The clocks have changed. The birds are singing. Green shoots are everywhere. I spent my last Sunday afternoon moving furniture out of a clubhouse and cleaning up mouse poo. I am constantly asking people to get registered so that we can put together a starring list next Tuesday. I am pretending that I have a valid opinion about the quality of grass on a thirty squared meter area in the middle of a field (I know nothing). I am taking far more interest in weather forecast. I have even watched a few masterclasses on Sky Sports. This can only mean one thing:
Cricket is coming.
I don’t know how the season is going to go. I don’t know if we’ll have enough players to consistently put out three teams without a week-by-week struggle. I don’t know if my bowling (such as it is) will come together enough for me to get to 100 career wickets for Bagenalstown, or if my batting will improve sufficiently for me to get a fixed number in the batting. I don’t know if my rapidly failing sight will mean I start to drop more than I catch in the field, or if my ageing body will make the days after playing more and more difficult. I don’t know if we’ll get promoted, relegated or win a cup or whether my personal contribution will see me categorised as merely making up the numbers. I dread that.
I do know something, though. Bowlers and batters alike will complain bitterly about LBW decisions.
Where I play, in the lower reaches of the LCU, an appointed umpire is a rare beast. I am not complaining, you understand. I know how much effort is put in every year to recruit enough umpires, and I know how much thought is put into developing schemes to make up for the inevitable shortfall.
But as I understand things, as it stands, the players will have to officiate most games that I will play in this season. I do my time behind the stumps in most games, and I rarely enjoy it. It’s utterly thankless.
And the bane of this unpaid and strictly voluntary job is Rule 36.
It’s really obvious that many players do not understand the LBW rule. I’ll happily admit that until I did the Umpire’s Course with Mr Thew that I did not understand it very well, but in my defence, I wasn’t stupid enough to stand behind the stumps until I did the course. But even though I now have a proper understanding of the LBW law, it still causes more problems for me than anything else.
I don’t know how many of you watch much cricket on TV – I’ll assume most of you – and if you do, you’ll notice that professional umpires make a lot of mistakes. These are people who have been trained to the highest standard and have worked for years to have the dubious privilege of officiating professional games. And they often get it wrong. And do you know why they do? It’s because it’s bloody difficult. At least they have technology that they can draw on.
We must make a split-second decision, and once that split second is gone, it’s gone forever, and all we have left are the opinions of completely non-neutral players.
And that’s hard enough. When you add to the mix that many of these non-neutral players don’t understand the rules of the game they are playing, it gets ridiculously complicated and often deeply unpleasant.
Look, I am a bowler. In the time I have been playing in the LCU (six years or so), I have bowled precisely 319.3 overs and have taken eleven whole wickets with LBWs. I know that this should have been many more. I can still remember one game, where I bowled a slow full toss that hit the batsmen at the bottom of his rear leg in front of the middle stump. A more plumb LBW one could not help but see, and as I went up to appeal, the umpire stared at his feet and ignored me completely. It was a shocker. I had just started captaining, we had lost our first few games, and we lost this one by two runs. That’s why I remember it so well. The appalling, biased decision may well have cost us the game.
And if you bowl, you’ll have familiar tales.
Sometimes, umpires make terrible decisions, and it’s very hard to take when that terrible decision gives their team an unfair advantage. It’s a complicated, pressurised dynamic, and as a playing umpire, I still look back to a few decisions I made and wonder why I didn’t give them out. I give my share of LBWs – and I have made my share of mistakes. And I am sure anyone else who has spent time behind the stumps would tell the same story. And I’ll make some more.
However, I know that I have been accused of cheating by players who do not understand the rules of the game they play, and that is very hard to take. There is a point to this article, if you’re still reading (I know, I do go on a bit at times):
Clubs need to make sure their players understand the rules.
I know how obvious that sounds, but for some reason, we don’t take small amount of time it takes to always do this. I have a memory from last season of an exasperated Ray Stapleton telling a frustrated opponent who implied that he was cheating in a loud, annoyed voice:
“LEARN THE RULES OF THE GAME!”
This was just after his third appeal for LBW had been declined. The ball might well have been shattering the middle stump on each occasion, but he was bowling to a left hander and had made no adjustments to his action, meaning that every ball was clearly pitching outside leg. And he obviously did not know that if this happens, the batsman is not out.
You see, LBW has caveats. It isn’t just about whether the ball would have hit the stumps without a leg-oriented intervention. Yes, I know that you almost certainly know this and know it well. The problem is that if someone hasn’t taken the time to learn the rules of the game they are playing, they are also unlikely to be reading a long, self-indulgent post on the LCU website written by a grumpy middle-aged man.
There are two parts of the LBW rule that are poorly understood:
If the ball pitches outside the leg stump (and whether this is the far left or far right stump depends on whether the batter is a left or right hander), the batter can NEVER be out.
And if the point of impact of the ball is outside the line of the stumps (even if the ball is clearly going on to hit the stumps), the batter can NEVER be out (assuming that he/she has played a shot).
These two situations cause more unhappiness and bad feeling in self-officiated games than anything else. It is a huge frustration for the bowler when they know that a pad has stopped the ball from hitting the stumps and the umpire does not give it out, but usually when this happens it is because according to the rules of the game it is not out.
There are, of course, many more aspects to the rule, but these two parts seem to cause more confusion and ill-feeling than anything else that happens on a cricket pitch.
I’m not an idiot (okay, I might be at times but let’s not get distracted) – I know that some playing umpires cheat. I have seen them cheat from either side of the equation. I have seen the statistics for LBWs given in self-officiated games over the last two or three years and I know that there are a few clubs that should be hanging their heads in shame. There is no easy cure for this. Umpiring a game where you have a vested interest in the result is a deeply flawed concept and everyone knows it.
But it is where we are at right now in the lower divisions.
I think most of us go into it with the intention of being honest, but it is a very pressurised thing to do, and mistakes happen. We could argue all day about the motivation behind these “mistakes”, but it won’t cure the problem.
But making sure that everyone knows the rules of the game that we play so that we don’t make unfair accusations and cause unnecessary bad feeling…surely that’s easily achievable?
I realise I am probably labouring the point now, but, you know, I want to enjoy this season. I don’t want to argue with people. I play cricket to unwind and scratch an itch that only competitive sport can scratch. I play cricket for the moments of personal achievement and the wonderful feeling of playing on a team that I care about.
And surely, that’s what most of us play for?