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Koch takes next step on path to international umpire
From an off-the-cuff remark over a pint in an English pub to the cusp of the international stage, Donovan Koch has transformed from journeyman allrounder to renowned umpire
24 June 2021, 03:23 PM AEST
The journey that's taken Donovan Koch to Australia's four-man international umpiring panel for the coming summer began with a chance remark from a former club teammate in South Africa, and was delivered over a pint at one of South Yorkshire's more reputable watering holes.
The timing was prudent given Koch, who had spent the previous decade shuttling between hemispheres in his job as a professional seam-bowling allrounder, had lost his appetite for playing and was unsure what the future might hold.
And the source of the advice was similarly judicious, coming as it did from Richard Kettleborough who had called time on his playing days in the Yorkshire leagues (with a stint in South Africa) and recently taken up on-field officialdom en route to the ICC's Elite Umpires panel.
Kettleborough, who had played alongside Koch at Somerset West Cricket Club on South Africa's Western Cape as part of the same Yorkshire academy swap-program that first took Koch to the UK, listened to his friend's disillusionment with life as a journeyman cricketer and offered a solution.
"We were talking cricket and he asked how I was going and I said 'I'm not enjoying it any more, I almost feel guilty getting paid to play because I'm not having fun'," Koch recalls of the meeting a decade ago when he was an overseas professional for Whitley Hall Cricket Club near Sheffield.
"He planted the seed when he said 'have you thought about umpiring?', although at the time I just laughed at him and said 'don't be stupid'."
Part of that initial reluctance stemmed from admitting to himself his playing days were done.
In another era of South African cricket, the now 44-year-old might have pushed for international honours but when he arrived on the scene at Western Province in the mid-1990s he was competing for selection against the likes of Proteas allrounders Jacques Kallis, Eric Simons and Craig Matthews.
"You always dream of playing for South Africa, but I just looked in front of me and the line was enormous so I would have needed two or three really, really good seasons to even get looked at," Koch told cricket.com.au about his realistic playing expectations.
When WP's then-coach Duncan Fletcher quietly advised Koch better prospects might lay elsewhere, he signed with Boland and played 21 first-class games, the highlight being last-minute selection for a Combined XI against England's 1999-00 touring team at Newlands, where ex-skipper Michael Atherton was among his wickets.
But in addition to spending his winters playing in the South Yorkshire League, Koch had met and married Samantha who hailed from Sheffield and in 2003 he relocated to the UK where the Whitley Hall Club also found him employment.
Having ruminated on Kettleborough's advice, Koch initially made a tentative foray into umpiring in neighbouring Yorkshire leagues so as not to officiate over players he was still actively involved in competing with or against until, in 2011, he quit playing to take up the role in earnest.
In the course of two seasons he rose through league ranks to officiate in Minor Counties matches and England second XI fixtures, until in 2012 he and his then wife opted to relocate to Brisbane to allow their two children an "outdoor" upbringing free from Yorkshire's bitter winters.
Koch sounded out another former Somerset West clubmate Marais Erasmus – a member of the ICC umpire panel – about how he might continue his cricket involvement after moving and was put in touch with Queensland's representative on the elite panel, Bruce Oxenford (who returns to CA's national list next summer after retiring from international duties).
However, after meeting with local officials and being assigned his first umpiring duty in Brisbane's northern suburbs, Koch admits he wasn't quite prepared for the experience that awaited.
"It was a sixth grade game, between two teams I'd never met before on a suburban park," he recalls with a laugh.
"I'd gone from Minor Counties to umpiring sixth grade on Marchant Park and turned up with my uniform as you do in the UK to find there was no changerooms, there was nothing.
"The other umpire picked the stumps out of the boot of his car … it was just nothing I was used to.
"It was a real culture shock."
Koch patiently made his way through the ranks and won the Mel Johnson Medal for Queensland's most promising umpire, then progressed to Futures League and WNCL (2014-15), Rebel WBBL and Cricket Australia Supplementary Panel (2016-17) as well as umpiring in the Governor-General women's match against South Africa.
