Chris Waters: Now is time to start protecting our endangered umpires
I ONCE played in a match in which a batsman was caught off the umpire’s head.
He smashed a spin bowler straight back down the pitch and the ball hit the umpire as he took evasive action, the bowler completing a simple catch.
The umpire seemed as right as rain – “I’m as right as rain,” he assured everyone as we gathered around in some concern, or words to that effect.
But although everyone could laugh about it later, the umpire was clearly lucky not to have suffered serious injury.
This incident returned to mind when it was revealed that the first-class umpires are examining forms of protection that could be introduced in county cricket next year.
Amid safety concerns in an era of increasingly powerful bats and explosive strokeplay, they are looking at ways to protect the head, heart and back of the neck, having voiced their concerns to the England and Wales Cricket Board.
Research is being conducted at Cardiff Metropolitan University to test a form of material to cover the heart, while visors and various forms of head protection are also being developed.
It follows the death last year of Australia batsman Phillip Hughes, who was hit on the back of the head/neck in a tragedy that naturally focused minds.
Rob Bailey, the former England batsman who has had a long umpiring career, spoke for his colleagues when he said: “A lot of people are in danger.
“Bats are massive now and are only going to become more powerful, and the ball is pinging off them. Fortunately, no-one has been badly hit. but I have been struck once this season.
“Umpires are pretty mobile now, but the ball followed me at square leg in a televised match and, luckily, hit the battery pack strapped on my back.
“Some umpires are wearing boxes now, and chest pads in the future are a consideration.”
Although the odds of an umpire being seriously injured or worse are remote, they are not so remote as to be blithely ignored.
Earlier this week, former Australia wicketkeeper Rod Marsh warned that fatalities could arise unless the no-ball rule is changed, allowing umpires to stand further back.
Two days after Hughes’s shocking death, an umpire was indeed killed – Hillel Oscar struck in the neck during a game in Israel.
Six years ago, an umpire in South Wales also died when he was hit on the head during an attempted run-out.
Alcwyn Jenkins, 72, had his back to the fielder during a game at the St Helen’s ground in Swansea.
The coroner called it “a tragic accident” and tellingly added that the incident that led to the death was “a normal, every day part of the game”.
It is imperative, of course, that any protection for umpires blends in rather than stands out, and also that officials are comfortable wearing it in hot temperatures.
The protection must not be distracting to batsmen or make the officials look silly, effectively reducing them to glorified suits of armour.
But safety is paramount, and cricket would do well to heed the lessons of Hillel Oscar and Alcwyn Jenkins.
A cricket ball is a dangerous weapon, and not everyone is as lucky as the umpire in the game in which I played and who happily emerged as right as rain.