Taking block with Paul Wilson

16 January, 2015
Paul 'Blocker' Wilson split his first-class career between South Australia and Western Australia, earning himself multiple ODI appearances and a Test in Australian colours along the way.

Following his retirement from the game in 2004, he took the reins as the Western Australian women's head coach, before pursuing a career in umpiring.

He worked his way up the grade ranks and was promoted to Cricket Australia's National Umpires Panel in 2010-11, before finally landing on the International scene when he umpired two T20Is between England and Australian at the start of 2014.

In November he made his ODI debut, umpiring two matches between Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea in Townsville.

The 43-year-old is now looking to take the next step, as he cements himself as one of Australia's premier umpires.

We caught up with Paul to chat about his career as both a player and an umpire.

Paul firstly, congratulations on making your international debut as an umpire. Tell us about your first couple of matches.

Thanks very much. My first couple of matches were last season when I umpired the T20 games between Australia and England, so 65,000 at the MCG was pretty big and then 50,000 at the SCG. Two hard fought games with strong teams. It was a great thrill.
This season I've done my first two ODIs, which were between PNG and Hong Kong up in Townsville. That was another great experience because they were PNG's first ever ODIs and quite historic. I think it was also the first time a country has won its first two ODIs.

When you were about to make your debut, what were your reflections?

Well it was interesting in that my first game was at the MCG, which was the same venue I'd made my international debut as a player back in 1997. It was sort of reward for all the work I'd put in with umpiring, and also being grateful to have had the opportunity to be out there and have the best seat in the house.

On paper it seems like you've had a relatively rapid rise, but I'm sure the reality is quite different. How did it all start for you from an umpiring perspective?

It was very much making contact with Cricket Australia during the 2005-06 season. I was halfway through a season coaching the Western Fury in the WNCL and also coaching a club side, Rockingham Mandurah in Perth. In the back of my mind it was something I wanted to look into so I enquired about the Project Panel, which Paul Reiffel and Rod Tucker had just graduated from. There was an opportunity for a past player to take it up and I was fortunately able to do so.

How confident were you that it could be a career, or was it a case of 'have a go and see'?

A bit of both probably. It was something I ummed and ahhed about at the end of my playing career, and had a discussion with Daryl Harper. I never really thought of it as being a full-time career at the time but it has certainly evolved over time.

At what point were you convinced that you were good at it?

If you speak to some of the boys they're probably still not convinced! Oh look, I enjoy it and it feels like home being out there. I was used to training and playing so it was a bit like going back into your old office. Having said that, umpiring is certainly a tough gig and it's getting tougher, with all the technology, so you're never really comfortable. It's a good test of your resolve.

I suppose after you've done quite a few first-class games you start to feel like you belong. As with playing there's a certain point where you think you're half reasonable at it and your confidence goes up a bit.

Players seem to appreciate decisiveness and umpires having a handle on the game - perhaps even more so than the actual decisions. Is that what you've found?

Yeah absolutely. Initially you tend to think decision making is the be-all and end-all but you soon learn that that's only one part of your game. Your man management, how you handle situations no matter what's going on - enable you to get the respect of the players.

When you first started umpiring were there players involved who you played with or against?

Certainly was and there still is, especially some of the older blokes in the BBL.

A couple of them no doubt have a bit of intel on you from your playing days, have they been tempted to use that out on the field?

Early on there was a bit of humour and some of the bowlers were quick to remind me what I was like when I played!

How you manage sledging or on-field chatter?

At the level I'm at now I don't think it's much of an issue. If it's straight out abuse, well that's a line you can't cross but I certainly believe a bit of humour doesn't go astray.

As a former quick you'd have an understanding of what it's like to be frustrated or fired up; does that equip you to handle the fast bowlers and know how to settle things down?

I was probably more frustrated than most (when I played) because I didn't have much ability! You get a sixth sense that something might be brewing and can probably recognise that a bit earlier than most and have a quiet word as the bowler is going back to his mark. If you can get to them early enough you can stop it before it gets to a point where a player's reported or fined.

Early on you can take things a bit personally but most of the time frustrated players are talking to themselves and I did that a lot when I played.

Tell us about your first game ever in the black strides; I'm sort of picturing you practising your hand signals in the mirror the night before.

Ha, ha! Actually no, but my first game was at the WACA in a game between the Private and Public Schools. I spent my spare time at square leg practising my golf shots, which was something my umpires advisor quietly suggested I shelve!

You mentioned the added layers of stress that technology such as DRS has brought about; what are your thoughts on this from an umpiring perspective?

