Ger Siggins (Times Ireland)
“They also serve who only stand and wait”, was a favourite quote of an Irish umpire, long passed. He would hardly recognise the duties of the modern official however, with standing and waiting the least of their worries.
As Irish cricket steps into the Test era, the white coat brigade has also had to up its game, says Paul Reynolds, a member of the ICC International Panel. “The position of match officials in Ireland is exactly the same as everyone else - players, coaches and administrators alike. We are all riding this rollercoaster without quite knowing where it is going to end up. And as with the players, it is just a question of making sure that you do lots of preparation and work behind the scenes, making sure that you perform to the best of your abilities.”
Umpiring is essential to the smooth running of the game, and for many years it was the work of the retired professional player, who were barely tolerated by those in authority. Up to the 1960s umpires were not permitted into the Phoenix club bar, forced to wait outside for a grandee to come out and hand them their five shillings (about 30c). In 1961 officials went on strike, refusing to stand for a paltry sum and demeaning treatment.
Nowadays the fee is €45, still a pittance for nine hours work, plus travelling time. There are about 150 umpires in Ireland, almost half in Leinster where the Leinster Cricket Umpires and Scorers Association covers around 850 matches per summer.
The LCUSA recruits about a dozen new officials a year, conducting short courses on the laws before a winter training programme. Many are those keen to stay involved when their playing days are coming to an end. The practice of the batting team providing umpires also brings in people such as Reynolds.
“I always would have been keen enough to do my stint, going out and doing your ten overs. I always looked forward to it”, he explains. “There weren’t too many opportunities to umpire when playing for Leinster, but Alan Tuffery always had me earmarked as someone who he could persuade to take an umpiring course once my playing career ended.”
Tuffery, a retired university lecturer and author of ‘Thinking About Cricket Umpiring’, has been involved in umpiring for almost 40 years and now focuses on training and assessment.
“Back in the 1980s we had no formal training: some trained in the UK or travelled to sit exams. We only umpired at Senior 1 and 2, but fortunately players were very forgiving of those who like me were learning on the job.
“Regular formal training, exams and other qualifications came in that decade. Nowadays it is very structured, and all umpires are expected to have at least sat the Level 1 examination and progressed through the four grades in Leinster. Umpires are now formally assessed by boundary observers, colleagues and captains.”
In 1894, the Ballinrobe Chronicle wrote: “The umpire is a conscientious individual, with a thorough knowledge of a very intricate game and one in which it is often difficult to give exact and correct decisions off hand.”
But such sentiments – and international progress – cuts no mustard with some. “The standard is very poor, the worst it has been in 30 years”, said one senior club player.
“The problem is that umpires won’t make decisions, which they think is the best way to make progress.
“You don’t have to be a former player to be a good umpire – Bede Sajowitz is the best I’ve seen and he hasn’t played much. But umpires need to have a feel for the game and how to handle the emotions that come up.”
Declining standards of player behaviour has not helped, although that works both ways. One, now deceased, Dublin umpire was irritated by a batsman using “his” bail to mark his guard and unleashed a flurry of punches to make his point.
Reynolds recently made his ODI debut at Stormont when Ireland played Afghanistan. “For a few seasons I combined umpiring and playing but I was not really devoting enough time to either. By 2010, the bruises were taking longer to heal, and after a torrid afternoon keeping to Carlos Brathwaite, I reckoned my time was up.”
Another Dublin umpire, Mary Waldron, stood in the recent men's ICC Europe WT20 Qualifier, drawing wide praise. Waldron is not just still a player – she’s preparing hard for November’s World T20 in the Caribbean where she’s keeping wicket for Ireland. She first umpired during a winter job helping establish the Tasmania U17 girls’ team.
“The coach had to umpire too, so I went off and did the badges. When I came home I was working as development officer in Malahide, managing the U15s. I umpired all their games and loved it. So, when I went back to Tasmania I asked them to train me properly.”
Waldron, also a soccer international and hockey interpro, winters regularly in Australia and two years ago became the first woman to stand in First Grade in Adelaide and umpired at two underage national championships. Her hero is Joy Neville, a rugby referee progressing fast in a hitherto man’s world.
“She is really blazing the way for women and I am so proud that she is Irish. Nothing seems to phase her.
“There’s nothing to stop women going as far as a man in cricket. Claire Polosak stood in England A v Australia A. We’ll keep going until we’re told no.”
Waldron has 112 caps as a wicketkeeper/bat but at 34 she’s keen to postpone the hard decision.
“In umpiring I’m told I need to stop playing but I want to keep playing as long as I can,” she says.
Kevin Gallagher, Chair of IACUS, the national governing body for umpires and scorers, says Waldron has excellent prospects. “Everyone in Irish cricket has high hopes for her and there is a big push at all levels to get more women officiating. The opportunities there are good too, especially if cricket moves into the Olympics where equality in officials is essential.”