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Umpires: So essential; so necessary

It is a safe bet to say that our sport needs volunteers. Often these are people that give of their time willingly and are prepared to apply themselves to many tasks that keeps our sport afloat. As a volunteer, there is no payment whatsoever. No honorariums or salaries just expenses incurred as they arise. This takes out a whole swath of people within any sport, not just ours. Once payment comes into it the dynamics change but often so do the responsibilities and accountability of that individual (writes David Corkill).

With that comment out of the way, let’s have a look at one specific area of the world of volunteering. Official umpires. A specialised group who put themselves forward to make some of the hardest decisions in the sport. That doesn’t always mean at the top level, a poor umpire’s decision can mean as much to a bowler winning or losing a club title as it can a major championship.
Putting yourself through umpire examinations is a useful venture. It gives you the ability to understand the rules and requirements needed for that role. I received my first umpire’s badge as a teenager and when the rules changed to a more complex set of examinations, I completed those in my early 20s.
Why? Quite simply, I was just interested, and it helped when undertaking various stages of national coaching exams, which in many ways also helped me understand both roles. Whilst I officiated at national level, I haven’t done so for years, however I have, for the most part, kept up with current rules and regulations.
Today the pressure on the top-level umpires is underestimated in my opinion. Okay, I accept most of the time it probably isn’t very arduous but there are occasions when their role is vital as is the outcome to bowlers.
In particular when applying their trade under the demands of television. This brings a special dimension to the small group of individuals that inflict themselves to that level of scrutiny. It’s not to be undertaken lightly. Some come through the testing extremely well and then go onto many championships around the world, but others sadly just don’t make the grade at International Technical Officer (ITO) level.
That is normal in life, not everyone can reach those levels. It can be a ‘greasy pole’, one mistake may not be terminal, but it does make you slide a bit and bring future performances under a magnifying glass. Some survive, some don’t but either way it shows that it is not always an easy unpaid job.
At national level within your own country most of the umpires will be qualified and take an active interest in bettering the sport by being at the very least competent. Some are exceptional and they don’t have to be ITO qualified to be that. I have met many that I believe would be excellent in any championship but they either don’t have the inclination to go any further or just don’t have the time. But they still have a vital role to play, not least at national finals.
That takes me onto an area that
I feel, and have discussed before,
needs to be explored further at British Isles level.
This year, Ireland had a change of rules across a number of events which included team and individual championships. Team cup matches played mid-week were reduced to 18 ends and pairs and fours to 18 ends also. Sensible decision and generally well received. League matches continued to be 21 ends as per normal. Singles continued to be 21 shots as it should.
Personally, I would have gone a step further and reduced the number of bowls in the pairs to three and triples to two. In the case of the pairs, the length of matches could easily have stayed at 21 with that amendment. Though it has to be commended as a strong step in the right direction.
More importantly, at the finals
stage there were more new rules. In the fours, the only player allowed to come and look at the ‘head’ after
their first bowl was the skip. Variations of the same rule applied to the pairs and triples.
This is a very direct message to everyone to keep the match moving forward and to try to avoid the slow play behaviour that has plagued our sport for too long. Did it work?
Yes, up to a point and umpires have a vital role to play in this. They applied the rules as required. But as usual with any new rule bowlers take a while to get used to it, we needed to remember as a third in fours to stay at the mat end after our first bowl, not easy when concentrating during a close match.
I was involved in the national finals this year and as a third I needed to be reminded to stay back. In particular when the ‘head’ has been changed by my opponent.
Fortunately, my opposite number and I agreed to help each other out to avoid the wrath of officialdom. So, for the most part it was self-regulated.
There was though, a few issues that I believe need to be reviewed and I expect will be as this was the first year of introduction.
The first being the need for a certain amount of relaxation on the last end in particular. In a tight match with maybe only a shot or so in it, there could be a degree of flexibility as long as it didn’t turn out to a five-minute summit meeting.
The second issue is when the third is waiting to play their last bowl and being instructed by the skip as to what they want. Then the opposing skip found a loop hole in the new rule and walked up to the mat and spoke to his third after his first bowl. In doing so he didn’t break any rules and we all looked at each other and thought, good idea. It just didn’t register that could be done.
It only happened once I think towards the end of the match, but it showed that a bit of lateral thinking could actually negate the whole purpose of the new rule. More importantly, it highlighted that a lot of new rules have their weaknesses, at least until next year when it will be reviewed and adjusted.
The role of the umpire and the expectations of that role is a continuous one and if anything, the need to be ‘on the ball’ is never easy.
So well done to Willie, you saw something none of us had even thought about and no doubt will ‘tax’ the grey cells of officials to remedy. I expect not too much though.
Lastly, what sanction are there for complete or regular infringement of this new rule? Not an easy one to address and even more so to implement by a volunteer umpire.
This is not football where abuse of referees is common place. It is much more akin to golf, snooker and rugby. Just look at Nigel Owens when he faced down massive rugby players as a referee – if you haven’t seen him in action, just go to YouTube, he was the very best.
In our sport, respect is usually a given and it works both ways to umpires/markers and players alike. Sometimes that is not easy. I have been on the receiving end of some decisions that cost me dearly, but you learn very quickly not to let it affect your game but also most umpires are volunteers and fallible as we all are.
At long last we as a sport are addressing some issues in the game that will hopefully enhance our enjoyment. The next stage is the reduction of bowls in pairs to three and triples to two. For this to happen, it may well need to be done at British Isles level.
I know a lot of bowlers think the same so it’s up to our representatives to at the very least try it for a year or two and see what the feelings ore about it.
Hopefully soon though. We are losing bowlers at a rapid rate, and we need to stall that by making it a more attractive sport to play.

Please note: Views expressed by David Corkill do not necessarily represent those of the team at Bowls International.

Photo credit: Bowls England/My Sports Photography

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