Tis the season for sneakers and hoodies … Melbourne’s mid-year cricket competition is under way in slushy parks under leaden skies.
Years ago, the cricketers’ winter garb pulled the same trigger of shock as did a prime minister in budgies or Alexander Downer in fishnets. Yet just as those wardrobe horrors became a cartoonist’s cliché, so does the bogan dresscode seem a natural companion of the oddity that is now-well-established outdoor, winter cricket.
Preparations for the Mid Year Cricket Association’s seventh Melbourne season began mid-April in the oak-panelled boardroom of Cricket Victoria’s Jolimont offices where grim-faced administrators glared down on about 80 of us umpires from their metal frames.
Eighty is a marked improvement on the 20 or so umps who assembled there in my first winter (2014) of preparing for these supposedly-friendly, 70-over matches that keep alive the grand old game, which otherwise will likely come to a TV screen at an ungodly hour from another hemisphere.
Melbourne’s mid-year matches are mostly social occasions, though for cricket-obsessed sub-continentals, who make up about two-thirds of the registered players, the synthetic-wicket engagements are also a warm-up for next summer, an attempt at sating an unquenchable thirst for the game.
Our expanded umpire numbers, it turns out, reflect the association’s headlong surge. For this 2016 autumn/winter, the MYCA has about 1100 players in 98 teams, compared with 130 in 10 teams in the founding year of 2010.
I spent the first decade of my working life as a journalist reporting hundreds of humdrum meetings where much of the business was driven by committee/group members wanting to appear relevant with the perspicacity of their questions. So my boredom threshold at public meetings was set at the level of my shoe laces. These days, I enjoy extracting an inverted/perverted revenge by copying the annoying old farts of yore.
Probably the most insightful of my several questions on opening night was: “Neil (Daley, our umpires’ president), given that we umpire on a lot of off-leash parks, will the association have a dog shit policy this year?”
As background, I’ve often had to ask a player, “Please don’t step on that pile and walk it on to the (synthetic) wicket. It’s bloody hard to get off.” As well as being hat stands and sweater hangers for disrobing bowlers on Melbourne’s numerous doggy parks, umpires are also housewives with standards to uphold. (Better make that ‘house-persons’)
“Good question,” MYCA president Neil Daly didn’t reply to my dog poo interrogation. Rather, he got to the point. “All home teams will be required to take a shovel to their grounds this season.” Wise move, I thought, feeling smug about the trowel that rode in my car boot all last winter.
The other important matter at the pre-season confab was the almost unspeakable subject of ‘chucking’, now interpreted in the laws of the ICC as a bowler bending their elbow at delivery by more than 15 degrees. Without freeze frames and theodolites, umpires are at a disadvantage here. Chucking, which is to cricket as diving is to soccer and sprig-hacking heads is to rugby, will be left to the administrators, Neil Daly made clear.
While chucking is cricket’s great taboo, it’s also indispensible fodder whenever umpires gather to bend their own elbows at the laying on of free drinks. We compare notes, demonstrate elbow angles with the exaggerated enthusiasm of anglers miming their catch size, and marvel at how a club’s management ever allowed this neo-Muralitharan to mark out his run beside us on a Saturday.
The 80 of us in the CV boardroom spent more time on the chucking question than any other, and given the subject’s complexity, it’s no surprise that we’ll be standing back this winter, the opportunity for making a judgment call lanced. Rather, suspected ‘chuckers’ will appear in our notebooks, their names shunted up the line to captain, club and association, which will offer a warning. Should it be twice breeched in the opinion of umpires briefed to look more closely, the offender will be hauled off to a sort of bowling rehab at a venue chosen by Cricket Victoria. There, he or she will be wired up by a bio-mechanist for a scientific angle reading and cleared (or not) by the grandly named Suspect Action Advisory Group to resume their craft. A video analysis will go to the player’s club and, if discretion is observed as intended, his or her teammates will be none the wiser.
Naturally, the greater the planning, the less likely is the contingency to arise. So it is that neither poo nor chucking materialises, at least to my witness, in the new season’s first month.
Which is not to say that my introduction to new situations won’t continue apace.
In my second match, at a lovely, large and fenced oval where dogs are as scarce as lost balls, one of the teams, Monash University Gold, is stacked with sub-continentals — in fact 10 Indians and a single Pakistani. Most of their language is in English so that I’m better able to enjoy their travails against the more widely multicultural, slightly less talented, team representing Highett West.