The following summer he made his List-A debut followed by his maiden first-class appearance in the 2017-18 Sheffield Shield match between Victoria and Tasmania at the MCG, with a KFC BBL game at a packed and partisan WACA Ground also among his umpiring career highlights to date.
But the moment for which he's best known came at the WACA last March, when in a Marsh One Day Cup game he looked to have adjudged WA's Sam Whiteman caught behind thereby giving South Australia's Peter Hatzoglou his maiden wicket, only to change his mind and immediately reverse his own decision.
"It's the first time it's happened to me and I wouldn't make a habit of it, let's put it that way," Koch said.
"It was just a case of getting three-quarters of the way through making my decision because there was a noise, then all of a sudden realising the noise hadn't married up with the bat.
"So I just went 'no, that's not right' and for whatever reason I just thought to myself 'no, the game expects me to get the correct decision and I know this will look awful but I'm gonna change my decision'.
"Travis (Head, SA's captain) just said 'but you were going to give it out?' and I said 'well yes, I was but it just didn't feel right' and to the credit of the South Australian players they just got on with the game and it wasn't spoken of again."
Koch admits he was stunned to receive the call to tell him he'd been added to CA's International Panel for 2021-22 as a replacement for Gerard Abood, alongside Shawn Craig, Sam Nogajski and Paul Wilson.
He equated the news to the excitement and emotion he felt upon being told he was in the starting XI for his first-class debut decades earlier.
And while it's not yet known if COVID-19 protocols will again dictate internationals played in Australia next summer will feature local umpires, he holds a pragmatic view of any role he's likely to play even if neutral umpires aren't able to take charge of series such as the men's and women's Ashes.
"I guess there's a possibility of a T20 or maybe even a one-day international, but I'm mainly looking at a fourth umpiring role just to learn how the boys operate," he said.
"It definitely won't be an on-field or third umpire role in a Test match, that's way too early.
"I've got too much work to do in the next few months just to get my head around DRS which is a big part of the game now, so I've got hours and hours of practicing to do before I even get a look in for that."
What seems far more certain, however, is that he and others named on CA's umpire lists released today – including South Australian Eloise Sheridan who joins Clare Polosak as the second woman on an expanded seven-member supplementary panel – is that another summer of bio-secure bubbles looms.
Koch concedes he struggled with the isolation and last-minute schedule changes towards the end of last summer which meant he was unable to return home or see his children in Brisbane for more than two months either side of Christmas.
At the height of the season, he umpired a BBL game in Canberra on a Thursday night in late December before flying to Brisbane for another game the following evening which seemed destined for a tie until Brisbane Heat's Mark Steketee was run out from the final ball.
"Thank God it didn't go to a super over because I couldn't have done another over," Koch laughed.
After a day off, he officiated in the New Year's Day game on the Gold Coast then flew straight to Perth where he was forced to undertake strict quarantine due to a Covid outbreak in Brisbane shortly before his departure.
"I was only allowed to go from airport to hotel and then go to games in Perth, the rest of the time I wasn't allowed out of my room," he said.
"I had my own car and my own changeroom … I wasn't even allowed to get dressed with the other guys.
"I wasn't at home at all after leaving on December 6 until I got back to Brisbane on February 9, so I did not set foot in my house at all during that time.
"It's hard missing your kids' birthdays and concerts and soccer games, and as much as I enjoy travelling and the game itself you have to feel for your family because you're not always there.
"But it's part of life now, and it's our job.
"We're all paid professionals, so if you want the game to go ahead and to put on a show for the public, we just have to do it."
2021-22 CA Umpire Panels
National Panel (expanded from 10 to 11 umpires): Gerard Abood, Darren Close, Shawn Craig, Greg Davidson, Phil Gillespie, Mike Graham-Smith, Donovan Koch, Sam Nogajski, Bruce Oxenford, Tony Wilds, Paul Wilson
Supplementary Umpire Panel (expanded from 6 to 7 umpires): Nathan Johnstone, Simon Lightbody, Troy Penman, Claire Polosak, Eloise Sheridan, David Taylor, Ben Treloar
International Panel Umpires (nominated to ICC as umpires for Men's International matches): Shawn Craig, Donovan Koch, Sam Nogajski, Paul Wilson