Cricket Diary: A testing mission for the man of Steele

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The Independent Online
Umpires have never been told more often to get their fingers out. It should be small surprise, therefore, if confusion sometimes appears to exist between the metaphoric and the literal.

The scrutiny under which they labour is emphasised during every televised match. Last week, for instance, Vanburn Holder extracted the digit of doom to give out Chris Adams of Derbyshire leg before. Adams stood his ground, argued; Holder stood by his decision; Adams was subsequently fined; replays confirmed that he hit it. Nobody came out of the incident well. Who would be an umpire?

John Steele, for one. He is the newest recruit to the first-class list this season, its 26th member. "I think I'm doing all right, but you'd better ask the captains," said the former Leicestershire and Glamorgan all-rounder, referring to the men who, as well as television, judge the adjudicators. Steele, 50, spent three years on the reserve list, learning his trade in second-eleven county matches.

"I'm pleased I did that," he said. "I know that some have gone more or less straight into it but it helped me learn the ropes. The game is such that you're bound to get incidents or disagreements but you have to cope."

Like 24 of his colleagues, Steele played first-class cricket. Although six of them played in fewer than 100 matches, 12 of them, including the new boy, appeared in more than 300. Their experience is not in question.

"By and large I think it helps to have played the game, though there aren't many around now that I played with or against," Steele said. "It probably helps to pass exams on the laws but understanding them and how to interpret them is important.

"I've had a few little things happen already but my eyes were really opened in a Sunday League match between Kent and Glamorgan. I gave a run-out decision in a tight game and when the finger went up there was a huge roar from behind me of people who obviously agreed."

Steele, who has been awarded an initial contract of two years, will probably be as undemonstrative an umpire as he was a player, giving it, in his phrase, 110 per cent all the time and remaining focused. "I had to as a player and sometimes when I was batting at the other end to David Gower as a player I wondered what I was doing in the game." Presumably, there may be men in white coats who make umpiring seem as easy as Gower made batting.

"Mostly, it is about your relationship with the players, making sure you earn their respect. Some stay silent, some like a cosy chat. You have to judge. What I have found out in a few short weeks is that it would be good if all players became umpires before being players. Then they'd know a bit more."

Leg before decisions, which will ever remain the most contentious in the umpiring armoury, are still accounting for more than a fifth of dismissals in Championship matches this season.

There has been a fall from the initial spate in the gloom of May so that now fewer than two batsmen (but not much fewer) per innings can expect to regret being hit on the pad. In the five rounds of matches completed lbws accounted for the following percentage of dismissals: 22, 26.1, 20.6, 20.3 and 18.9. In all, 232 of the 1,087 wickets, or 21.3 per cent, were leg before.

In the first two days of the present series of matches there were 30 leg befores from the 160 wickets to have fallen, or 18.75 per cent. Some matches do better than others, of course, and in that between Somerset and Lancashire, which finished in two days, nine of the 33 dismissals were lbw.

The record match so far this summer was that between Somerset and Sussex last month. Bob White and Barry Leadbeater delivered 10 lbw verdicts, 40 per cent of the 25 wickets which fell.

Perhaps the Australians' preparations were not helped by the quality of the scorecards. At The Oval they may well have been befuddled by who was batting in the second Texaco Trophy match. The scorecard utterly confused England's order: Robert Croft was at three, Nick Knight at 11 and the board, as is custom, followed the card's example.

At Derby, the tourists might not have known the playing rules. The card specifically stated that lunch was 1pm and play finished at 6pm, which should have been 1.15pm and 6.30pm. English cricket: getting the simple things right.

Book mark: "Of course, many breakfast-table cricketers follow their native counties faithfully all the summer through the morning reports. For them the players are not distant and unattainable; they simply do not go to the matches when they might." From Twelfth Man by John Arlott, published in 1971 and still conveying what's right and what's wrong with county cricket.

nursery end:

Ashley Cowan, the confident Essex fast bowler who quite likes to read about himself described as being brisk, took 5 for 58 against Surrey on Thursday. It was the third five-wicket return of the 22-year- old Cowan's fledgling career, his second this season. His 17 wickets have come at an average of 20.2 and his strike rate is a healthy 54.2, both vast improvements on his career figures. But maybe the surest sign that Cowan has a chance of making it to the top was revealed on Test Match Special on Thursday. When his latest figures were revealed the clipped, no-nonsense tones of the great Trevor Bailey said it all: "Promising".

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