For decades, I’ve watched and listened as sub-continental fielding sides gee each other up with what, to the uninitiated, sounds like “jabba-jabba”. A neat example, in fact, of onomatopoeia. The expression is most strikingly used, virtually chanted, by Pakistan international teams’ infield led by the irrepressible wicketkeeper Umar Akmal. What does it mean? So on this sunny, gilded Saturday, as tall, turbaned Punjabi bowler Jaswinder Singh walks towards me at over’s end, I ask him.
“We’re saying ‘shava, shava, like your (make that Lleyton Hewitt’s) ‘Come on!’ It’s like encouragement,” says Singh, explaining that the word is common to his own language, Punjabi, and the Pakistanis’ Urdu.
On this day, Singh and his teammates are set a moderate challenge of 152, and they meet it with the loss of just one wicket, two batsmen honouring the competition’s rule that you retire at 50. The well-named Uni Gold appear already to be headed to finals. Having chased down 140-odd the previous week, this was their second consecutive win by nine-wickets. And there was an early inkling Highett West might struggle against this highly organised, jovial Uni outfit. A Highett opening batsman opened, in fact, with the conversational gambit, “Gee, I’m still feeling pissed.” Not quite a drugs-in-sport moment, but I still did a mental heel-kick when he departed for a scratchy, measly eight.
Next round, I was at Dog Poo Central, aka Elsternwick Park, where dogs run free between an east-west bookend of gum trees and a decorative pond to the north where a mesh fence keeps our prescribed yellow Kookaburra balls from regular dunkings.
As a break from the normal babble of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, a quarter of the fielders were chatting amiably (I hoped) in Greek.
Turns out the Hellenic wicketkeeper, Steve Liberatos, co-opted four of his Indian workmates at Telstra at the start of the season, accounting for the rare seven/four racial combination of Greek/Indian.
The five-year-old Melbourne Hellenic CC was set a mighty task by Bentleigh, which overrode the dog poo problem by belting six sixes over the boundary in the first half hour. Bentleigh’s modus was mostly slogging until its diminutive No.6 arrived at the crease. “Isn’t he a bit young?” I asked, rhetorically, of his batting partner who was doing a bit of coaching from 22 yards away; like, “Wait for the ball” as a half-tracker was slashed at a second too soon by young James Dekel. But the lad stayed almost until the end, 11 of his 22 coming in mostly elbow-up singles, and he distinguished himself as the only batsman on either side whose every shot was straight out of the coaching manual (except the one that got him out, caught).
Having established that he could handle a bat, I had to ask: “How old are you, mate?” The answer, “thirteen”, wasn’t the one I was hoping for. The minimum age for players, we were told at our umpires’ meeting, is 14. But, heck, the boy was batting beautifully beneath his state-of-the-art helmet and grille; he mentioned the name of his batting coach, and I refused to adopt the status of dog-poo park Grinch by sending him off to the boundary on this balmy autumn day.
So the kid played on as Bentleigh reached 8/199.
Almost every match, I find, reveals a player of undeniable, if raw, talent. And this day it was Bentleigh’s Syed Mehdi whose mesmerizing slow-mediums — almost every ball on or just short of a length — became the Hellenics’ terminator. Death by slow asphyxiation. The Greeks managed 5/174, falling short after their most aggressive batsman, having retired as mandated at 50, returned at the fall of the ninth wicket, his mission being to get Hellenic over the line.
He batted a foot outside his leg stump to give himself leeway to swing at anything coming towards him. Except that Mehdi and his colleagues darted ball after ball safely, and legally, just inside the offside return crease. The big hitter’s voice was raised, hoisting the collective tension with it, as he demanded that I call “wide”. I explained, more loudly than I ought, that from his point of view at square leg (slight exaggeration), of course the ball would look wide. His cause was duly lost and the 70-over match, compared with its overall tenor, ended rather tersely.
I mentally kicked myself, having earlier confided to the antagonist that I admired his aggressiveness. It was a remark which, I later recognised, he may have taken as licence to push the limits.
And I conclude, as I have so often: umpires, like players, never live long enough to absorb and practise all the game’s nuances, its traps and pitfalls.