The following story was prepared at the request of the England and Wales Cricket Board's Association of Cricket Officials and is to appear in the (northern) Autumn  edition of their newsletter in September 2012.  It outlines some of the approaches the Association uses in providing support to Cricket Tasmania's Premier League competition as explained by Tasmanian State Director of Umpiring Richard Widows.


Cricket Tasmanian (CT) engages members of the Tasmanian Cricket Umpires and Scorers Association (TCUSA) to support its Premier League (PL) competition around Hobart, an eight-club, turf-based series that uses two-day, one-day and T20 formats for games at levels from First grade through the Seconds, Thirds, Under-17s and Under-15s, as well as a growing women's series.  Richard's full-time job with CT involves overseeing, supporting and guiding the work of TCUSA members, as well as working with Cricket Australia (CA) as part of a coordinated nation-wide program.

Over the years club cricket in Tasmania has seen the emergence of well-known players such as Ricky Ponting, David Boon, Michael Di Venuto, Tim Paine, Ben Hilfenhaus, Xavier Doherty, and Australia's current Twenty20 captain George Bailey, and TCUSA members still see the latter five at close quarters when they are available for PL First grade fixtures; a level that is, as in other Australian states, a key part of CA's pathway to domestic and international first class, one-day and T20 sides.   

Just as Tasmanian players have reached the highest levels of the game so have a number of TCUSA members, for they have stood or scored in Tests and ODIs, domestic first-class, one-day and T20 matches, and other interstate and representative events. However, while opportunities to work in such games are there for members of the Association who display appropriate abilities, the TCUSA has always emphasised that the provision of quality umpires and scorers to club-level cricket is its fundamental aim. 

So, just what are the tenants that Richard considers underpin umpiring in Tasmania?  Firstly, it is made clear to TCUSA members that the standards of decision-making and match management they display at club level week-in, week-out, during a season are a fundamental contribution to the enjoyment the players derive from games and the standard of play that ensues.  As such, and while a considerable range of support is provided to them, Richard expects each member to "take personal responsibility for their performances, to be the best they can by working continually to assess and improve the standards they display no matter which PL level they are working at, and to do so using 'collaborative umpiring' techniques". 

Collaborative umpiring "is something we push very strongly", says Richard, who described the frequent eye contact, signalling and other communication methods TCUSA umpires use when on the ground in PL games.  "Perhaps once the view was that umpires should simply look after their own end, but our clear experience, which is endorsed by CA, is that the ball-by-ball relationship that our umpires use, assists with levels of concentration and not only improves the conduct and flow of a game, but also the enjoyment and experience of the pair involved", he says.

However, for Richard's match officials to perform at their best in a game, they must also engage in a lot of hard work off the field of play. In that regard the TCUSA is, he says, "somewhat unusual" in that its members commit to meeting frequently, an approach that "not only helps us hone our skills but also creates an environment where individuals can move forward together in their development".  Pre-season courses on the Laws are conducted for new, and equally importantly, experienced umpires, the focus of these being on interpretation and application and the need for consistency in the approaches that are used.  To stand in PL matches an umpire must start by obtaining a satisfactory mark at the exam that follows the five-week Laws course, and after that all selections are based on the quality of an individual's match-related performances week-by-week. 

A month before each season starts CT conducts a weekend seminar that looks into a wide range of issues and provides the opportunity for attendees from around Tasmania to further share their thoughts and experiences.  Presenters over the years have included Australian international umpires Simon Taufel, Steve Davis and Daryl Harper, as well as umpire educators, sports psychologists, health and fitness trainers, dieticians, high profile players, groundsmen and administrators. After that, separate training sessions are conducted for new umpires, with intra-club pre-season matches and club training sessions used to allow senior umpires to introduce new recruits to basic umpiring techniques and the "all important on-field routines". 

During the season itself observers closely track the performance of each umpire, and after a game captains and coaches are required to log their assessments via CA's web-based reporting system; fundamental to the latter being the on-going communication Richard has with clubs "to emphasise how valuable thoughtful, constructive, feedback is for umpire training and development".  In addition, video of umpires at all levels is captured and provided to individuals along with observer comments, an approach that allows them to "see and consider" their own performance.  Also, CA-developed accreditation programs, similar in scope to the ACO's Level 2 course, are run by TCUSA training staff who are themselves accredited presenters.

As mentioned previously, an important part of the matrix of training and development are the meetings that are held after each round of matches.  Such gatherings are used by Richard to provide feedback to the umpiring group as a whole about issues that may have arisen during the most recent games, any relevant umpiring issues reported in the world-wide media and, for the umpires in turn to share their own experiences with the group as a whole.  "We all get so much out of those meetings", says Richard, "primarily because people are encouraged to be open and honest about how they dealt with the various situations they have experienced in their latest match, and by doing so they provide a learning experience for everybody". 

On the scoring side, TCUSA members have, with CT's support, pioneered the use of computers in Australia, all matches in PL First and Second grades, CA domestic first class and single-day fixtures, plus Tests and other internationals played in Tasmania over the last five years, being recorded electronically.   Courses on computer scoring are run prior to each season, a move that has attracted a lot of previously disinterested people to scorer ranks.  

While as mentioned club cricket is the key TCUSA focus, for a handful of individuals who display higher-level attributes and can commit to the extra workload, there is the opportunity to move into CA's well-developed umpiring pathway; the first step of which involves an invitation from CT to join the Tasmanian State Umpires Panel (SUP).  That group, which can comprise 2-6 people are also given additional coaching that focuses on life style issues and the value of self-assessment as an essential learning resource.  They remain part of the larger TCUSA membership but have the additional responsibility to assist Richard in a leadership role in meetings and seminars.  SUP members are also given the opportunity to work in national competitions, beginning with Australia-wide youth championships and, if they are considered good enough by a CA assessment panel, all the way up to first class cricket. 

Important to, and valued by, the Association are the visits of umpires from other parts of Australia and the world.  These have seen the likes of Zimbabwean first class umpire Jerry Matibiri and well-known Lancashire League umpire Nick Westwell stand in a number of PL First grade games, experiences they consider important to their careers.  On the other hand TCUSA members have, whilst on holiday overseas and with the generous support of various local umpiring groups there, stood in matches in England, Fiji, Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, visits that have allowed them to widen their experience and make friends world-wide. 

Asked about recruitment matters, Richard acknowledges that, like most similar organisations, attracting new umpire and scorer members is an on-going issue.  "Our approach is to provide TCUSA members with a challenge that is backed-up with a solid package of training and on-going support", he says, "together with an enjoyable social atmosphere that includes an end-of-season dinner at which the achievements of members is marked and celebrated".  Richard believes though that the Association should not carry total responsibility in this area, and says that it is in the interests of clubs and the game's administrators at all levels of the game that they become proactive in tackling the issues involved.

So, just what results have the foregoing targets and activities had in recent times?  Firstly, PL clubs have been quick to acknowledge the improvement in the standard of umpiring and scoring provided for their matches.  Secondly, it has paid off nationally, with Tasmania now having an umpire, Sam Nogajski, on CA's 12-man National Umpires Panel for the first time in several years, and a second, Mike Graham-Smith, on the national body's four man 'emerging' group.   

Asked who best epitomises the attributes he encourages TCUSA members to strive for, Richard suggests that Simon Taufel sets "the benchmark" for modern-day match officials.  That is because of his "dedication, professionalism, application and on-going commitment to quality preparation", says Richard", and "it would be hard to argue that there is a better umpire in the game today".