ONE of Cricket Ireland’s elite umpires has an inconspicuous but vital role this weekend during the Twenty20 Festival in Pembroke.

Mark Hawthorne is an “observer” of the men in the middle as Cricket Ireland continue to plan ahead and determine who is ready to move up to the next level.

Hawthorne is currently Ireland’s most experienced umpire, having officiated, on and off the field at tournaments around the world and this year, along with NCU colleague Alan Neill, the North West’s Roly Black and Paul Reynolds from Leinster, was rewarded with a part-time contract to take them out of work and be at the governing body’s beck and call.

Indeed, the quartet are on the ICC international panel and could be called up to officiate at any one-day international but it is closer to home that the hard work will be done this summer.

“As well as standing in the middle at our home internationals and inter-provincials, we have this role of observing,” explains Mark. “We have agreed a format to try and create a clear pathway for the next lot coming through. The umpires will get feedback and we will take it from there."

It’s already been an eventful year for Mark, as he spent two weeks in April in West Indies on an exchange visit which will bring one of the top West Indian umpires to Ireland this summer to stand in 7-8 days of inter-provincial cricket.

“It was actually the West Indies board who asked Ireland for the exchange and we look forward to welcoming one of their number,” said Hawthorne.” I got two matches, a four-day game in St Vincent and then another one at the Sir Vivian Richards stadium in Antigua. It was great for me to stand with their top umpires and they are so impressive in everything they do.”

His highlight so far was standing in Ireland’s first T20 international against a fellow Full Member nation, India at Malahide last year, but the experience of being television umpire at Ireland’s inaugural Test match the previous month wasn’t far behind.

“That’s the biggest change in the last 12-18 months, “said Mark, “the amount of training we have received in television umpiring. That would have held me back in previous tournaments when it came to choosing the umpires for the final stages, because I had no TV background.

“But we have spent a lot of time with the ICC Umpires Coach, on skype sessions he shows us video clips, he acts as the TV director and we go through the protocols and come to the correct decision.

“That’s a huge step forward for umpires here, because previously we would have had to fly people in from England. The whole TV umpiring thing is a huge challenge, and at the start is overwhelming, but I’m now starting to enjoy it.”

It’s all a far cry from how it all started for Mark, in a committee room in Greenisland in the mid-1990s.

“I was at Cliftonville playing for the Thirds and Fourths, the 1st XI had just won the league but the NCU were telling us there was no umpire from our club, so we had to send one on a winter course. I remember clearly Roy Millar turning to myself and Alan Waugh and said ‘you will be going’.

“He knew I would be interested because when I wasn’t batting in our games, I would volunteer to umpire and was always happy to do that.

“So Alan and I went to Shane Park every Tuesday night for eight weeks, At the end of the course we had to do a three-hour written exam at Queen’s University which was fairly intimidating for some people.

“But I passed that and immediately I was umpiring games at a higher standard than I could play. You always need a bit of luck, but there were no train crashes, the players always like to see a new face so I rose quickly through the ranks.

“My first senior game was at the old Ormeau ground with Paddy O’Hara, North of Ireland, as they then were, v Bangor. There were a couple of hundreds, it was a good game of cricket and I really enjoyed it.

“I can certainly recommend umpiring to anyone who would like to take it up. These days it’s much more straightforward to get involved, the eight-week course is now condensed into one weekend and there’s no longer a three-hour exam!”

It’s also a chance to see the world and have the best seat in the house.