By Richard Edwards
22 May 2023
A shortage of umpires was just one of many headaches facing
leagues up and down the country as the cricket season began in the
characteristic cool of the late English spring.
It’s an age-old problem. Last December, the Cricket Yorkshire website, delved into the archives to illustrate the point. Quoting the Telegraph and Argus from November 1975, it relayed the details of the Bradford League’s annual report.
“Unless we can encourage new recruits, I can envisage that before long we shall only be able to allocate one umpire to second eleven league games, and the home club would then be called upon to provide an assistant umpire to ‘stand in’ at square leg. What a sorry day this would be..”
Now, 48 years on, not much has changed. Particularly lower down the leagues, where more and more players are called upon to spend as much time officiating as they are batting and bowling. With inevitable consequences.
Research by the ECB concluded that it wasn’t just the integrity of matches that the appointment of independent umpires helped with. It found that the enjoyment levels of those playing the game also increased and that participation levels were ‘significantly enhanced’ by the men in the middle being neutral figures.
At the top levels, leagues have been taking action to address the problem. The West of England Premier League is just one to offer points incentives to those clubs which provided an umpire for their matches, up to 18pts a season - the equivalent of a league victory.
At the start of the 2022 season, each team in the WEPL was tasked with nominating at least one and up to three candidates to train as umpires, with those nominees starting in the feeder leagues and receiving training and development opportunities to progress up the WEPL ladder.
Leagues are not sitting on their hands. But some are being far more proactive than others when it comes to tackling the problem.
Take the Halifax Cricket League (HCL), which has seen an incredible 45% increase in its panel umpires since 2021, not so much bucking the national trend, as setting a new one entirely.
Speaking exclusively to the Club Cricket Conference, chairman Anthony Briggs, says a mixture of incentives and penalties has been behind a rise which isn’t just increasing umpire numbers, but, crucially, is also lowering the average age of those officials donning the white coat on a Saturday.
“We asked all of our 32 senior clubs to put forward at least one registered umpire who would be available for at least 15 weeks of last year’s league season,” he says. “Any team that wasn’t able to provide an umpire to stand for a minimum of 12 matches by the last Saturday in August received a 12-point deduction for both their first and second teams.”
That penalty might sound draconian, but clubs were given all the support possible to ensure that that target was hit. And the scheme was in the safest of hands, organised as it was by Andrew Mitchell, an umpire who first stood in 1968 and a man who has over-seen over 1200 games in an extraordinary career in the recreational game.
As well as a strict approach to discipline on the pitch - with umpires reassured that the league would support them should any issues arise - the HCL also introduced a grading system that aimed to identify areas where umpires potentially needed additional support or development.
“We focused on four areas - communication, control of the match, control of the players, and decision-making. Using a one to four scale, this data allows us to target the umpires who need some extra help and support. We then have mentors, who can work with that umpire to help coach and develop them. We’re not throwing new umpires in at the deep end, they are starting at second team level and being brought through very gently.”
There’s more work to do. Briggs says that, in an ideal world, the league would be able to call on as many as 96 regular and registered umpires every week. To put that figure into some kind of perspective, Halifaxs two neighbouring leagues currently have just 61 and 42 umpires respectively.
The HCL, though, is showing what’s possible. And Briggs is keen that the work they’re doing is replicated elsewhere.
“We haven’t had any other leagues approach us and ask us how we managed to achieve this, but we’re obviously available if they do,” he says. “All this is pretty simple stuff and the kind of work that could be rolled out anywhere else in the country. And regardless of what we do, this is still a nationwide problem.