The Golden Age Of Umpires

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I am conscious of my own personal preponderance to wallow in nostalgia of late. Something I should give up based on the adage that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. Too many backward glances down the old barely lit paths of the mind – at best a dodgy incursion into loose slabs and hidden potholes. It’s fun in moderation but gets a bit Victor Meldrew if you linger too long.

However, the news that Jack Hampshire died earlier this month has me pining for what I consider to be the golden age of umpires and umpiring. As anticipated there were many heartfelt tributes from legends of the game. They spoke of his century at Lords for England on debut and his long association with Yorkshire – one that spanned 20 years as a player and latterly as president. Every single one obviously mentioned his career as a county and international umpire.

From a personal perspective the playing stuff happened before my time. I was only 7 when he opted to call it a day in 1984. Outside of Yorkshire he was mainly remembered as the batsman that shone brightly on debut but ultimately fizzled out after 8 Tests and an average of 20’ish. He was actually dropped after his 2nd Test – an example of the sort of hair-trigger thinking that has routinely characterised England’s selection policy.

It was Jack Hampshire the umpire, therefore, that I remember most fondly. He stood in his 1st Test in the Ashes summer of 1989 – the summer when my interest in cricket blossomed into a full blown love affair. This was a few years before neutral umpires, when the England team was on a familiar downward trajectory – one that lasted the best part of 15 years.

We could though at least tell ourselves that our umpires were the best in the world. To such an extent that it was even suggested in 1989, as England plummeted to a 4-0 reverse, that they unconsciously showed their impartiality by being unduly generous to the Aussies. Not that Australia needed it.

This was the era when first class umpires still wore panama hats, white wool flat caps, dodgy bifocals and the trusty butcher’s coat. If the 1980’s was the era of the charismatic snooker player then the late 80’s and early 90’s was, to me at least, the era of the umpire. I can rattle them all off now without recourse to google …

Top of the tree was the old double act of Dickie Bird and David Shepherd. Cricket’s very own Morecombe and Wise. The best of the best in terms of their decisions on the field but also brim-full of character and entertainment.

Dickie always appeared married to the game in a form of domesticated wedded bliss – full of nervous energy and eccentricities. A strange paradox between ultra-serious religious zeal and barely concealed school boy exuberance. Could you imagine Dickie dealing with DRS?

I loved them both but preferred Shep. His darts player physique perpetually locked into his butcher’s coat. Sporting permanently ruddy cheeks on his large cherubic face. Always a touch of the languid about him. You could imagine him laughing to himself at Dickie’s histrionics and melodrama. Definitely a man built to reside in an easy chair whilst drinking real ale in some ancient country pub.

Shep was an individual forever cursed (or blessed!) by his supposed concern for the dreaded Nelson. As the scorecard rattled close to 111, 222 or multiples thereof, the crowd and commentators would watch him closely for signs of anxiety. Sometimes he would goof along and portray mock horror at what might be about to unfold. The inevitable arrival of the Nelson would bring various entertaining contortions as the burly Shep attempted to keep one or both legs off the ground. This being the only way to avert the ancient curse.

Then there was Merv Kitchen. A man cut from the same if slightly smaller cloth than Shep. An ageing west country boy with the look of a kindly great uncle and a penchant for worrying.

The polar opposite to Merv was the tall and imposing figure of Nigel Plews. He was a rarity in that he’d never played first class cricket and had instead spent 25 years in the fraud squad! He always came across as a slightly serious and officious character. You fully expected him to read the dismissed batsman his rights before carting him off the field in a headlock.

Apparently Plews had the nickname of “Plod” or “Sarge” but it is not recorded whether any bowler hoping for an LBW ever called him that (to his face anyway). After his retirement from umpiring Plews turned his forensic eye to the laws of cricket as a member of the MCC’s laws sub-committee.

