Over the past number of years the opportunities within cricket have literally taken off. Both underage and senior International sides have (up until these strange times) travelled to all corners of the globe to ply their trade, and as well as getting to see the world, quite a few have also gone on to become professional sportsmen and women.

Those opportunities haven't just been limited to playing however and a prime example of that is provided by the North West's own Roly Black (below).

 

After a successful career at Bready CC where he was part of a quality bowling attack that included at various times, Geoff McConnell, Leslie Jack, Boyd Rankin and Craig Young, Roly opted to turn his hand to umpiring.

It was during the 2008 season that the then 36-year old felt he needed a change and after a chat with a few of the current panel, he let Robin Glenn know that he would help out.

"My body was crying "enough" at that stage and towards the end of that summer, I dipped my toe into a bit of umpiring" he began.

"I was still playing as well but I really enjoyed the new experience, caught the bug and decided to hang up the boots at the end of that season."

Over the next couple of years Roly set about learning the ropes and as with seemingly everything he does, he committed wholesale. Exams were ticked off one by one and he looked for experience and advice from the people he knew could give it.

"Robin knew I was keen to learn the ropes so he teamed me up with a lot of good umpires. Eric Cooke was a brilliant umpire and even better person and he was a huge help. He had the right demeanour, and always seemed to have the respect of players.

"DW Caldwell was another man I looked up to- his knowledge and passion were infectious and I wish we had 20 more like him in his prime.

"Charlie McElwee was always on hand with good advice too and of course as those exams stacked up, Paddy O'Hara was, and indeed still is, my go-to source."

Roly's composure and unflappable nature soon brought him to the attention of the likes of Paddy and Alan Neil and he was soon promoted from the North West panel on to the Cricket Ireland list and from there, very quickly on to the various European panels.

Over the next few years he umpired two NW senior cup finals (2010 and 2013) as well as a number of All-Ireland semi finals. He was to complete the list with the Waringstown v The Hills final (fittingly played at Bready) in 2017.

His first European venture took him to Estonia at the end of 2012- a place Roly describes as "an amazing experience" and when he subsequently made the ICC European Elite list in 2015, the adventures continued.

"David Jukes (pictured with Kyle Coetzer, Kevin O'Brien and Roly), an ICC Match Referee was passionate about the development of officials in Europe. He demanded and expected high standards and those years at various International tournaments gave me invaluable experience."

A year later he progressed to the Associate and Affiliate panel knowing that he could now be sent not just anywhere in Europe, but on the globe. Strangely enough, with the world his oyster, his first full international appointment was Belfast for Ireland's ODI series with Afghanistan.

It's a memory that brings a smile to his face.

"It was a terrific series, however it will be forever captured in Barry Chambers' photo of Mohammad Nabi scooping the ball back from well over the boundary to run out Ed Joyce. I was 4th umpire that day having been due to stand in the first match which was abandoned, but from memory I don't think Ed wasted much time setting the record straight!"

In 2019, Roly, along with Mark Hawthorne, Alan Neill and Paul Reynolds became the first Irish umpires to be awarded contracts in keeping with Ireland's status as a full member. It was a fitting tribute for someone who had worked so hard to make the grade.

Roly's career to date has seen him enjoy many highs and he pointed to Ireland's two T20's against India at a packed Malahide in 2018 as well as the recent Under-19 World Cup in South Africa.

Not surprisingly, umpiring both semi-finals of the tournament earlier this year is also high on the list. Asked if those types of games bring a lot more pressure, he felt that while that may be the case occasionally, it's something that goes with the territory.

"Full membership means that Irish umpires are now on a full International Panel and that has opened up many doors. We now have access to ICC Umpire Coach Denis Burns and even through this pandemic we have weekly Skype sessions with Denis and Richard Kettleborough.

"We're taking part in things like TV umpire simulations; continuing our training from an ICC perspective and we then try to filter that down to the other panels we're working on within Ireland.

"Overall, umpiring at that level is very enjoyable but it's also very hard work. TV coverage and the higher profile games means there's more exposure and constant scrutiny. You just have to trust your own judgement and stick to our processes - in the main, ICC observers look at how you recover from mistakes as much as making them."

And going forward, is that final step to the Elite Panel on the mind of a man who, at just 48 has time on his side?

"It's a cliche but I honestly never look too far ahead. It's simply one game at a time, do my best, learn and move on. After that, I have no control over where it goes."

It's a composed approach but then Roly has good reason to see things for what they are. His wife Jayne is a Pharmacy Technician on the Covid Ward at Altnagelvin Hospital and that certainly brings perspective into their lives.

"What I will say is that opportunities are available to any man or woman who is prepared to put the work in. Did I think when I was fielding at third man at Bready that I'd be umpiring two World Cup semi-finals in South Africa? Not in a million years.

"I'm fortunate that I have the right support around me. And if any more opportunities come my way then it's up to me to make the most of them."