Cricket’s Uniqueness can never be Dismissed

Cricket never fails to intrigue with its curious means of batsmen’s dismissal and the litany of fine and flawed actions that will precede their lonely walk back to the look-away reaction of teammates.

Before the tragedy that took the life of Phillip Hughes on November 27, 2014, it seemed a mere oddity that a batsman could be dismissed by a ball richocheting from a fieldsman’s head and being caught by his teammate.

It’s happened any number of times in first-class and Test cricket, and short leg Eric ‘Fritzy’ Freeman counts himself lucky to be able to recall the ball that flew from his cranium down to Keith Stackpole at deep backward square leg to dismiss West Indies’ Seymour Nurse in the 1968 Boxing Day Test.

Reporting a then-District final at the Junction Oval for the now defunct Sunday Herald in 1990, my momentary distraction from the match in hand ended abruptly with the clunk of a ball from Paul Reiffel hitting Warren Whiteside’s helmet as he ducked for a short one that kept low. Whiteside was jogging down the pitch in a dazed state when the umpire’s finger went up, and the batsman eventually learned his fate from the scorers: out lbw. In truth, head before wicket.

Unusual dismissals have filled volumes of Wisden since the almanac’s first edition in 1864. In 140 years of Test matches, just seven batsmen have been sent packing for “handling the ball”, while a further four have offended the laws by being run out by the slightly disreputable Mankad method.

The first reference to cricket being played as an adult sport was in 1611, so with its popularity (second only to soccer as a world team game) and with 42 governing laws, each with multiple (up to 18) subsidiary laws at play, the ancient game has delivered an orgy of calculus and analysis of possibilities. A match surely for chess, which purportedly has as many possible moves in a game as there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches.

And umpires, like this writer, in being denied NASA-quality theodolites, US Military binoculars and Cochlear Mark 4 hearing acuity, become aware of a great imbalance. We have five seconds, tops, to sift all four senses for our ruling of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Yet the peer figures we aspire to be – members of the ‘elite’ international panel – are shown routinely to be fallible, or just plain incompetent, by the sort of technology they’re denied. The technological snitch (think hot spot, snicko and ball tracking) exposing the ‘best’ umpires also renders the TV viewer omnipotent.

Former Test match umpire Rex Whitehead saw a demonstration of the Dalek he was meant to be when sitting an umpires’ exam many years ago. Whitehead’s handicap of being human was exposed with this hypothetical question: “The bowler delivers the ball, which is a no-ball, and is driven by the batsman who, in doing so, breaks the wicket at the striker’s end before the ball is deflected by the bowler’s hand and breaks the wicket at the bowler’s end with the non-striker out of his ground. The ball continues on and crosses the boundary. A fieldsman returns the ball to the bowler. When the bowler is part way through his run-up for the next delivery, a fieldsman calls, ‘How’s that?’ If you are the umpire at the bowler’s end, what do you do before the appeal, on the appeal and after the appeal?”

Give up? So did Rex.

Infinite possibility, at the heart of the game, has produced more books on cricket than on any other sport.

Long before 2016, I’d decided that every single day, let alone match, reveals something I’ve never encountered. Last January, umpiring in the Victorian Turf Cricket Association, I started a diary to record cricket’s unique ability to create . . . uniqueness.

It’s round eight, a one-day match, and 23 of us (I’m umpiring on my own) are in the shallow basin of Flemington CC’s Walter Street Reserve, ringed by modern, rectilinear houses, when two dropped catches in the first over pique my interest in the realms of rarity. The third and fifth balls go down in slips, both hard chances. Then off the last, sharp delivery, with a sound-carrying breeze at my back, an East Coburg batsman slashes shoulder-height in the ball’s direction. Willow and leather are awfully close, posing a third question: was that a snick I heard as the ball sailed through to the keeper? If so, a third chance has gone begging due to my own uncertainty. Flemington’s slips, unbaffled by the breeze in their face, have no doubt: that’s out. So no wickets are down, but from the first over there could have been three.

At the eventual fall of the first, Shehan (surname withheld by request), a tall, gently mannered Sri Lankan who slogs as though angry, brings his own uniqueness to the crease as he combines leg-squat exercises with making signs of the cross, not once but three times. Fearing we may all be blessed with a religiously incorrect “hurry-up” from a Flemington player, I appropriate the desired, polite request: “Come on, please, batsman.” Shehan does so, scoring a rapid 43 of his team’s 91, but the signalled entreaties to his god keep arriving about once per over. In fact, there’s no comment at all from the players, a factor in my scoring 10 out of 10 for each team under Spirit of Cricket in the post-match report.