Let’s not forget the Palmer brothers Roy and Ken. Roy used to sleep in a camper van whilst clocking up the miles umpiring on the county circuit. My abiding memory of him is admonishing Pakistan’s Aqib Javed for peppering Devon Malcolm with bouncers in the acrimonious 1992 series – a situation that degenerated into a stand-up row between Roy and the lovable and mild mannered Pakistan captain Javed Miandad. How would the 6ft 6inch “Plod” Plews have dealt with that situation, I wonder?

These were strange old witch-finder days when no one quite understood the vagaries of reverse swing. Or maybe Pakistan were just plain cheating. I seem to remember Richie Benaud dropping some well-timed “oh’s” and “mmm’s” on the BBC commentary, as Aqib carefully worked on the ball.

John Holder always felt like an ever present. A man born in the wonderfully named “Superlative” in Barbados – a Caribbean location evoking blue sky and sandy beaches. One hopes it’s not like one of those evocatively named American small towns which promise much by name but deliver just a Denny’s and a Home Depot next to a motorway intersection.

I remember Holder producing a book called Be The Umpire or You’re The Umpire or something along those lines. The reader would have to adjudicate on all sorts of outlandish and once in a million scenarios. From memory Holder was at least generous enough to provide the reader with a list of multiple choice answers.

But finally let’s return to Jack Hampshire. Despite being a highly rated player and coach, Hampshire looked born to be an umpire. He was the very personification of a sporting official: he radiated calm and quiet authority. Indeed he was such a model of integrity that he was asked by Pakistan, along with Holder, to umpire their potentially combustible home series with India in 1989-90.

Although I actually have less standout memories of Hampshire than most of the above names, I mean this as a compliment. This is because he eschewed the gimmick in favour of cool efficiency – thus proving the old maxim that the best umpires or referees should not be noticed.

Which of the current crop of umpires do you think will be fondly remembered in the future? Billy Bowden need not apply!

Garry White

18 Comments

  1. I take your point, but I do think neutral umpires are a good idea. It takes away controversy, like the rows between England and Pakistan over David Constant and Shakoor Rana, or the ill feeling in West Indies about Fred Goodall (Google Croft Goodall for details) on the 1979-80 tour of New Zealand. Whilst I think DRS is a good idea, it does remove the aura of infallibility around the umpire, so I don’t think many will be fondly remembered. The most recent i can think of is Steve “Slow Hand” Bucknor.

    • Steve Bucknor is reviled in India for being biased against them. There are numour youtube video’s documenting their issues. The BCCI refused to play if he umpired I believe.

  2. To those listed we should add the names of Ross Emerson and Darrell Hair. No matter what you think of Hair’s later behaviour these 2 stood up for all that is good about cricket by no-balling Muralitharan in 1995. All the bluster from defenders of Murali ignores the fact that Emerson and Hair were proved to be right when the tests were done on his action. His arm did bend beyond the permitted limit and the authorities chose to change the limit and sacrifice the umpires. For me that was the beginning of the end for honourable behaviour in cricket.

    • Pity they didn’t no-ball Brett Lee who was shown to bend his arm more than Murali for some deliveries. You believe the 15% rule was introduced for Murali – I disagree and would point out that Murali degree of flexion for his doosra was 12.5 while Lee was found to be on 14.5 for some of his deliveries. Hair’s role in the ball-tampering scandal did him no credit either (numerous commentators ranging from Boycott to Hughes could find nothing wrong, the ball was never produced for public examination, I think if I remember rightly Hair tried to get a large pay-off from the ICC to drop the matter).

      On the article, David Shepherd was my favourite from the 1990s – although his last Test when he missed some front-foot no-balls from Saqlain spoilt the memories of him a little (Bucknor also stayed on too long). Richard Kettleborough is the best of the current bunch in my view. Ravi, Reiffel and Llong should not be on any ‘elite’ panel.

