Life S’Port: Blow My Whistle, Baby

31 October 2012

In the good old days of lunchtime four square, I spent more time waiting in the queue than playing on the court. It wasn’t that I was a particularly bad downballer; it was just that my friends were much better than me.

And so one day, I put forward an idea. Instead of participating, I decided I would referee. That way, the contentious decisions would be resolved; the arguments over ‘liners’ would cease and the ‘in-toe’ (primary-school speak for ‘interference’) excuses would not be exploited by sly competitors. More importantly, it meant my influence on the game could increase tenfold without any physical improvement on my behalf.

My friends were not so keen on this proposal. Just because there was somebody calling the shots didn’t necessarily mean they wanted to listen. It turned out I could only maintain my judicial high ground for as long as my classmates were willing to tolerate me.

Forget the old Arts-student adage that ‘those who can’t do, teach’. In reality, those who can’t do, umpire. For the sports fan who thrives more at FIFA 2012 than IRL soccer, there’s no better seat in the house than that of the refs. If you think corporate box tickets are the bee’s knees, or that nothing can beat Channel Seven’s super slow-mo, think again. The view from the green itself is sport at its naked best.

It’s not surprising then that some of sport’s leading whistleblowers were once professionals in their respective code. Either the love of the game sucked them in, or their lack of formal qualifications bit them in the backside.

In March this year, recently retired Bomber-cum-Blue Jordan Bannister became the 81st footballer to return to the dark side. Four months later, former Test seamer Paul Reiffel followed suit, becoming the fifth Aussie to play and officiate cricket at the highest level.

Notwithstanding he fact that most of us latte-sipping Arts kids couldn’t dream of playing professional sport, let alone build muscle, it’s worth noting that neither of these converts set the world on fire during their heyday. Bannister played 67 AFL games, but was delisted by two clubs. Reiffel was a handy international cricketer, but never reached the heights of his superstar teammates.

Meanwhile, other prominent adjudicators never even came close. Grand Slam chair-umpire Kerrilyn Cramer became a linesperson at the age of 16; AFL troublemaker Shane McInerney gave up footy at 13; while former A-League referee Mark Shield traded the round ball for the whistle at the ripe age of 12.

That’s not to discredit their achievements. After all, we can’t all be top-line sportsmen. You could have the desire, dedication, and desperation in the world, but if you’re lacking in the hand-eye coordination department you probably shouldn’t quit your day job.

It’s unfair, however, to suggest that umpiring is the inevitable backup plan for mediocre sportspeople. Victorian Premier Cricket umpire Alistair Thomas explained to Farrago that the two disciplines require different skill sets. “Some great players make terrible umpires, and some great umpires are terrible players,” he noted. “And some of the most experienced players I’ve umpired still don’t understand the Leg Before Wicket law.”

Unlike athletes, umpires are seldom rewarded for excellence in the field. Indeed, they are not most appreciated when mute and invisible. “When umpires are performing well, people don’t say anything,” Thomas said. “But when they make a blue, players show their displeasure.”

As such, officials don’t end their careers with quite the same fanfare as do sporting legends. When Sir Donald Bradman departed in his final innings for a duck, he was nevertheless treated to a standing ovation by the British crowd. Each arbiter, however, is only ever one poor decision away from infamy. Their competency is judged by their latest decision alone.

Jamaican cricket umpire Steve Bucknor is perhaps one exception. When he left the Test arena in 2009 after 20 years of service, he was treated to a lap of honour in front of the Barbados crowd. With that said, if you type ‘Steve Bucknor’ into YouTube you’ll be treated to a plethora of dodgy calls. And don’t be fooled by the video subtitled “The World’s Greatest Umpire”; it’s a compilation of scandalous decisions the West Indian made during his final Test on Australian soil.

One may argue that such notoriety is mere justice: after all, referees are the scum of the earth, the most repulsive creatures evolution has ever vomited.

But umps are also the most necessary actors on the sporting field. Without them, there would be utter anarchy.

I tend to think of them as the designated drivers of the sporting world. They’re not particularly fun to hang wit, and no one ever admits to being one, but the service they provide is invaluable. Without them, the drunkards of this world would probably spend their early mornings racing down freeways like rally-car drivers or revelling in unauthorised games of inebriated street downball.

And, as we all know, playing downball without a referee is just asking for chaos.


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