'We probably had an easier time because we actually made the decision'
Cyril Mitchley hears a voice rather than sees a face when you ask him a question nowadays. Eighteen months ago he started suffering from a hereditary disease of the retina - called macular degeneration - which blurs everything he looks at directly. His peripheral vision is fine but in the middle it's indistinct and blurred, a soggy mess.
He struggles in the garden and shouldn't be driving his Toyota Tazz, but carries on regardless, vaguely relieved that he no longer needs to see whether Saeed Anwar or David Boon has feathered an edge to the keeper. "My paternal grandmother was an artist," he said. "She painted water. When she started painting red and yellow water we realised that something was up and that her eyes were packing in. I've got the same thing."
There was a pinch of the showman about Mitchley the umpire. In his early umpiring days he used to go into a prize-fighter's crouch before jabbing his index finger at you not once but twice or three times. "Dave Richardson complained - he said I took too much pleasure in it, so I didn't use the flourish so much after that. Even when I wasn't crouching I always used to stand with my head at a slight angle so my good ear was facing the batsman. I had one season as a 20-year-old inside-forward with Sheffield United - I had the choice of Charlton, Wolves or United, God alone knows why I chose United - and someone kicked a wet, heavy ball at my head. It burst my eardrum. After that my hearing in the left ear was always a bit dodgy."
Mitchley wasn't about to allow the imperfections of a wonky ear get in the way of a job he loved. He was always engaged, never distant, always part of the game without allowing his personality to overshadow bigger names or larger spectacles. He remembers giving Sachin Tendulkar run out from square leg in South Africa's first readmission Test (beside the third-umpire bells and whistles, the match was unspeakably dreary) and was scandalised by a stranger who he at first assumed was an autograph-seeker, offering him $50,000 to make sure Pakistan didn't lose the third Test of their 1994-95 home series against Australia. He reported the approach to John Reid, the match referee, and promptly forgot about it. The high-scoring Test was drawn, so Pakistan wrapped up the series 1-0.
"The best umpire I ever stood with was [the Tasmanian] Steve Randell, said Mitchley. "I thought he was brilliant. I was the first neutral umpire to stand in an Ashes Test [at the Gabba, in November 1994] and I stood with Steve, although he couldn't stand Ian Healy for some reason. He came to me once and said: 'If he steps out of line for anything we're going to nail him'."
The biggest decision Mitchley ever made was when he was asked to judge on Sanath Jayasuriya's run-out in the 1996 World Cup final in Lahore. Jayasuriya was later named Man of the Tournament, and Mitchley was well aware his decision would have far-reaching consequences. "[Steve] Bucknor and [David] Shepherd got the final and I wasn't even sure I was going to be in Lahore because I was in Delhi, but Dave Richards [the ICC chief executive] phoned and said: 'Look, we think there's going to be a bit of shit and we want you there as TV umpire. We'll send you a ticket.'
"To cut a long story short, many of the tournament umpires had flown to the final in Lahore and we were all sitting in the same box-like booth, so when I worried about giving Sanath run-out there were many eyes on me. Not long after that we get a Sri Lankan delegation who've come to complain. I'm not happy but Clive [Lloyd], the match referee, says, 'Relax, Cyril, let's all have a look at the slow-motion together.' So we look at the replay and he then asks them: 'Are you happy with the decision?' They say they are, and then he tells them in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of there."
Mitchley describes the 1996 World Cup - co-hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - as a tournament of considerable behind-the-scenes strain. With such a broad sweep of venues, competition logistics were already demanding, and with the Australians and the West Indians refusing to visit Sri Lanka, tensions rose. He had to be present in Colombo, just in case the Australians arrived, and signed an affidavit in the presence of an attorney to that effect. He remembers tournament organisers like Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev ("They didn't trust the Australians") being exceptionally tense and the competition unfolded in an atmosphere of mutual watchfulness. "I suppose the upside of the trip to Colombo was that I had four or five days free to visit the tea plantations and the hill stations and that was fabulous," said Mitchley.
He wasn't one to dwell on mistakes but remembers a shocker he gave Mike Atherton in Port Elizabeth in 1995-96. "As soon as I saw his face he just knew I'd stuffed it up," recalls the man many in South Africa still call "Squire". Mitchley apparently gave Atherton, a man for whom he had immense respect, out caught off the thigh pad and the decision perched darkly on his conscience for the rest of the day.
Squire's humiliation was softened only slightly when Ian Botham told him to forget it after the close, but turned to wry amusement when he was later presented with the signed leg of a white plastic chair by Dermot Reeve. Atherton had smashed the chair in a fury once he returned to the dressing room and the token of his esteem was duly delivered by a smirking 12th man - Reeve. To this day it remains one of Mitchley's treasured mementos, along with signed shirts and equipment from Brian Lara and Malcolm Marshall, two of his favourite players.
Mitchley says he was a dogged wicketkeeper-batsman with a good eye, not much to look at but plucky. He kept to Hugh Tayfield ("what a taskmaster") as a young club cricketer and reserves special praise for a long-forgotten Transvaal fast bowler called Ken Walter. "When he played at Pioneer Park [in Johannesburg's Southern Suburbs] he could be well-nigh unplayable. John Reid brought the New Zealanders to South Africa in the early sixties. They always said that Ken was the best South African bowler they faced by far."
Mitchley once hit a lippy young Brian Davison (yet to make his mark as an elegant middle-order batsman at Leicestershire) back over his head after Davison had terrorised a handy Transvaal B batting line-up during an away fixture in Salisbury. Mitchley had been put on the plane by the irascible Eric Rowan, who warned him to stay off "the sauce" and nail down a regular place.
"Brian was giving our guys a send-off, telling them that they'd just been bowled by the legcutter and what not," said Mitchley. "I didn't have a good bat, I couldn't afford one, but he bowled me one in the slot and I just pumped him onto the grass embankment for six.
"'You can call that whatever you like here in Rhodesia, sonny,' I told him as I marched down the pitch, 'but in the Southern Suburbs, where I come from, we call that a six.' It was my highest first-class score, 66, I was proud of that."
Mitchley's route past 66 soon took him into umpiring. He umpired in one B section game before being promoted and was always a firm favourite with the players. He was verbally adroit and exuded a kind of cheery calm that instantly made them comfortable. He enjoyed his time at square leg and is mildly relieved that he escaped much of the current culture of super-scrutiny. "We probably had an easier time because we actually made the decision. Every decision nowadays can be referred with the exception of a wide. We weren't watched quite as much."
His capacity for the verbals must have had something to do with his love of poetry. He never did very well at school, receiving a couple of O levels, including 8% for Latin, but he can still recite poems by John Masefield and Sir Henry Newbolt by heart. He loves *"In Flanders Fields", by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, and takes comfort from their heft and rhythm now that he can't actually see the words on the page. "The degeneration happened about 18 months ago over two or three days. At first I thought to myself: 'What's wrong with my eyes, they're going cockeyed?' Then I thought it was cataracts, but that wasn't it. I don't have an income now, so I'm thankful that my wife still works. I'll be 79 on Independence Day."
If anything, his fading eyesight has sharpened his memory. He remembers Harry Wolf, the Southern Suburbs chairman, walking around the change room and deftly placing folded five pound notes into the Tayfield brothers and Walters' shoes. There were never any coins, they were liable to roll across the floor and so raise awkward questions. Notes were discrete, even delicate. Mitchley, the young whippersnapper, watched it all, knowing he had some way to go before he found a note in his.
*The name of the poem was corrected
Luke Alfred is a journalist based in Johannesburg