Neil Findlay loves his cricket with a passion, so when his playing days ended, he turned to umpiring to continue his involvement and give something back to the game.
However, it wasn’t a simple transition. When he was initially approached to sit for the umpires exam he turned it down.
“As a player I was best described as being very competitive. And probably, if I had to umpire myself, I might have had to put myself on report,” he laughed.
After finally saying yes and passing the exam, he decided to give it one season in the Illawarra competition.
“And one day, it suddenly occurred to me standing in Figtree Oval that I really enjoyed what I was doing,” Neil said.
He began his journey playing juniors for Balgownie while at high school and then moved up into grades with the seniors. He headed off to university in Canberra and then moved to Sydney, but along the way, cricket was always there.
“At Teacher’s College in Sydney I was living on campus, which was just across the road from the cricket nets. So, I went down there, was selected in third grade and then had a pretty good season, made my way through the grades and then played two or three seasons of first grade,” he said.
His new teaching position at Port Kembla High School helped Neil return to the game locally and begin his involvement at a school level, helping to nurture and support the stars of the future.
“I convened the South Coast secondary school’s cricket for about 20 years and took teams away to the combined high schools carnivals,” he said.
“Having played for such a long time and having got so much out of it as a player and enjoyed it, it was good to be involved with kids who had the same enjoyment and ambitions.”
Neil had a hand in coaching South Coast cricketers Shane and Brett Lee, Brad Haddin and Phil Jaques, then a trio of players in the NSW team who have all gone on to be household names – David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Moses Henriques.
At a national level Neil worked alongside other future Australian stars, like the late Phil Hughes, Josh Hazelwood, Mitchell Marsh and Kane Richardson.
But now umpiring is his cricket passion and he encourages former players to take up the role, especially given the recent shortage of umpires.
“There’s always a need for more cricket umpires and having that passion for cricket is a good start,” he said.
“You’ve got to love the game to be involved in it and the best umpires are ex-players because they have an understanding of the game.”
Illawarra Cricket Umpires Association secretary Steve Ward said last season was an especially challenging one when it came to umpire shortages, particularly for the South Coast region.
Illawarra umpires stepped in to help control South Coast games played north of Berry, but it was a struggle.
“For the South Coast region, there weren’t enough umpires willing to take on administrative positions within their umpiring association, so it folded, and their cricket committee sought assistance from the Illawarra Umpires,” he said.
“You have to enjoy umpiring. It’s not an activity that you can commit to for any other reason than you enjoy it.”
This season looks a lot more promising for umpire numbers, with an influx of new members for Illawarra Cricket.
The South Coast Umpires Association is in the process of being re-established through the work of a senior South Coast umpire and an umpire’s course has been run with some new members joining the ranks.
South Coast District Cricket Association president David Ross said he was grateful for the support provided by the Illawarra umpires.
“It is unfortunate that the South Coast District Cricket Association has needed to rely upon a different association to utilise umpires, it seems to be an issue that has been a slow burn,” he said.
“I am grateful that we have this MOU (memorandum of understanding) in place so that at least first grade cricket within the South Coast area can have independent umpires and not rely upon matches being officiated by opposing players.”
Last year, Neil was awarded life membership of the NSW Cricket Umpires and Scorers Association.
“It was an absolute surprise, and not something I aspired to. But it’s humbling that you’re recognised in this way for something that you’ve done that you really love doing,” he said.
In awarding the life membership, the Association said Neil’s on-field record was distinguished, serving on the Country Umpire Representative Panel for 17 seasons, while in his local competition, Neil had umpired more than 20 Cricket Illawarra First Grade finals.
And Neil’s advice for up and coming umpires?
“Always make sure you’re prepared. Make sure you know the playing conditions, because the players don’t. You need to know them and then you can give decisions without fear or favour.”
For more information on becoming an umpire, visit the Illawarra Cricket Umpires Association website.