A bad hair piece

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The saga of Umpire Hair and the Pakistan cricket team inspired many bad puns. It also called to my mind umpires I have known.

In small church-sponsored competitions, umpires in their white coats added decorum to the game. They earned a few bob, and had a sociable day out. They contributed independence and good intentions; they received tolerance and an invitation to the after-game drinks. They had their part in the rich human circus that is the game of cricket.

Some umpires were memorable. Brendan, a sweet-tempered man, had been afflicted with polio as a child, and walked with great difficulty. On northwind days, he would regularly be blown over. The game would stop while the bowler or square leg set him upright again. His eyesight was not too good either, but players received his decisions stoically, like acts of God.

And there was Johnny. He took earnestly to umpiring. He worked on principle. By all of his principles, if the ball hit you on the pads you were out. So, when you went out to bat, and survived long enough to make it to the bowler’s end, you had to chat with Johnny and suggest countervailing principles. ‘It’s very hard to get an LB when the East wind blows like today, isn’t it John?' Or, ‘When the mats are dusty like today, the ball bounces too high for an LB, doesn’t it?’ If you were lucky, these new principles might be your salvation. But more usually, if you were bowling and hit the batsman on the pad, even as the keeper was sprinting to square leg to take the ball, you would turn around to Johnny to appeal, knowing that you would be later done unto, whether you now did unto or not. Johnny would be in the air appealing, and as he landed, up would go his finger to dismiss the batsman. ‘That ball was dead in line with the wicket,' Johnny would confide. ‘Yeah, John, it was,' you would say aloud, adding under your breath for truth’s sake, ‘Well, before I bowled it, it was.'

One day, after some years in England, I played a game in which Johnny was again umpiring. I could not believe what I saw. Ball after ball hit the pads. After each ball, bowler and keeper shouted, but Johnny’s finger remained in his pocket. It turned out that on the first day of a game a couple of years earlier, he had been profligate in his LBWs. They told him that if he did the same the following week, they would shoot him. Next week, Johnny did, and a bullet whistled past his head. A new and lastingly cogent principle was discovered. But before and after his conversion Johnny, like Brendan, graced the game.

I only met one bad umpire. Let me call him Trevor. He had umpired top cricket, but had gone with Packer into World Series. So he was banned from most cricket competitions. Ours was independent, and accepted him as it accepted Johnny and Brendan. Among our team’s bowlers was Bill, a big, unathletic lad who was God’s gift to batsmen. When Bill came on to bowl his first ball, Trevor called him for chucking. It was an unnecessary statement of the obvious that outraged the fielding team. It appalled the batting team to see their prey snatched from them. Bill tried to bowl out the over, and Trevor continued to call him. Some time after his humiliation was completed, Bill fielded a ball and returned it hard to the bowler. In flight, it grazed Trevor’s nose. I would have given Bill the benefit of the doubt—his throwing arm was as doubtful as his bowling action. But Trevor officiously reported him, and Bill got eleven weeks.

That season my disenchantment with first-class cricket began. It entered its long domination by the technology and culture of television. Television could focus on the individual, and indeed its interest lay in the performance of individuals. It could portray their performance in repeated detail, and appraise their faults. It invited the commentators to praise the technical skill of players and umpires, and to castigate their mistakes. The human interactions and the communal connections that are central to a game cannot be shown, and so are devalued. We heard that the game had become professional, and did not notice the oxymoron.

In my judgment, Umpire Hair has been unfairly pilloried. He is the end product of cricket’s evolution. He is a technically skilled umpire, a strong individual with an admirable sense of his own worth. He applies the law with neither fear nor favour. Nor is he distracted by the intractable and often tangled communal fibres from which games and laws are woven. He is the gifted individual that professional cricket needs, the individual who can bring a game to a halt.



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That was a good read! It reminded me of some of my experiences umpiring/playing cricket. I can remember chatting up umpires to get those close LBWs. I can remember one day when I umpired I received a death threat for giving the batsman the benefit of the doubt. It's funny now, but it wasn't then.
Thomas Gorrie | 08 June 2010

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