Fred Spofforth (left) and Jim Phillips    Getty Images
Fred Spofforth (left) and Jim Phillips Getty Images

Jim Phillips was one of the most relevant umpires in the history of cricket. And as Abhishek Mukherjee demonstrates here, he also had a terrific sense of humour.

Dimboola Jim Phillips was no ordinary person. To begin with, he played First-Class cricket for Victoria, Middlesex, and Canterbury (while coaching there) in three countries. A medium-paced bowler, he claimed 355 wickets at exactly 20, so he was a reasonable cricketer.

But that is not why he is famous for. He stood as umpire in 29 Tests in three continents 13 in Australia, 11 in England, and 5 in South Africa. Phillips later moved to a fourth continent and was a successful mining engineer. He died in Vancouver.

Phillips s Test debut as umpire, at Melbourne in 1884-85, was also his second First-Class match in that role. He made his First-Class debut as a player a year later. He remains one of the most important umpires in the history of cricket. He went with England on their 1897-98 Ashes tour (it was common in those days to take an umpire on a tour) and called Ernie Jones for throwing in a match against South Australia. Phillips no-balled Jones again, this time in the second Test at Melbourne becoming the first umpire to do so in Test cricket.

No bowler had been called for throwing since 1890, but Phillips had lit a spark in Australia. There were no fewer than ten instances across the next three seasons. The captains of all counties gathered together at Lord s in 1900 with a mission to eradicate chucking. At Old Trafford in 1901, Phillips no-balled Arthur Mold of Lancashire 16 times in a single match. Such was Phillips s reputation that Australia dropped Jack Saunders (who had a dubious action) from the 1905 Ashes squad.

Yes, Phillips was ruthless. Jack Pollard mentioned an incident in Australian Cricket 1893-1917: The Turbulent Years. A bushfire had broken out during the fourth Test, at Melbourne (not the one where he called Jones). The smoke made visibility difficult, and England captain Drewy Stoddart requested play to be stopped.

But Phillips would have none of it: If that light was bad, then cricket had better be given up entirely at Bramall Lane, Bradford, and Old Trafford.

Fred Spofforth had a different view on throwing. In 1897, he had written a letter to The Sporting Life. He had openly criticised the action of Tom McKibbin and Bobby Peel. He also insisted on a rule where on being reported for throwing, a vote is taken, and if unfavourable the cricketer be suspended for a week; if brought up a second time, fined and suspended; a third time he should be disqualified for the season.

Spofforth and Phillips, men with magnificent moustaches, were both quite stern when it came to illegal actions. The story, however, is of a lighter nature.

In one of the matches (it is not clear which match), Spofforth deliberately overstepped. Poor Phillips was so shocked at the strangeness of the incident that he could not even make the customary no-ball call. On his way back to the mark, The Demon remarked my foot slipped, Jim, leaving Phillips fuming,

The next ball was delivered normally. Spofforth made sure his foot was inside the crease. Sure enough, Phillips signalled a no-ball. Spofforth was obviously not amused: he walked up to Phillips and demanded an explanation.

My tongue slipped, Spoff, came the answer, and Spofforth went back to his mark.