They present their own challenges but I think anyone who's played first-class cricket knows that mistakes can linger and create some animosity. With the DRS, 99 per cent of the time that mistake will be rectified and the game moves forward. I think the technology is getting better and will continue to improve.

I know you can't speak from an umpires' collective point of view but do you think the DRS should be in the hands of the players or the umpires?

A few years ago in the Ryobi Cup we had an intervention system and because of the lack of quality in the technology provided to the third umpire, it didn't work and was removed - and rightly so. The DRS works pretty well and while it can be improved, as long as the decisions being made are the right ones then it's good. Maybe we could look at a combination of the two, or leave it as it is.

A misunderstanding public might equate being the third umpire with Homer Simpson's job at the power plant. Is that fair?

Ha, ha. It's certainly more involved than that. You're looking at decision reviews but also over rates, taking to the match referee and potentially player behaviour - so there's a lot more going on than the public can see. And with DRS it's becoming quite a specialised position, a bit like in other sports such as baseball, rugby and league. Sometimes you actually just appreciate being on the ground and not having to worry about that stuff.

What's been the most memorable moment of your umpiring career to date?

All the debuts were special. My first Shield game in Perth in 2009, and my first One Dayer, which was with Paul Reiffel. And my international debuts as I mentioned. To be part of the Big Bash and watching it grow has been special too. If someone had told me I'd be umpiring a domestic match in front of 40,000 I'd have laughed at them. It's amazing and great to be a part of.

You and Pistol must have had a chuckle as two medium fast bowlers going out to be in charge of the game?

Yeah we had a bit of a chuckle about that. My wife described it as game hunters turned poachers!

Any amusing moments in your career so far?

Yeah a few. Most seem to involve Doug Bollinger! You see things from a different perspective because you're so neutral. In my first Shield game I changed a decision. I gave Adam Voges out caught behind but I'd got it horribly wrong so I changed it straight away and the players got on with it. Then the next day I gave one not out - correctly thank God - and it was pretty quiet at the WACA and Douggie could be heard shouting from fine leg: "Blocker, you've still got time to change your mind!"

Mitch Marsh got hit on the full in the nether regions in a BBL match and once he'd regained his breath was screaming at the umpires to know why it wasn't (judged to be) above the waist!

You mentioned being neutral; has being an umpire allowed you to view the game in its purest form, free of your own ambitions?

It has. You get an appreciation for what people are trying to do, like a bloke working hard to get a hundred or a bowler a five-for on a flat track. Because you don't have the emotional attachment you can watch the game for purely what it is. It's like when you first started playing cricket as a kid.

As umpires we think of ourselves as kind of the third team and work hard to do our best.

Now Blocker I'll give you a hypothetical: a ball is fired in, it's not swinging and hits the batsman on the crease just above the ankle. Is there a part of you that feels like going up with the appeal?

Ha, ha! When I first started umpiring I found myself giving those ones out pretty quick, but now I force myself to count to three!

There's a growing number of players considering a move into umpiring; what your advice to them?

It's a great career that keeps you involved in the game, albeit a different avenue. It's a tough job and different to what you think it might be. It's an enjoyable job and you get to stay involved in the game you've loved for so long, and do it from the best seat in the house.

Players who are interested can speak to their State umpire directors, or speak to CA - or speak to one of us. We'd love to see more guys take it up.

Just touching on your playing career, tell us about your bold move from Newcastle to Adelaide.

I just wanted to have a crack at it. At the time I was a trainee accountant at Ernst & Young and decided that if I hadn't made it (to first-class level) by the time I was 25, I'd return to what I'd been doing.

I packed my bags and left for Adelaide at 19, bunked in at a mate's house and pretty much turned up at (Head Academy Coach) Rod Marsh's doorstep. As he tells it, there was this big, fat bloke in his room that he was too scared to say 'no' to, so he gave me a few net sessions and I managed to get an associate scholarship in 1991 and then a full one the following year. Things basically went from there. I suppose making the move without any guarantees was an interesting one but I'm really glad I did. Cricket's looked after me really well and continues to do so.

Interestingly, Paul is now back in Newcastle, where he lives with his wife and young family.

Playing statistics

1 Test
11 ODIs: 13 wickets @ 34.61
51 First -class matches: 151 wickets @ 30.77
84 List-A matches: 114 wickets @ 26.63

Umpiring statistics

First-class debut: 2009
Joined CA National Panel: 2010-11
2 ODIs: Hong Kong v Papua New Guinea - Nov 8 & 9, 2014
2 T20Is: Australia v England - Jan 31 & Feb 2, 2014

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