Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series……
Complete quote: “The ball turned from the off, very faintly touched the inside edge of the bat, then hit my pad, went over the stumps and was caught by [Les] Ames whilst all this was happening amidst a jumble of feet, pads and bat. I slightly over-balanced, and Ames whipped off the bails for a possible stumping. There was an instant appeal to the square-leg umpire who gave me not out, whereupon Ames appealed to [Frank] Chester at the bowler’s end, and very calmly, as though it was obvious to all, Chester simply said ‘Out, caught,’ and turned his back on the scene. It was one of those remarkable pieces of judgment upon which I base my opinion that Chester was the greatest of all umpires.”
By: Don Bradman, in A Farewell to Cricket
They remember the Trent Bridge Test of the 1938 Ashes for Stan McCabe’s 232. “Come and look at this. You will never see the like of this again,” Bradman told his teammates during the carnage. When McCabe returned, Bradman greeted him with “if I could play an innings like that, I would be a proud man, Stan.”
Yes, it was a special innings. As was that decision, from Frank Chester, to give Bradman caught-behind to give Reg Sinfield his first Test wicket. Standing at square-leg was Emmott Robinson. Robinson’s bowling was lionised by the spacious pen of Neville Cardus, but as an umpire, he was a mortal, no more.
Chester was more.
No, Chester was not tested by television replays or challenged by DRS, though there is little doubt that he would have adapted. He did not have the glamour of Dickie Bird; nor was he as adorable as David Shepherd; but eye-witnesses agree that they have not seen a greater umpire.
Chester was accurate, very accurate. Simon Taufel defined an accuracy rate of 96% as ideal – and lived up to it. There is no available technology to validate Chester’s accuracy, for television coverage was still in its nascent days during his career. All we have are accounts of his contemporaries.
Bradman maintained that Chester was the greatest he had seen. In Cricketers of My Time, EW Swanton wrote that he was “as nearly infallible as a man could be in his profession”. Joe Hardstaff Sr hailed him as “one of the outstanding Test umpires of all time.” And Jack Hobbs commented that “as an umpire, he was right on top.”
“His eyes are his most striking feature, quick, alive, ever ready to pounce on the unusual. In another sphere he might have made his mark in the C.I.D.,” wrote Viv Jenkins of Glamorgan (also a rugby international) in Wisden.
Chester was a controversial character and probably past his prime when the Australians toured in 1953. He stood in their tour match against Oxford, where he turned down an appeal for leg-before by a youngster called Richie Benaud against an undergraduate called Colin Cowdrey.
“[I] wasn’t certain how umpire Chester could possibly have given it not out,” wrote Benaud in My Spin on Cricket about his immediate reaction. However, wicketkeeper Gil Langley explained the “brilliant decision” later: “Just the faintest inside edge.”
Chester was also never one to believe in giving the batsman the benefit of doubt. “There never should be any doubt,” he explained. Such clarity of thoughts is not easy to come across. He was extremely prompt with decision-making, which also helped reduce doubts.
To improve his precision levels, Chester started stooping low behind the stumps as the bowler ran in. He was the first major umpire to do this. The practice was subsequently followed across the world.
Of course, he was not infallible, but as Jenkins summed up, “they [his mistakes] have been remarkably few, and have served to accentuate, not minimise, his virtues. If anything, he is the exception that proves the rule.”
It may be assumed that Taufel would have been satisfied.
Who was Chester?
Chester was a left-arm all-rounder who played three seasons before The Great War. His immense talent earned him a Worcestershire cap at 16. Some even considered him an England probable. “I played against him in his brief career and am sure he would have been a great England all-rounder,” Hobbs later recalled.
Chester joined the Royal Field Artillery and fought in the Battle of Loos. Then the troop moved to Salonika, Greece, where he was hit by shrapnel. The gangrenous right arm had to be amputated from the elbow. His playing days were over – but there was no way he was going to give up cricket.
Encouragement came from Plum Warner: “Take it [umpiring] up, Chester. One day, you will make a fine umpire.” At 24, he also had age on his side when cricket resumed after The War.
Three years later he picked up six small pebbles from his mother’s garden at Bushey and made his way to Leyton for his ‘other’ First-Class debut. The pebbles would remain his companion throughout his career as he would use them to announce “over” to Tate and Constantine and Larwood and Voce and Mankad and Bedser and Lindwall.
He announced himself in his that Leyton match. He ruled Essex captain Johnny Douglas LBW and Essex captain John Daniell stumped; both were close calls. His colleague Harry Butt, former Test cricketer and thirty years senior to Chester, was worried: “Boy, you won’t last long as an umpire … If you give skippers out, you sign your death warrant.”
Butt’s intentions were noble, for umpires’ fates were decided by reports to MCC from county captains. But Chester refused to budge.
At County Ground, Northampton that season they did not believe the fresh-faced one-armed person could officiate a Championship match: “You’ve made a mistake. This is a First-Class match.”
Two years later he walked out with “Sailor” Jones in a trilby hat, the wooden stump of his hand covered in a dark leather glove, for his Test debut at Lord’s. He was only 29. He was the youngest to officiate in a Test in the period between 1896 and 1965.
In all Chester stood in 48 Tests between 1924 and 1955 – a world record that stood till 1992. The 774 First-Class matches remain a world record by some distance.
But there was more to him. He set the bar too high at times, often showing supreme disdain towards overtly optimistic appeals. Legend goes that he once silenced “a very famous bowler” in a Lord’s Test with “not out, and that was a very bad appeal.”
And yet, the same man put youngsters to ease with a kind word or two, though being partial with decisions was out of the question. Just like Bird after him, visiting teams felt reassured when they found out Chester had been appointed.
“You never umpire for this team or that; you just umpire,” he used to say.
The dry humour was another characteristic of him. He never hesitated to crack jokes, even about that arm. “When the stump begins to ache, rain is almost invariably on the way,” he would let know. This often led to queries of “is the arm-aching today, Frank?” from cricketers.
There is an anecdote, from a Sussex vs Essex match at Hove in 1932. A hard-hit straight drive knocked his stump off the socket and carried it some distance towards the boundary. Poor Chester had to collect it and leave the ground to reattach it.
But age and poor health made him a sore man in more ways than one, after World War II. Stomach ulcers left him perennially irritable. He could not come to terms with excessive appealing, especially by the 1948 Australians, who he thought “went too far in their appealing, which often they accompanied by excited leaping and gesticulating … an exaggerated chorus of appeals can spoil the game, as well as bring upon the umpire the hostility of the crowd.”
“The feeling was fully reciprocated,” responded Ian Johnson, one of Bradman’s Invincibles. “He was far too theatrical and over-demonstrative – he had a habit of ignoring appeals completely, by just swinging his back to the bowler and gazing dramatically skywards.”
Chester had clearly failed to adapt, and that worsening temper certainly did not help.
His refusal to accept came to the forefront again during the Trent Bridge Test of 1950. Sonny Ramadhin bowled Doug Insole off his pads, but Chester was adamant that Insole was leg-before, not bowled, as he had given Insole out in the brief time period between the ball hitting the pad and the stumps.
This contradicted Law 34.2 (“The striker is out ‘Bowled’ under this Law when the ball is deflected on to his wicket off his person, even though a decision against him might be justified under Law 39 L.B.W.”), but scorecards show Insole as leg-before till today.
But Chester stayed put, for he was still among the best in business. But when he started turning down appeals – in a sarcastic voice – during the 1953 Ashes, Australian captain Lindsay Hassett raised the matter to MCC. He missed the final Test, at The Oval, and never stood in another Ashes Test.