17th December 2014
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
A few days after the tragic death of Phil Hughes, there was news of a further death on the cricket field, in Israel, where an umpire was fatally struck by the ball.
John Holder sent me the following the next day:
Yesterday we heard of the death of umpire Hillel Oscar in a cricket match in Israel. Hillel was standing at the bowler’s end and was hit in the face by a ball which had been driven back down the pitch, hit the non-striker’s bat and deflected into his face. He was pronounced dead by the paramedics. I met Hillel about six years ago in Scotland, where he was captaining the Israeli team in an ICC Europe tournament. I was mentoring the umpires standing in the event. He was a very confident, outgoing man whom I liked.
This morning I was interviewed on BBC Five Live and asked if I had ever been hit during my 27-year umpiring career, to which I said yes, on about half a dozen occasions. There were two very dangerous ones. The first was at Worcester when an Ian Botham straight drive almost castrated me. He was facing Raj Maru a slow left arm bowler of Hampshire. Raj asked me to stand up to the wicket as he ran behind me to bowl. Botham advanced down the pitch and slammed a delivery straight at me at groin level. I just had time to twist my body as the ball whistled towards me, passing just over the wicket and perilously past my groin to the boundary. As I recovered and signalled four, Botham, grinning hugely at my narrow escape, said “Holder, I am going to get you”.
The second very dangerous occasion was at Northampton. Roger Harper, bowling at my end to Paul Smith of Warwickshire, was also bowling around the wicket, with me standing up to the stumps. I was holding Harper’s big floppy hat behind my back. Smith smashed a half volley straight back at me at chest high. Luckily for me Harper stuck his left hand out and deflected the ball away from me. So fiercely had the ball been struck that it would have caused me serious if not terminal injury and with both my hands behind my back, I would have been unable to try to deflect the ball away.
The worst situation for umpires however is the deflection, from the wicket or off the non-striker. There is even less time to try to move out of the way. A friend of mine, Terry White who died a few years ago, was struck in his testicles by a straight drive which deflected off the wicket at the bowler’s end. He was hospitalised for a while but made a full recovery.
Umpiring can be a dangerous job by virtue of the fact that a hard ball constantly is struck or thrown around the ground at speeds of over 90 mph. There was a time when umpires standing at the bowler’s end were told that they must always move to the side where the ball has been played. But that can be a dangerous thing to do, when the ball is played in the area between mid-off and mid-on, with the fielder up to save the single. The umpire risks getting in the fielder’s way if he throws the ball to the keeper. In that situation it is always safer to move to the side opposite to where the ball has been played. A former English 1st class umpire, John Harris was seriously injured when he got between a Matthew Maynard thunderbolt throw to the keeper and was hit on the head. John was on sick leave for many weeks and suffered with headaches for a long time after.
As an umpire it is essential to always keep the ball in front you when it is played into the outfield. A Welsh umpire was killed a few years ago when hit on the head by a ball thrown in from the outfield. You must turn sideways to watch the ball while glancing towards the pitch so as to see the batsmen running. Never turn your back to the thrower to just watch the crease and the batsmen running.
Standing at square leg can also be dangerous for umpires. Many years ago Dickie Bird was struck in the groin standing at square leg in a 2nd XI match at Old Trafford. He was probably too close when a hard hit long hop bounced in front him and smashed into his groin. He slumped to the ground groaning in agony. Lancashire’s lady physio came on to the field and with the help of players helped Dickie off the field. In the physio’s room he was given a bag of ice to put on the affected area. When the pain had subsided he had a look at that area and was impressed with its size, hoping that the swelling would become permanent.
(The interview that John gave to BBC Radio 5 Live can be heard here, from about 2 hours 56 minutes through to the end of the show).
I replied to John’s email:
Very good, John!
I can’t imagine how painful it could have been to get your nadgers in the way of a Botham drive.
Life is full of countless moments of fortune and misfortune that can be measured in fractions, and in extreme cases make a difference between life and death.
P.S. Roger Harper would be my nomination for the best fielder I’ve ever seen.
John elaborated further on dangerous moments he’d experienced on the cricket field:
That Botham straight drive would have killed or permanently maimed me, as would have the Paul Smith one off Roger Harper. There were three other times when I got hit very hard.
The first was a 2nd XI match at Southwell, where Notts were playing Sussex. Notts off-spinner Mike Field-Buss had me standing up to the wicket as he ran behind me to bowl. The delivery was smashed back hard at him and though I moved quickly to the opposite side of the pitch, the ball was deflected off his hand straight on to my shin. I must have jumped ten feet high shouting in agony. My lower shin and ankle were bloodshot for months after. That would have been a certain four.
The second one was at Lords. Chris Adams flicked a Glenn McGrath leg-side delivery off his legs. I stood at square-leg and the ball seemed to be whizzing to the boundary several yards to my left. It swung suddenly and thudded into my left thigh. Adams got one run instead of four. Four inches lower and my kneecap would have shattered.
The last one was at Worcester, with me standing again at square-leg. Ben Smith loved to sweep the spinners, so I went back to thirty yards. True to form he swept a ball fiercely along the ground. With the spin it curved and hit my right instep, denying him three runs. It hit hard. In all three instances I soldiered on. Prime examples of the typical Barbadian stiff upper lip.
My biography is due out around the end of spring 2015 and will be full of anecdotes from my career. It is being written by a former Hampshire team mate of mine, Andy Murtagh. He did not make the grade and went on to teach English at Malvern College. He did Tom Graveney’s biography and recently completed Barry Richards’. He has a wicked sense of humour and a way with words which I like.
I for one am very much looking forward to reading John’s book.
John Holder is a highly respected former international umpire, who stood in Tests & ODIs between 1988-2001, and in 1st-class cricket from 1982-2009. He was also the innovative mind behind the introduction of the ‘bowl-out’ to settle washed out one-day games.