Close encounters: Tales from the middle with Aussie icons
Umpire Darren Close stood in his debut first-class game as an 18-year-old in the 1980s, and after a 27-year absence has returned to the sport to join CA's National Umpire Panel
23 August 2020, 10:57 AM AEST
Darren Close was just 18 years old when he stood in his first Sheffield Shield game, the youngest umpire to ever stand in first-class cricket, and a record that is unlikely to ever be broken.
And even though the teenager from Ulverston on Tasmania's northern coast had started officiating in senior matches six years before that, he was understandably nervous as he stood behind the stumps at Devonport's Formby Recreation Ground in October 1986 and looked at the players around him.
David Boon, the Tasmania captain was on strike; Victorian quick Simon Davis, an Australian ODI regular, had the new ball. Looking around, Close recognised other faces he'd only previously seen on television: Dean Jones, Merv Hughes, Simon O'Donnell and state captain Ray Bright were all nearby.
"The first decision I gave out was Keith Bradshaw (now the South Australian Cricket Association CEO), it was a short ball from Simon O'Donnell and it got a bit of a kick through to the 'keeper, he swung at it and I gave it out," Close recalled.
And while getting a first correct decision under the belt helped and the nerves eased as the overs wore on, it was Hughes who helped the teen feel at home.
"The guys were really supportive, and I think there was a bit of an understanding that they were giving me a go to see how I'd get on," Close said.
"A bit later on in the first day big Merv came on from end, and that was a big moment for me.
"He did his typical snarling and growing and having a bit to say to the batters and all that sort of stuff.
"And it's an old cliché joke, but he did it to me: when he walked back past he went 'How many?' meaning how many balls to go. I said 'Three'. And he's done the old, 'Is that three to go or three to come?'.
"And he got me, I did a double-take, I thought 'oh no, what does he mean?'.
"Then he just smiled at me, that big Merv grin, gave me a wink, and back he went. That helped break the tension a bit because obviously he was a larger than life character."
If meeting Hughes was a thrill, it paled in comparison to an experience the following summer when Close's childhood hero and Australian legend Dennis Lillee came out of retirement for a season in the Apple Isle.
"Myself and Paul Howard were umpiring the match between Tasmania and South Australia and the rumour mill was going that Dennis Lillee was going to play for Tassie, and it was only really confirmed the night before the match that he was in," Close recalled.
"The game started and Tassie batted first and, as usually happened in those days, Tasmania were all out by about 5pm on the first day.
"At the beginning of the day there wasn't many people there at all but by the time it got to the end of the Tassie innings, because we knew Lillee was going to bowl, the ground was full.
"It was really unusual for the Devonport Oval and there was a lot of noise, a lot of atmosphere."
It initially appeared Close was going to be watching Lillee from square leg but the then Australian record-holder of 355 Test wickets made a late call to switch to Close's end.
"Lillee came to the wickets, he took about three or four paces back, scratched a mark on the ground and said to me, 'You stand there'.
"I said, 'Yep, ok, no worries Mr Lillee, I'll do that'. Took his jumper and cap and all that.
"He's back at his mark and the crowd started the chant like it was a Test match.
"Lillee … Lillee … Lillee … Lillee …
"It was Andrew Hilditch facing, and he had this whole routine when he used to face up; he'd scratch his guard, put his helmet down, walk to square leg, come back, scratch again. It felt like it took him an eternity to be ready.
"All the time this chant was going. So in comes Lillee. Short ball. It rears up, and there's this huge 'click' on the inside edge.
"The ball flew through to Richard Soule, who was 'keeping. He caught it, launched it up into the air … and the crowd went quiet.
"I'm grabbing onto the side of my trousers and thinking, 'Oh shit, he's hit that!'
"So they're appealing, Lillee is giving it the old down-on-the-haunches-with-the-fingers-up and he's obviously quite pumped up as well, being his first game for Tassie and the crowd was loud.
"So I've slowly raised my finger to give him out and the crowd went wild.
"His first ball for Tassie. That's the highlight of my career, that whole scenario, umpiring one of my heroes."
It's a gripping tale and sadly one from long before live streaming Shield cricket was a regular occurrence, so no footage of the event exists.
If there was, it might settle a dispute from the final ball of that first over that quickly brought Close back to earth.
"Wayne Phillips was batting, a left-hander, so Lillee came around the wicket, and was dragging it in. Wayne has just left it, let it hit his pads, and we've got a huge appeal for lbw.
"I didn't think it was going to hit off-stump so I've given it not out.
"Lillee is down on his haunches, can't believe it, yelled out 'you're kidding', he's slapped the pitch, snatched his jumper, and off he's stormed off to square leg.
"So I went from ecstasy on the first ball to agony on the last one with him.
"But it was ok, we ended up having a chat out at square leg later on, he got over it.
"And I still think it was not out."
There were other highlights: meeting the likes of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes when touring Pakistan and West Indies sides played Tasmania in first-class matches, and umpiring the 1988 Under 19 World Cup in Australia where Brian Lara showed glimpses of the talent he would become.
In 1992, Close decided he needed a break from cricket, having caught the travel bug as a 24-year-old and left for England.
In a tale familiar to many an Aussie backpacker, what was only meant to be a year's vacation turned into an extended stay abroad. By the time he returned in 2014 he came with an impressive resume as a teacher, a wife and family, and a desire to get back into umpiring.
"I think I was home for about two weeks before I got a call to see if I was interested in taking up umpiring again," Close says.
He started making the 3.5hr drive from his home on the north coast to Hobart to stand in Tasmanian Premier League matches.
His natural aptitude for umpiring – a calm and level-headed demeanour and sharp decision-making – saw him quickly rise through the ranks, becoming a regular in WBBL matches before last November returning to first-class cricket after an absence of 27 years and nine months.
This summer Close has been elevated to Cricket Australia's National Umpire Panel for the first time, recognised as one of the 10 best umpires in the domestic game.
"I'm champing at the bit to get going really, as all of us are," he says, acknowledging it's shaping as a season unlike any other the game has seen before.
"We love cricket, that's why we umpire.
"We're doing a lot of preparation work in the background, we all do Law schools and discuss scenarios and talk about interpretations, that sort of stuff is all going on."
The umpiring system Close returned to is far more structured and professional, reflecting the increased professionalism of the game since the 1980s, and with a greater support network for officials.
"It's a lot more professional now, and with that a lot more is expected of you, which is fair enough," Close says.
But the biggest change in that 27-year absence was undoubtedly the rise of women's cricket and the advent of the T20 format.
T20 cricket meant a subtle change; Close always kept his hands clasped behind his back, but now keeps them in front "because you can get your hands up just a little bit quicker to protect yourself".
Close and fellow umpires, like players and fans, are still waiting to see how Australia's domestic summer will pan out amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Apart from the 10 umpires on CA's National Panel, there are another six on what is known as the Supplementary Panel that face joining players in hubs or biosecure bubbles if domestic cricket heads down that path.
"We're prepared if something like that does happen, it's just the way the world is at the moment," Close said.
"And there's an understanding that we'll have to do what's needed."