Stumped before we start

November 24, 2020 by John Gascoigne


It’s an odd game to begin with. Men hurling a leather orb, trying to dislodge two grooved sticks atop three pillars, like Stonehenge’s freestanding stones and their lintels. Or the same men, trying to keep warm in their long trousers while mad dogs are dropping in Australian heat . . . and screaming for instant termination of the foe when the same ball strikes his padded legs, but not his club, roughly adjacent to the pylons. (It’s possibly why this mini-death is called leg before wicket.)

The oddities mounted up rapidly at the start of this new Covid cricket season. This time, for me, it’s on parks with synthetic wickets made available to Melbourne’s South East Cricket Association (SECA).

To start with, due to a ‘quirk’ (being polite here) in the scheduling, I find myself on day one without a partner. My printed-out schedule shows clearly that I’ll have an umpiring companion for our match’s supposed 11.30am start. The dreaded OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, goes to work and I virtually commit the schedule to memory as a pre-emptive defence, should it be required, leaving time to sit in my car and read the Saturday Age.

By 12.15, I’m about to head for home but decide to make a quick check that I’ve left no umpiring paraphernalia in our William Street Reserve, Brighton, change rooms. Yes, I have; it’s there in the frayed blue bag. And there, chatting on the concrete courtyard, are three gentlemen dressed as cricket umpires. Collectively, we have no idea how this has happened, but we concur that as Brighton’s Cluden Cricket Club has called on our services for this intraclub practice match, we’ll return the favour (which we’re providing free gratis) and have our own practise.

Which is how I come to be standing behind 16-year-old colleague Raph Bush at the bowlers’ end, peering over his shoulder as the ball heads towards a timber Stonehenge.

Meanwhile, our two colleagues, in a constant chatter, are bonding at square leg. We’ve all agreed to stay at one end, north or south, for the match duration.

When young Raph calls ‘over’, we do our barn dance routine. Two overs earlier, I’ve stood just behind Raph, peering over his shoulder, following the ball in flight. Now I step in front of my shorter friend to become the operating official, meaning Raph will have to lean left or right to see around me if he wants to watch the ball in flight, which he does. And our chums who have been shoulder to shoulder at square leg, may or may not cross the wicket at over’s end, depending on whether the batsman parked at their end is left- or right-handed. (If any reader has struggled with that description, so has the writer.)

At one point, looking over Raph’s shoulder, I offer batsman and bowler some medical advice: “If anyone would like a second opinion, please don’t hesitate . . .”

The second match is a complete non-event. I’ve recently had some major surgery and my sleeping habits are all over the shop. Match eve brings only the second occasion I’ve fallen out of bed. Ever! As though in shocked denial of the fact, I try to regain my footing before rebalancing . . . and topple forward, the top of my head being point of contact where gravity meets the floor. This skull’s exterior might as well be reinforced concrete, but my neck/shoulder muscles and ligaments have been torn, and an AWOL alert to the appointments manager follows the dawn.

I’ve recovered by match three, and this one’s a beauty. I enjoy co-umpire Navindra Nawaratne’s company and we appear to get our decisions right; the end-of-play beers have been paid for, usually a reliable testament.

And Washington Park’s regular loss of wickets, chasing 5/215 from 38 overs, quickly reduces potential for rancour. But that’s never going to happen given numerous long-standing friendships between the opposing players.

Friendly banter rules. At mid-off, as Park’s Matt Dwyer drops a sharp chance, medium-pace trundler Chris Gorrie’s payback is: “Nice to know nothing’s changed in 20 years.”

Gorrie later revises his figures. “We’ve (with Dwyer) been teammates for 35 years, and 25 years for this club (Washington Park), so it’s at least 35 drops.” If only it had been a tennis ball, it might have stuck. Dwyer is, after all, ‘chief tennis officer’ at Tennis Australia.

The final oddity: This ground is about six kilometres from Carnegie, the home of its cricketing tenants. CUCC Kings had occupied Lord Reserve in Carnegie since 1923, but in 2005 its promotion to SECA’s top (Longmuir Shield) grade required relocation to a better ground with facilities to match. Monash council came to the party, financing a pavilion and complete resurfacing. The latter has transformed this Clayton South park into a mini-MCG, its Axminster carpet-like outfield dropping away from the centre block at a uniform gradient, all within elegant fencing.

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