umpires are testers too

During my time on this planet I’ve engaged in both team and individual sports. On the team side there was, predominantly, cricket and basketball and on the solo side, squash. In competition squash (not at elite levels) you play in a group of four, so there is some aspect of team, but during the actual games, you’re on court with just your opponent. 

Six years ago Father Time reminded me that things might not work as well when you’re older. This happened in the form of a torn Achilles tendon during a cricket match. I had planned to get back to cricket the next season but decided not to (after months of hitting the gym!!). To stay connected with the game I took up cricket umpiring and it is this that I’m going to write about. When I umpire, I test, I help manage people and I keep my stakeholders (the players and my umpiring partner) up to date with information that is relevant to the game’s progress and conduct.

My requirements, as a cricket umpire, come from two places. The first being Laws of Cricket 2017 Code which contain 42 laws and a preamble on “The Spirit of Cricket”. There is a lot going on in those 42 laws and there is plenty of technical complexity. However every competition has its own set of by-laws, rules that are specific to the competition. These rules might overwrite specific rules in the Laws of Cricket or they might be in addition to those Laws. Where the specific competition by-laws are silent then the Laws of Cricket must be applied.

Requirements (or in this instance Laws) cover the things we can think of that we believe are important. In any given set of requirements much is left unsaid and so we have holes that are filled by interpretation (and don’t assume all interpretations are equal) until such time as it is recognised there is a problem and more requirements should be added or existing ones modified. Here’s one of the glorious things about humans, especially sportspeople, those changes, intended to add certainty, will open up further avenues of grey and uncertainty for some.

Let’s also consider some aspects of the context of a game of cricket. The state of the wicket to be used for the game changes from game to game. Some can be bouncy, some can have the ball stay quite low, others might feature quite a bit of variable bounce. Some bowlers, for a variety of reasons, get the ball to bounce noticeably, others not so much bounce but more skid. There’s a whole spectrum of how the ball will behave based on the bowler, their bowling action, the pitch conditions and the like. The grounds on which the games are played are all different. The players are all different. Different abilities, different personalities, different levels of maturity and attitude. Many are on the field for the fun of the competition, while a few appear to be playing for some enormous cash jackpot not apparent to anybody else such is their intensity. The team Captains, their demeanour and willingness to discuss and collaborate, to work with the umpires to run a smooth and orderly game, is not a given for all. This is all important to me as an umpire as it helps me with decision making and communication. It sometimes allows me to signal to Captains, before the game has started, that certain behaviours are either desired or not acceptable and their role in achieving these outcomes.

So I have Laws and now I just need to apply them, because the umpire has the final say on matters. Great theory but this just doesn’t work “straight out of the box”. Like testing, knowing the theory simply is not enough, and while the theory might hold from game to game, the context within any given game can change often and swiftly. I’ve had games where a team’s behaviour has switched from nice to nasty within moments. I umpired a game where one player grabbed an opposition player by the throat and threatened others with his bat (he found himself with 2 years of “spare time” courtesy of the Tribunal hearing). The good thing is that these occurrences, as horrible as they are, become learning experiences. I thought I was a reasonably good communicator but these instances made me realise that communication has to be specific and timely and I can’t assume that the Captains are seeing things the same way I am. Captains are expected to control their teams during a game. I’ve learned that early communication of behaviour I find unacceptable helps enormously in setting a “tone”. 

As an umpire I “fail” often, well at least you’d think so if you pay attention to the player feedback on some of my decisions. In the competition I am umpiring I’ll encounter some players bowling a stitched leather 156g cricket ball at around 130 km/h at a batsman that is just a tad over 20 metres away. A lot of bowlers will be slower but the time between the ball being released and getting to the batsman is going to be in the range of 0.50 to 0.75 second. From the time the bowler commences his run up to bowl to the time the cricket ball is considered dead (ie, in the umpire’s opinion play has stopped for that delivery) I am running tests and making decisions based on observations. Did the bowler bowl a fair delivery, did the batsman hit the ball, was it caught by a fieldsman, did the batsman do anything illegal, was the batsman hit on the pads (protective gear worn by a batsman on his legs) without the ball being touched by the bat (and this is just a small selection of tests)? This last instance is what is known as the Leg Before Wicket (LBW) rule and it is laid out in all its glory as Law 36. The TL;DR here is if a batsman, in the opinion of the umpire, would have been given out bowled, but, the batsman’s pads stopped the ball hitting the wicket, then the batsman is given out LBW by the umpire. There’s a bunch of caveats that apply to this dismissal, and they all need to “line up” for an LBW decision, but even without those, this is challenging. If a batsman is bowled everybody can see the wicket has been broken, if a batsman is out caught we can witness the catch. With LBW the umpire must run a series of tests and checks that, in the end, allows the umpire to form an opinion that something that didn’t happen (ball hitting the wickets) would have happened (ball hitting the wickets). See the potential for discussion and disagreement here with this mode of dismissal?