The religiosity is certainly unique but, like steak knives, there’s more. Shortly after tea, a ball from left-armer Daniel Aiton keeps low, beats the keeper and knocks askew his helmet posted three metres beyond his haunches. Five penalty runs, and a bye from the same ball! Hardly unique for cricket, but it is for me. Two overs later, I witness the day’s doozy.

Among our many talents, umpires are wardrobes and hat stands. So when Flemington captain Oli Ingham hands me a thick woollen sock to go with a bowler’s hat, I assume he’s joking. Being fastidious and a little squeamish, I place the sock inside the hat, enfolding it within the Greg Chappel-brand lid between its stiff, opposite brims. If this is a hygiene issue, I decide, it can be a problem for the hat owner, who’s about to bowl the next over — not mine. Later, Oli sates my curiosity: there are two woollen socks, he explains, one wrapped inside the other, and they’re genital protection for any fielder in one of cricket’s ‘silly’ positions, often short square leg, the suicide post recently occupied in the Test team by Joe Burns. Oli adds that the outer garment, the one I’ve held by my finger tips, is the ‘hygiene sock’.

Flemington knocks off the runs comfortably, having helped provide a month’s ‘uniqueness’ in a single match!

The next Friday is rained on, heavily, and the following day I’m at Maribyrnong Park-St Mary’s CC’s Monk Oval, a Gayle-hit six from the murky Maribyrnong River. As I arrive, the covers are being dragged back across the boundary. Play is due to start in just 15 minutes as I lean beside curator Christ Grant, watching him stencil the creases from a spray can. Chris observes that while he does this job for love – he’ll soon be donning whites to join the home team, Maribyrnong Park (against St Andrews) – he nurses a pet grievance. And wants to know: why do batsmen, having taken guard, repeatedly remark their crease, deepening the furrows that will align their grounded, receptive bat with the stumps, over five hours of a day’s play. Foxes aren’t so precious in marking their patch.

Chris’s grunted grimace answers his own rhetorical question and poses another: will the grooved earth anchoring these stumps really undergo a seismic shift? The obsessive-compulsive (O.C.) behaviour, as Chris sees it, costs him more than an hour’s labour and the care of an archaelogcal dig just to fill the deep grooves for the battle’s resumption in seven days. The curator, who applied his skills to Flemington racecourse for 12 years, admits to his own alignment with O.C. as he twists each of the six stumps I’ve just hammered in so that each stump’s Grey Nicolls logo will be directly facing its identical sticker 22 yards away.

Chris has dutifully steered his mechanical roller end to end since I arrived, but within a minute of calling “Play”, the first of the day’s 21 wickets falls to a smart slips catch. It may be hurting him, I figure, that his green-top is at least as tricky as the bowling. Curators, too, bear the slings and arrows of the game’s feted ‘glorious uncertainty’. While none of this is unique, it’s pretty close to it in my experience.

The second day is called off with rain having closed Chris’s window of curatorial opportunity.

The next round has me back at the same Monk Oval, a rare scheduling ‘double’ for a single club that’s possibly unique but probably an exposure of my faulty 29-year short-term memory.

I’m being stretched for proof of my own theory when, shortly before 3pm on February 6, a low-flying twin-prop aircraft casts its shadow directly over me at the southern wicket. And within 30 seconds, a starling flies in from cover point, skimming so close to my hat that, involuntarily, I bend at the knees to avoid it. Was it chasing the plane? Is this cricketing uniqueness? Not quite

Then my ‘not out’ headshake to an 11-voiced, bellowed appeal for caught-behind against Flemington captain Oli Ingham brings on every umpire’s dread: howls of outrage followed by a stunned silence that permeates the match for the next dozen overs. I heard no sound, saw no deflection, and besides, in the awful interregnum before the appeal’s echo dies, the thought flashes that Oli is such an upright character, surely he’d ‘walk’. Did he hit it? I avoid the temptation of asking. It’s all rare, but not unique.

After tea, the jackpot! And it’s my own fit of pique as I return the bowler’s cap by tossing it at his feet. Prashant Darji has been turning the ball at 45 degrees out of a grass-denuded dustbowl. And every ball that strikes the pad — even two that hit the bat face — warrants a paint-stripping appeal. After about ten of them, while still in the toxic aftermath of the Oli Incident, I toss Prashant’s cap in his general direction and head towards his captain, Jonathon Grant, my pressure valve flapping. Given my credit rating is zero, and having apologised for the cap-tossing indiscretion, I rate it as a small step in my professional/psychological ‘comeback’ when Jonathon explains that his off-spin bowler appeals for “everything”. And, he adds, he can’t curb him either!

