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Officially inclined: My journey into umpiring

Aleem Dar was the most experienced of the ICC's international umpires. How he checks his texts, waiting for another callup(AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Roar Guru
16th March, 2014
12

I think, for most people, officiating in a sport starts with the realisation that ultimately, you’re not very good at it.

That’s not to say all officials are terrible and vindictive against those who are blessed with the gifts to help them succeed – but rather, that we realise we’re not going to be world class.

Yet we want to still be involved with the sport of our choice, because we thoroughly enjoy it, and want to be part of its development and future.

For me, the decision to take up cricket umpiring stemmed in part from a time when I was asked to fill in for a friend’s warehouse cricket team at Marchant Park in Brisbane.

Up until this point I was fairly handy indoor cricket player, and had done a lot of officiating in that particular discipline, but outdoor was always a bit of an irregular pasttime.

However I agreed to fill in for my friend’s team, for a game played over two weekends.

I spent most of the Saturday fielding at various outfield positions while the regulars yapped away in the slips.

Being a non-smoker and a fairly fit, athletic person, due to a keen interest in touch football, I was designated to run around the outfield and spent most of a scorching Saturday at mid wicket, deep cover or long on chasing leather like a deranged, sweating terrier.

As a thank you, next weekend when it was our turn to bat, they offered me the chance to open.

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My head said no, my heart said yes, and I was promptly out LBW first ball of the innings bowled by a tearaway South African. It was a beautiful ball that swung like a heatseeker, evading the shakily presented edge of my bat and rapping into my pads. I was almost walking as the umpire put his finger up.

Most of the rest of the day was spent reading a book perched on a hill behind the bowler’s arm, and watching the day’s play, and doing my own mental umpiring at the same time.

I did chat to the official at the end of the day – a nice old gent, I think initially he thought I’d come to heckle him about the lbw decision – but asked him about officiating, to which he explained that the game was desperate for extra umpires.

We chatted away for a while, and his valedictory, which I can still remember now, sold me on umpiring.

“Look at the umpires around here and tell me how many of us don’t have a seniors card. If you’re keen, you should give it a go.”

“It will sharpen your mind, and builds character in spades. But every bastard will have a go at you. When you get it right, no-one cares, and when you get it wrong, they’ll carry on for hours.

“But if I haven’t put you off, and you think you want to get into it, you should. Not just because we need new young officials, but also because you can’t play straight. So you might as well stand behind the stumps instead.”

Frank, forthright advice. So, I gave it a go.

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I think the thing I enjoy most about umpiring is that finally I have found something sporting related which comes to me naturally.

I relish the mental challenge, and like the notion of creating a fair contest for all players, and upholding the trust they place in me to be fair and impartial.

If you demonstrate your qualities, they respect you, and will gladly accept your decisions. But even so, umpiring is tough. Even at low levels, which is where I am at, at the moment.

Players have the luxury of drifting out of the game when they are tired, bored or otherwise done for the day. Batsmen can always aim a slog, and slope off back the sheds, to the derision of their teammates.

A few shrugs, stash the pads in the bag, and then retire to the fold out chair for a cigarette, or a beer, or both. Bowlers can be yanked out of the attack, and have a snooze down at fine leg for several overs.

But the umpire is always there. Particularly these days at the grassroots level, where often the same umpire is working both ends of the pitch, and remaining focused for the entire day.

Cricket is a game, let’s be honest, of periods where nothing extraordinary happens, often for hours at a time.

Decision making isn’t called into question when a bloke is caught at third slip off a massive edge, or clean bowled. But nonetheless the umpire is always there, watching the front foot, and then eyes up to follow the ball, and follow every little detour it makes.

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Was that pad, or was that bat?

Was that noise bat hitting pad?

Did that ball hit the pad first, or hit the bat and then pad?

Try and focus on this and replay it in your mind, while a bowler and an entire slips cordon is screaming at you, convinced that it’s crashing into the stumps halfway up the middle and as far as they’re concerned the bat might as well have been in a different postcode to the ball.

You’ve got to be on it, every ball.

Because the next ball could be the one where something crazy happens, and your quiet routine of calling over and handing the bowler back his cap is about to be shattered by *click* *thud* *howzaaaaaat???*

No matter what decision you make, someone is going to be disappointed at the end of it.

But that’s cricket. More than any other sport, it builds character.

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It’s a game where time and patience underpins everything that happens. You have to demonstrate resolve, the ability to not care what people are saying to you, and the ability to back yourself, back your instincts, back your judgment.

And while we don’t labor under anywhere near the same immediate pressures as the players, in our own way, we are up against our own demons, and manfully standing firm, finger aloft (or not), backing ourselves to get it right. Every single time.

This has been my first summer umpiring cricket.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every minute, good and bad, and am hoping there are many more.