So how is this relevant to my day job as a tester? We can start with context. Understanding that context is not consistent and that people are a very important part of that context is key. I can adjust to all sorts of changes in physical playing conditions (the wicket, the field, the weather, etc) but if I ignore the people (the players, my umpire partner) I’m going to umpire badly and more than likely cause significant issues that adversely impact outcomes. Similarly if I ignore the physical changes and umpire each game as if it was played in the same conditions each weekend, I’ll umpire badly and adversely impact the game.

I make mistakes when umpiring (so do the players when competing – different story). I also make good decisions. In a day of cricket I will make a lot of decisions, many of these will go unnoticed by the players. The decisions I make that get the most attention, for reasonably obvious reasons, are those that require me to decide a batsman is “out” or “not out”. I’ve given batsmen out and then realised I’ve made a bad call. I’ve also given batsmen “not out” and then realised I had probably got it wrong. The key here, we are told by our umpiring advisors and coaches, is to not dwell on the error. You’ve made a decision, it’s in the past, focus on the next ball to be bowled. Of course I want to learn from the errors, and spend time reflecting, but have learnt that is for later, not during the game. The same applies at work. Accept the error, reflect when appropriate, learn, move on. Letting one mistake be the cause of a series of errors doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Communication is so important. I often get asked why I made or didn’t make a decision. When I get asked I explain clearly and calmly based on what I observed. If I see something in the game that I think needs to be communicated I’ll talk to my umpiring partner. Together  we’ll agree on a strategy and then we’ll communicate that as a team and we’ll communicate as early as possible citing specific examples and what outcome we would like. We will also take on board any feedback from the Captain so we can reach a common goal (Captains might not always agree but that’s not the point of the chat). I use the same approach at work although it changes a little as at work I’m not an umpire.  At work I’m a tester and in this capacity I am not a  gatekeeper.   This is a really important distinction, I don’t provide final, binding decisions, I influence with evidence based observations. The same principles around communication apply though. Communicate at the earliest useful moment, be specific, cite evidence and, when appropriate, seek a better way forward.

As a cricket umpire “team work” has layers of meaning. Taking the field with another umpire requires a consistent stream of communication. Some of it verbal and some of it hand signals but all of it designed to keep a close bond between us and enhance decision consistency within a game. I will discuss various rule interpretations, local conditions and anything we know of importance about the competing teams before a game. This is an effort to reduce variation in our approaches and decisions. During a game we will reinforce good decisions made during the game (a real spirit lifter) and things we might need to on watch for (perhaps someone getting close to infringing a rule). Umpires also need to work with the team Captains while staying impartial. Impartiality is really important and umpires need to constantly keep in mind that they are there to help a contest progress and not influence the outcome. I tend to not talk to players much on the field unless they commence the discussion but I also need to remember that I’m out there to have fun and enjoy the experience. When at work I talk more, a lot more but teamwork remains an important aspect for me. If I hear a discussion that I can join in with, add some value through my perspective I’ll join in. If I can help somebody who is struggling or stuck, I’ll happily do that at work but on the field that would remove my impartiality (or could be perceived as) and is something I will not do. As on the cricket field so too at work. I’m there to enjoy the experience and have fun while improving how I go about my job.

In closing, this blog has been on my mind for about 4 years and has gone through a number of attempts. Finally it is written and hopefully in a way that demonstrates testing crosses over into other aspects of life even when we don’t consciously think of testing. My sports background has influenced many things I do, testing has influenced how I look at the things I do and interact with those things.

A big thank you to Lee Hawkins for his review and feedback

3 Comments on “umpires are testers too

  1. Pingback: Testing Bits: 373 – December 27th, 2020 – January 2nd, 2021 | Testing Curator Blog

  2. Pingback: Five Blogs – 6 January 2021 – 5blogs

  3. This is so interesting! I know so little about cricket, the only umpiring I’ve seen is in episodes of Midsomer Murders! Lots of great parallels here with testing. Communication is everything in both cases! And the distinction that the umpire makes final “gatekeeping” decisions whereas we should avoid that as testers is so important.

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