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!