Winter Cricket: Diplomacy wins the day

July 20, 2018 by John Gascoigne

Umpire John Gascoigne reports on Melbourne’s cricket scene as players squish their way towards finals.

So much of cricket umpiring, including Melbourne’s winter competition — now two matches shy of the 2018 finals — involves much more than raising the finger (for out) or keeping it holstered (not out).

Drive to Fairbairn Park, Ascot Vale, on a chilly June day and you don’t expect to see, seven minutes before the midday starting time, Moonee Valley CC’s players strolling towards the playing oval after a session in the neighbouring practice nets.

Michael, their captain, motions to me that he’s ready to toss the coin, to decide whether his team or visiting Balmoral will get to choose who bats or bowls first.

Usually no problem, but Michael is late and us umpires are supposed to enforce the rules. The words ‘Brown’s cows’ have come to mind as most of the 22 players, dragging or carrying their cricket bags in groups of two, three or four, converge on our oval. It’s one of a mere eight grounds at this massive park. They’re marked on various maps, but not actually at the park, so if you’ve left your tablet-with-GPS navigation at home …

The Moonee Valley players emerging from their net session don’t have this excuse, and their captain, having arrived at the Oval No.4 boundary, is asking for me to toss the coin.

The first formality, of course, is the introductions: “Hi, I’m Michael,” he says, extending his hand.

Grasping it, I say, “Good to meet you – John. Oh, and by the way, Michael, you’ve lost the toss and you’re fielding.”

“No, no, we haven’t tossed,” he responds. “We’ve got to toss.”

Everything except my blood pressure is heading south. Phone-free, it’s taken me 20 minutes to find the oval and I’ve developed the uncomfortable feeling this match will start late, if at all.

It’s six minutes past midday; we’re already late and we have to fit in 70 overs before 4.45pm.

“Michael” (my voice is rising), “just before I got out of my car half an hour ago, I re-read the rules. They say both captains must be ready to toss the coin no later than 15 minutes before start of play. Either captain arriving later is deemed to have lost the toss.”

How reliable is my recall of these events and the verbals? You might ask. After all, I had no notebook, pad or tape-recorder with me. Well, Your Honour, I was a court reporter for two-and-a-half years with the former Melbourne Herald and, as far as I know, the paper never once copped a writ involving my inaccuracy. So I can only appeal, ‘trust me’, as this story unfolds. I’m quite a feisty bugger when pushed, and I’m teetering from the vertical.

Michael still quite likes the idea of a coin toss, even now when we’re all meant to be at play.

“Listen, my friend,” I continue, still a few decibels below shouting, “don’t arrive ten minutes late and start laying down the law – a law that doesn’t even exist.”

Even on this chilly day I can feel the blood rise to my cheeks. “I can walk to my car, bring you the rules and delay the game even more.” Now, on full ignition, I blurt: “Gawd, I hate stubbornness and I hate idiocy.”

At last, Michael responds, as he should, and my ignition cuts out. This vehicle’s going nowhere. I feel embarrassed and contrite, especially when he thrusts out his hand and repeats, “Hi, I’m Michael,” offering me a Take Two, a second chance.

The match starts and he and I, no doubt, want to repair the damage. In theory, I could report him and he likewise; and after stumps he’ll give me a mark out of 10 for competence and other considerations.

Pretty soon, Michael discovers an ankle-sprain-risking rabbit hole close to the synthetic wicket. It’ll have to be filled. We both run to the boundary and return with a bucket of dirt and mulch gathered beneath a gum tree. Immediately, a wicket falls.

Twenty minutes later, another rabbit hole is found. I catch up to Michael at the same spot beyond the witches’ hats and he digs with his conveniently provided trowel while I contribute mulch to the bucket he’s thoughtfully added to Moonee Valley’s kit. Jogging back to plug this second hole, I remark that this fill-in job is usually done at the MCG by ground staff using a mallet. Michael chuckles. This feels better.

Play resumes. The same over another wicket falls. Michael, at mid-on, turns to me to point out this coincidence: holes fill, wickets fall.

I step from the synthetic to the actual grass and mime hacking a hole with my heel so that Moonee Valley might profit further. Laughter; and it continues as we engage each other through Balmoral’s innings.

At one point, I ask whether his accent is Irish. “I grew up in Ireland but was raised in America. A bit of both,” explains the captain, who maintains a gentle demeanor towards his charges even as they drop catches in the outfield. In fact, Michael presents as a most charming fellow. As our rapprochement builds, I comment: “If this keeps up, you’re gonna be completing my sentences for me.”

Moonee Valley chase down their 164-run target with five wickets to spare, and I hope the lousy start won’t reflect in the captains’ assessments. The School of Philosophy I attend told us years ago of a truism from a non-cricketer called Socrates: “Whoever stands opposite you is your teacher.” Today Michael has taught me: “This competition is just for people who love to play cricket in winter. So, cool it!”

2018 is the Mid Year Cricket Association’s ninth year. The competition doesn’t mind a bit of rain or the wearing of hoodies (though they’re meant to be, roughly, the same colour). And no one, except me today, stands on ceremony. They’re more likely to stand on fresh dog crap as most matches are played at off-leash parks, and on Saturdays guess where dog owners head …

This Melbourne association needs more umpires to cope with its creation’s rapid, year-on-year expansion: more than 140 teams are playing their 35-overs-per-innings matches this year. At least three-quarters of the players hail from the sub-continent.

And the beautiful thing is this: the players of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan heritage are unexceptionally polite and friendly to each other. More importantly, 99 per cent of the time, the players of all other races are equally respectful to them, and to each other.

If there’s such a person as a multiculturalist, I’m one. So when left-arm quick Will Duncan, of Asian appearance, came charging in for Dennis CC last Saturday and took wickets in each of batting team Melbourne Lankans’ first three overs, I silently rejoiced. “Have you grown a bit since last year,” I said, handing Will his cap at the end of his seven-over spell. “Just two centimetres,” said the 16-year-old son of a Japanese mother and Australian father, who now is five-feet-10-and-a-half inches in the old measure. Will reminds me a little of former Test match quick Bruce Reid.

In this match, players from six nations entered the field of play, and if they were a few minutes late starting, that wasn’t going on my match report. (Sorry, boss.) Fact is, Will Duncan and his Dennis teammates tore through the Lankans to ensure an early, and winning, finish.

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