Cricket: World's No.1 umpire Richard Kettleborough discusses his life, career and England skipper Joe Root
Abbeydale Sports Club, on the outskirts of Sheffield in leafy Dore and a stone's throw from the Peak District, is a fairly unassuming place. Racketball, badminton and squash vie for the courts in the sports hall; the hockey pitch is a distinctive and striking shade of blue, nicknamed the Smurf Turf after finding a new home in the Steel City after the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Then there’s the cricket club.
Sheffield Collegiate proudly hails itself as ‘one of the finest clubs in the world’, as well as the first in the world to have a website, with the caveat ‘unless someone had one before 2003’.
Either fact may be true. Both could equally be false, but what cannot be disputed is their production line; of the last seven England Test captains, two - Joe Root and Michael Vaughan - came through the ranks at Collegiate.
Only four English batsmen since 1980 have reached No.1 in the world; including Collegiate’s Joe Root and Michael Vaughan. Both won the Ashes, too; Vaughan as skipper in 2005. Root gets his first opportunity this winter, in Australia.
Completing the triumvirate is Richard Kettleborough, widely regarded as the world’s No.1 umpire and a three-time winner of the International Cricket Council’s Umpire of the Year award.
Kettleborough’s route to the professional game contrasted that of Vaughan and Root - he joined Collegiate at 15 years old, and went straight into the first team - as has his career since.
He spent his professional playing career with Yorkshire and Middlesex, and was on the verge of joining Derbyshire in 1999 when he was pointed in the direction of umpiring by the late, great John Hampshire.
Aged just 26, he made the switch; within ten years, he was umpiring a Twenty20 international. August 30, 2009. Old Trafford, Manchester. England v Australia.
“To have three people reach No.1 in the world is a great achievement for anyone, to be fair, never mind a club like Collegiate,” Kettleborough told this newspaper.
“It’s something the whole club should be proud of. I know we all are as individuals. We’ll look back in our careers in, say, 20 years time, take a deep breath and think, wow. Look at what we’ve achieved.
“Sheffield is obviously a big footballing city, but cricket is huge too and to have two England captains is remarkable. Michael did a wonderful job and I’m sure Joe will, too. It’s richly deserved; he was the ideal candidate, and one of the top four players in the world, without a shadow of a doubt.
“He’ll make a great captain, and I guess it’s very unique to have three people from the same club achieve what they have in international cricket.”
We meet at Lees Hall Golf Club, where Kettleborough is speaking at a meeting of the Sheffield Cricket Lovers’ Society. He’d just returned from standing in two Tests against Australia in India and was then due in the West Indies for their series against Pakistan. The five weeks he enjoyed at home in Sheffield was his longest break, he reckons, in seven or eight years.
“When you talk to anyone about the lifestyle of an international cricketer or umpire, their first thought is usually ‘wow, what a great life’,” Kettleborough, now 44, adds.
“But I’ve got three young children, I know Joe has a very young child who’s probably three or four days older than my youngest, so leaving them at home for months on end is tough.
“When we’re abroad, we’re in a pressurised environment where all our focus has to be on the job in hand, otherwise it can go wrong very quickly.
“We work with sports psychologists, working hard on being able to focus on the job in hand when you’re away.
“Otherwise, it’s easy to let your mind wander to what you’re missing back home.”
After all, it’s a dangerous game. Kettleborough made the headlines last January when he took the full brunt of a vicious Aaron Finch drive on the shin in a game between Australia and Pakistan.
“It was quite ironic actually,” Kettleborough smiles.
“My colleague, John Ward, was the first umpire in international cricket to wear a helmet after he’d been hit on the head previously, and it was me getting carried off the field after five overs or so.
“In seriousness, I was very lucky there that it didn’t break my leg. I had 24 hours in hospital and at one stage it looked like I might not be able to fly for 10 to 15 days, and I was due home in three.
“I know a few umpires who’ve been hit. Batsmen are stronger now, they’re bigger and are hitting the ball harder than at any point in history. And we’re the ones 23 yards away, stood still, right in the firing line.”
It’s a vantage point that does have its benefits, though; especially on the rare occasions Kettleborough is allowed to stand in one-day games involving England.
“I’ve umpired Joe a number of times for Yorkshire and England and you can just see from a long way off that he’s a wonderful young player,” Kettleborough says of his fellow Collegiate graduate Root.
“But we have a bit of banter out in the middle. He’s a Blade and I’m an Owl, so we have a little bit of chat at the right time.
“One of biggest things in this job is building those relationships with players. There’s a line you don’t cross but because I can’t do England in Test matches, I see the Aussies and Indians more than I see the Yorkshire players, so I know them a lot more.
“That helps build a rapport with them, it builds respect. I was always told when I started that you have to earn respect of the players, but we as match officials have to respect them as well.
“It works both ways.”
Does Kettleborough see Root emulating Vaughan, and conquering the Aussies as skipper?
“It won’t be easy,” he smiles.
“He’s got a tough start as skipper; South Africa will be difficult, I’d expect them to beat the West Indies and then an away Ashes series, where he’ll be under the spotlight and the Aussie media will be all over him.
“I’ve known Joe and Billy from when they were born, basically, and I think he’ll make a wonderful captain, as Michael did.
“I took a different route in cricket but still ended up No.1 in the world, so I’m quite glad I did.
“It’s gone really well.”
n For details on the next Sheffield Cricket Lovers’ Society speaker, or to become a member, visit www.sheffieldcricketlovers.org.uk.