At day’s end Prashant and I take turns at apologising to each other and, having picked up six for 61 from his 19 overs, he offers to shout me a drink. From the grit and grift of our jousting, I conclude there’s just enough of the U-word to be extracted for my theory to stand. Always, as in such cases, there’s the thought: could possibly a day of perfect judgment next weekend undo today’s damage, rescuing me from a savaging in the captains’ post-match assessment. (At stumps: Flemington 226, Maribyrnong Park St Mary’s 0/21)

A week later, as the Parkers knock off the runs and press on through a lead-footed final hour (9/388 at stumps) for bonus points, I witness backing-up batsman Tim Richardson fling his bat high into the air as he hits the deck to avoid his partner’s head-high straight drive. The ball has gone straight to ground, but with the bat still airborne a fieldsman reflexively calls “catch it”, as though a dismissal is at stake. That’s new! And it follows the day’s first over when I realise I’ve forgotten to bring my long-vision spectacles. A year ago my ophthalmologist had prescribed removal of my cataracts in this very month of February, but typically I’ve procrastinated. Mercifully, 22 yards is still no great stretch, optically – important for an umpire! — enabling me to get all my “ins and outs” correct until the tea break when I finally don the specs. Then, with the clearest of vision, I manage to miss a caught behind against Jonathon Grant, curator Chris’s brother. I know I’ve got this one wrong because Jon ‘walks’, a most sportsman-like act with the run-chase target still ahead; but almost nothing could be more humiliating for an umpire.

And, in the novelty department, Chris’s pitch, denuded of grass at the northern end, has been so thoroughly watered the day before that, just before play starts, my fist pressed onto his rolled moonscape brings up black loam stuck to it like iron filings to a magnet. So while the ball initially ‘balloons’ off the surface like a tennis ball, causing a series of mistimed, lifted shots that bring dismissals, slowly under the sun it settles down to a strip that, for batsmen playing through the line, is about as fail-safe as 22 yards can be. So far from having shot himself and his team in the foot, curatorially speaking, Chris Grant has, in Molly’s words, “done himself (and his 10 mates) a favour”.

Completing a sort of ‘uniqueness’ are Flemington brothers Phil and David Congues, who I remember after what seems like a decade ago when I told one of them arriving at the crease, “Hang on, you’re already batted”. Came the answer: “That was my brother”. The identical twins have since grown facial hair, also identical, above and below the lip. Young veterans, they’ve still got years ahead to match their dad, Geoff, who played 323 matches for Flemington.

Round 11 introduces me to young Sri Lankan quick Nadeera Thuppahi, who hands me his cap, takes my run-up marker and wishes good luck to Stephen Maulden at the non-striker’s end. The fact Thuppahi is playing for Maribyrnong Park-St Mary’s marks an early twinkle of the ‘uniquessness lodestar – this is my third consecutive match with the Combine, leaving me to wonder, am I here by popular request given they’ve won both matches.

The good luck lasts 20 minutes for Maulden who has his middle stump thumped back by 45 degrees, a testament to my hammering of wood-tipped stumps ill suited to the rock-hard ground and penetrating only because I’ve softened the turf by emptying a water-filled Coke bottle where the stumps will go. The goo has set like concrete so that the irresistible force is mostly resisted by my immovable object.

Minutes later, the incoming batsman Hareep Singh is struck a painful blow on the shoulder. He responds by turning the pain onto the opposing eleven for the next four hours. His innings of 231 is the highest I’ve ever ‘umpired’, and the game is slowed by fieldsmen chasing the ball far beyond the boundary, which Singh peppers with 34 fours and four sixes. A good proportion clatter on to and over adjacent Patterson Road, into front yards and down a connecting street. The torment ends for Moonee Valley half an hour after the scheduled close. The innings of 5-447 has included 59 fours and nine sixes. In my experience, they’re all uniquely large numbers — and the cause, presumably, of a mildly sore right shoulder joint from excessive waving.

An hour into Singh’s innings I decide I may be looking at a first-class cricketer. Not quite, but in the first year of the wildly successful IPL, Singh made the Knightriders squad, without playing a match. He’s tall and slim, and plays with the wristy, elegant, assertiveness of a storied member of the modern Indian meritocracy, which, for its vast, global TV audience, answers force with flair. In fact, he’s a journeyman. At 31, Singh has followed the sun for a decade, playing on contract in his home of Punjab, for four clubs consecutively in Melbourne, and for the Earl Shilton Town Cricket Club in England’s Leicestershire and Rutland Cricket League.

On day two, Moonee Valley mounts a spirited challenge, but at 5.20 the last wicket falls and it’s still 201 runs short of its target. I’m not ready to concede that, on this last day before the finals, an apparent lack of uniqueness has disproved my theory. No, the theory is sound, being confirmed by the very uniqueness of this lack of uniqueness. But it better not happen again!

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