      • You miss the point. A failure to call one bowler like Lee does not excuse failure to support umpires when they correctly call another bowler like Murali. At the time he was called by Hair and Emerson the rules allowed 5 degrees of flex for spinners – so on your 12,5 he exceeded the permitted limit by 7.5 degrees (or put another way his arm was bent 2.5 times as much as allowed). Fast bowlers were allowed 10 degrees of flex at the time, which meant Lee exceeded the limit (on your figures) by 4 degrees, much less than Murali on either an absolute or relative basis. There seems little doubt on the timing and comments of the time that the Murali controversy was a catalyst for the change in flex limit to 15 degrees for all bowlers

        I have no problem in your questioning of Hair’s later behaviour, although it is understandable that he would give no ground when remembering how he had been hung out to dry in the past. The treatment of Emerson was even more scandalous. You do not condemn umpires for making a correct call, no matter whether you like them personally or not, or because other guilty bowlers have escaped being called.

        On the wider issue of throwing I am generally in favour of the change which was made – but that was some years after the correct calls in Australia.

      • What? Brett Lee’s test debut was 4 years after Muralitharan got called and the angles increased to 5 degrees for spinners and 10 degrees for fast bowlers so no Brett Lee did not chuck more than Murali at any stage. Of course it now went to 15 degrees for everyone as you couldn’t see a fast bowler bending until it got to around 20 degrees with the naked eye.

  3. The great characters were all the product of the county championship circuit. It gave them understanding and cricketing wisdom with which they oversaw the game.

    My father used to entertain those umpires standing at the US Ground Portsmouth through the Fifties and Sixties. They too were a wonderful lot. Yes Voce did wheel Larwood back to their digs in a wheelbarrow borrowed from a nursery one night when playing at Hove. And yes they were stopped by a local Bobby.

    So, as long as cricketers spend time on the road and take up umpiring after their careers, you will have a certain kind of compassion mixed with authority ‘standing’ sentinel over the game you are watching.

    Not at all sure that umpires coming in without such a rite de passage will ever have the same qualities.

    At least now the equivalent of Dickie Bird won’t have to sleep in a shed under the pavilion while pro-ing for Torquay.

    • Love the Larwood / Voce story. Thanks for sharing. Legend always had it that Harold and Bill would sink a pint at lunch and tea if Notts were in the field…. “You can’t sweat something out without putting something back in” or some such…. Who needs ice baths and isotonic drinks hey!!

  4. I remember Jack Hampshire giving Robin Smith out LBW to Shane Warne’s flipper, raising his left finger in that unusual way of his, as if he was half-bowling a follow up ball, all while nonchalantly chewing gum, just to rub extra salt into the wound.

    The dismissal was repeated on the opening credits for a time because it showcased the new stump cam. With every view I became increasingly convinced the Judge had suffered a terrible miscarriage of justice that affected the outcome of the series.

    • Whenever I see something like this I am reminded of the classic Dilbert cartoon where the tranquilliser darts and net are brought out when it is realised that the Marketing Department have had an idea. It also smacks of the only coherent theory of leadership I have ever heard (again from Dilbert); leadership is proportionate to bladder size and inversely proportionate to brain size. This is because people rise to positions of leadership as they can sit for ever in meetings drinking coffee without leaving to go to the loo and are too stupid to get bored and nod off. Hence they are the only ones there and awake when decisions are taken.

  5. I love county cricket even more than tests. jack hampshire was county cricket all the way.i remember him as a player, one of the best in the slips ever. you remember him as an ump.perfect. take care jack.

  6. Very good article and a trip down memory lane, however I would suggest that the actual decision making of all umpires around the world has improved. Ok there is now a preference for every decision to be sent “upstairs”, but I have noticed recently there is a trend for obvious run outs not to be referred.

    I think that considering how many appeals and pressure is put upon the umpires now they are doing a pretty good job.

    I agree that there are less characters nowadays , although I think Gunner Gould is certainly one , and this could also be said about the players . There sadly appears to be no place in the modern game for such antics as all players and officials within professional sport are criticised by all forms of media .

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