with ear-piercing appeals, none of which persuaded my index finger to head north, and a suffocating silence as its players reconciled themselves to my sensory deprivation that prevented me seeing, hearing and possibly smelling the friction of leather on wood for a “smashed” caught behind.

Then, after the tea break, I raised my index digit against them a third time for an lbw shout, my opinion being that an off-cutter was going to hit middle-and-leg three-quarters of the way up. That proved to be my blow-torch salve for their painful flesh wound.

Amid the hubbub, it seemed unwise to suggest to the captain, who we’ll call Bligh, that the third lbw decision (no objection to the first two) seemed to be undergoing adoption by his team as an alibi for the four catches they had earlier dropped in the outfield as East Coburg set a first innings target of 157. The PVs, in fact, fell short by 42.

Bligh’s language throughout was purple, leaving me vicariously uncomfortable for the courteous and affable sub-continentals predominating in East Coburg’s eleven. While batting, one of them complained at Bligh’s tirade from close mid-on. I duly cautioned him and he agreed to a bit of hush but eventually forgot he’d done so.

Then an accusation from the colourful captain himself — I had “failed to act” against someone beyond the boundary who called out while one of his fieldsmen was getting under a skied catch. There was nothing I could do, I told him, as I was watching the ball when the call was made. And, I added, this would probably happen in the Big Bash at the MCG today, and the thousands of spectators yelling out under a skier probably wouldn’t be reported. We, out in the suburbs, weren’t much different, I told him.

About this time, the PVs were so verbally loud and aggressive that I called the two captains together. Bligh told me I was losing control of the match, which seemed a little rich. The real sequence of events, I suggested, began with him losing control of his team.

After another loud and frivolous appeal, I called the two captains together, asking them if they wanted to continue the match (there were still 15 overs remaining). They both said “yes”.

“OK, we’ll finish the 80 overs,” said I, “provided you (Bligh) speak to your players and your team’s behavior improves”.

It did and we played on until stumps at 6.30. The handshakes and pats on the back from East Coburg were a further embarrassment, impressed on me by their opponents’ cold-shouldering.

A friend who I’ve introduced to umpiring this season has already sworn off umpiring a particular team that gave him hell in just his second match. He had thought of quitting altogether after the vile language directed at him.

For me, there’s the option of asking umpires manager Nigel Cowan to ensure my name and PV’s aren’t entwined again, at least until next season. But dammit, what are the chances we’ll be drawn together in the 50-or-so matches to go under the eye of the appointments secretary in each of the remaining weeks. And I’d rather not take the escape hatch of a wimp.

Sure enough, as my phone chirrups on the train going home from work on Tuesday, it’s Norm with his umpiring assignments for the new year’s second round. And, there it is: the reverse jackpot. I’ve got them again!

A preoccupation with how PV will treat me somewhat colours (black and blue) the end of my working week. Will they continue ignoring me? Apply sarcasm? Thump me?

None of it. As I approach the pavilion, PV player No.1 says: “G’day. John, how’s it going?” Player No.2: “Happy new year, mate. Have a good break?”

Did that uncomfortable match really happen? Has PV in the interim decided to “give the sucker a break?” Or, with a match to be won, do they simply want to have me onside?

In any event, they let me relax into cricket’s rhythms and indulge my own little game based on the belief that every single day’s play will reveal a unique situation. I expect to, and always do, find one. On this first day of a two-dayer it happens early.

I’ve given myself the recommended hour to prepare for the 1pm call of “Play”, and I carry out to the centre the only set of stumps I can see – on the scorers’ table. Unusually, they’re metal-tipped, all the easier to hammer into the turf when it’s softened up by the jug of water I pour into the holes of my hammered-in, steel, Shanghai-made wicket spacer.

As we walk out to start the match, I see three holes at the southern end. The stumps have been removed from them. “We’re not allowed to use the metal tips,” says one of the PVs. “They gotta be all-wood.”

Sure enough, I’ve used the stumps consigned to the match just starting up on the adjacent oval. It’s a lower-grade match. Potentially, these metal-tipped stumps can be uprooted by a fast bowler, sent cartwheeling point-first into the heart or eye of the wicketkeeper. Metal can do that; wood probably won’t.

Better that the victim be of lower grade … Or is that just my imagination, fevered in this suspenseful road-fork of forgiveness or delayed reprisal.

So, having asked the captains to start two minutes early (as we normally finish late), we start four minutes’ late after inserting a second set of wickets. Unique indeed.

And this uniqueness is about to find a twin; unique, at least, in my umpiring career spanning a lazy 28 years. On the last ball of the day, the 489th, PV’s opening bowler Matt Grindley uses his chest-on, Courtney Walsh action to spear a yorker in to the pads of a Maribyrnong Park opener and demands I dispatch him. It was hitting middle stump, so I do.

This PV team no longer wants to lynch me, I realise. Most of its senior players have taken to calling me “Johnny” and the eleven seem to quite like me, even after day two when a declaration leaves them needing just one wicket for an outright as I call an end to the match.

How curious that their opponents, having been thoroughly outplayed, appear to have cooled towards me.

After stumps, as I fill in a section of the umpire’s report pertaining to the “spirit of cricket”, I give each team a modest mark, as this has been a talkative match, of too-frequent sledging. That could be partly due to my own reluctance to step in. But, hell, I figure that each team is giving as good as it gets. And if both are roughly equal in intensity and duration of their sledging, then, I think, they probably deserve each other. And each team passes the important decibel test: none of their verbals could be heard beyond the boundary, where children, nieces and nephews play.

As for the recommend remedy of taking miscreants to the tribunal, I’ve tried it twice: “truth” was a concoction of deceits devised in advance, while “justice” was better served at the Inquisition than at a properly convened cricket tribunal lacking a sworn coercion towards truth. Short of threatened or actual physical violence, I’ll not waste my time at tribunals.

So I conclude that cricket merely reflects its times. Since my cricketing youth, fewer parents have been willing, able or even present to inculcate consideration, empathy and politeness in their kids (now adults), as would be the preference of the mandarins of Lord’s who added a “Preamble on the Spirit of Cricket” when they handed down their Code of Laws in 2000.

The preamble says: “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game. Any action which is seen to abuse this Spirit causes injury to the game itself”.

Does it? Many years earlier, the Irish Republican and “drinker with a writing problem”, Brendan Behan pronounced that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.

Cricket has had a lot of bad publicity in recent times, but the turnstiles are ticking over like Morse code and its obituary is a very long way off.

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