It’s a dramatic moment, and certainly not cricket.
Surely, ducks are more likely to attend Melbourne cricket’s opening round than bees. But no such luck as I walked, 90 times, from square leg to behind the wicket and vice versa in a one-day match at Balwyn last month for my new 2018-19 employer, the Victorian Sub District Cricket Association
This is my 35th season umpiring cricket on the parks of Melbourne and Bendigo, and never before this day has a player screamed out, “Hit the ground!” In a month when a terrorist creates havoc on the streets of Melbourne, it seems surreal to be obeying this command, free-falling on the wide, open expanses of the lush Gordon Barnard Reserve in leafy, upwardly mobile Balwyn.
But now prone, after this rapidly downward mobility, I scan the skies for the bees our game-warden has warned of. He insists he saw a swarm approaching, but, like the cricketers, the insects clearly have no ill intent; and fly off. Soon enough local intelligence reveals that a neighbor keeps hives in his backyard and the inhabitants, like us, want only a spot of exercise. And nectar.
I’m with the Subbies, as this competition is known, after leaving my previous employer, the Victorian Turf Cricket Association, last summer under circumstances less than harmonious but pertaining to more than space here can justify.
So the bees are a furphy, but at the end of this opening fixture I form a distinct impression about the Subbies. While casting no aspersions against the aforementioned VTCA, which has more teams and umpires than any other league in Victoria, impressions of my new organisation cast on this very first day are all positive, and they firm over the next six weeks like odds on Winx.
My counter-intuitive instinct to move to a higher rather than lower association in the hierarchy after last year’s shenanigans has been well justified. Facilities here, generally, are better. At the grounds of the more central, established clubs scoreboards are electronic, some also histrionic after boundaries are scored, with fireworks exploding behind the numbers 4 and 6 … the pay rate is higher … at the tea break, we umpires have our own table loaded with fresh fruit, hot savories and drinks (hot or cold) … and I’ve not yet received a bunch of Report Forms for recording bad behavior, which hardly matters as there hasn’t been any! And always I have an umpiring partner, which wasn’t always the case.
One wonders whether, or how much, these externals influence umpiring standards. Certainly, heading into Christmas I feel that, even as an old bloke, I’m having my best season behind the stumps. As I should, given that I have ‘new eyes’ (cataracts removed) and ‘new ears’ (hearing aids).
And then there’s the actual cricket, and with someone umpiring at the other end each week, there’s more time to notate. Like …
In round 2, Malvern, chasing Ormond’s 164, loses just two wickets and hits 25 fours and a six in 27 carefree overs on its way to 2/166.
With Malvern on 0/61, it’s a surprise when promising teenager Harry Gell shoulders arms to a ball that neatly removes the off-stump bail. Following a rapidly growing trend, Gell holds his bat mid-air, chin tucked almost against his leading shoulder as though playing a hybrid of baseball and cricket. It’s a somewhat foppish stance yet by the time the ball is halfway down the wicket he’s side on, the blade arcing through the Kookaburra’s line, as it does with recent ‘hoverers’ of the modern game, among them Clarke, Pietersen and the Smiths, Steve and Graeme.
Gell’s opening partner Robert Templeton is built more like Virender Sehwag and shares the Indian opener’s penchant for boundaries. When Templeton follows Gell back to the pavilion, 75 is on the board. The bats of Tom Walker (nine 4s) and Kunal Bhardwaj (six 4s), build on the momentum, bludgeoning balls over and above a sandy outfield to ensure an early finish.
Later, Templeton tells me Gell, especially, is benefiting from the work of batting coach Peter Bedford. In 1970, the great sporting allrounder won the VFL/AFL’s highest honour, the Brownlow Medal, as a South Melbourne rover and occasional forward. As an equally hybrid cricketer, Bedford played 39 Sheffield Shield matches for Victoria. His refusal in 1967 to accede to Sir Donald Bradman’s urging to accept a football offer from Port Adelaide so that he could also play cricket for South Australia is widely accepted to have cost Bedford the chance of wearing the Baggy Green cap.
There’s a curious and delightful coda as umpiring partner Glenn Ruger and I are packing up our gear at Malvern Cricket Ground (or the MCG, as I’ve pointed out to friends). I haven’t spoken to Bedford for four years, not since I umpired a match involving his Middle Park team and we chewed the cricketing fat in the tea break. His generosity in extending our conversation took us, I feared, into a time zone rendering me the stereotypical pest famously suffered by celebrities.
Then last month, with those four years elapsed, Bedford – now coaching at Malvern — stuck out his hand in greeting and said, “G’day, John”. Later, I’d reflect on a phenomenal memory for someone who must deal with admirers almost daily. And as I threw my bag with wicket spacer, tape measure, mallet and ball counter into my car boot, it occurred that the praise ‘warm and generous’ was coined for people like Peter (‘Wheels’) Bedford.
Another famous cricketing name catches my eye in round 5 as Werribee’s Rhys Dodemaide emulates his cousin Tony (10 Tests, 24 ODIs) with accurate off-cutting and out-swing bowling to strangle Elsternwick’s batting. Twenty-year-old Rhys ensures this one-dayer will also finish early, his metronomically-delivered medium-fast deliveries claiming 3/16 from 14 overs as the home team struggles to a match-losing 101.
The bee episode is bookended by another biped as I arrive at Warrawee Park, Oakleigh, for my next match. Stepping out of my car, I see a magpie wobbling about on grass just inside the boundary fence. Its withered, or part-decapitated, leg is tucked under its breast and when it tries to hop, it falls over. Then another magpie (M2) flies in and lands beside it (M1). M2 collapses its undercarriage to the grass so that it’s side by side with its crippled companion, beak pointed in the same direction as though in imitation.
M1 struggles to its single foot, wobbles a bit and does an amazing thing.
It collapses its good leg and its body hits the ground hard enough that it accomplishes a small bounce. Or did it perhaps perform a quick push-up with its good leg? … It’s all happened so quickly.
Either way, in its airborne mini-moment, M1 flaps its wings, free from terra firma, and takes flight, scudding low over a building next door while its friend, M2, remains a respectful distance behind, like the Duke to the Queen.
Cricket-watching offers days like this: like ellipses, each an invitation to fill slowed-down time with observations of struggle and small triumphs, on the green of gentle combat and in the discursive mind. (Best, for the umpire, though that the wistful moments be indulged while partially switched off at square leg.)
Being ever-watchful for the interplay of cricket and the natural environment brings to mind a delightful book, ideal for holiday reading (if you can find it!), with the arresting title Elk Stopped Play. The book takes readers through the origins and quirks of cricket in dozens of nations where the game is played. The elk tale is taken from the ‘Cricket Round the World’ chapters, which appear in the annual Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, and it’s at one with my quest.
As for the elk, yes, a match in Finland almost twenty years ago was halted for ‘about the length of a toilet break’ when a giant, snorting, half-ton, antlered male elk burst from an adjoining forest and thundered across the field during a Finnish league fixture.
‘The elk didn’t appear to be really interested in cricket,’ noted one of the players, English expat Andrew Armitage. ‘It did an about-turn and headed back into the forest.’