At ease in the middle
She may be small in stature, but Valerie Mahon took a giant stride towards fulfilling a grand personal ambition when she took to the middle last Saturday to officiate in a match in the LIME Barbados Cricket Association Division 1 Cricket Competition.Guardian General Barbados Youth were hosting ICBL Empire at the Lester Vaughan School at Cane Garden, St Thomas, and local cricket welcomed the fourth female umpire ever to officiate at the highest domestic level.Idamay Denny, Verona Seale and Beverley Edwards, Mahon’s predecessors, have all long “hung up their coats” but this petite special constable in the Royal Barbados Police Force (RBPF) dares to dream of going where none of her gender has ventured before.“I visualise myself standing in the middle in a Test game. Of course, that would mean getting onto the ICC Elite Panel of Umpires but that is my dream”.Valerie Clarke was born on August 2 at Headley Land, Deacons Road, St Michael. She refuses to give the year, explaining: “[You] never ask a lady her age.”She went to school at Deacons Primary School and later Springer Memorial Secondary School.Her first exposure to cricket came on entering the world of work.“My interest in cricket came about when I was employed at Caribbean Data Services and we had a group who participated in a number of activities. Cricket was one of these activities and I was encouraged to get involved by Geoffrey Griffith, the coach. Geoffrey took me under his wings and invited me to join the Vixens United Women’s Cricket Club that played in the Women’s Softball Cricket Competition. From there I just developed a love for the game.”So profound was this love that Mahon began to explore the possibilities for her continued involvement after her playing days were over. She recalled a conversation she had with a close friend.“Myself and Pat Greenidge were sitting down one day, and I told Pat that I don’t only want to play but I want to further develop myself in cricket,” Mahon said.Shortly after that conversation, a chance meeting with seasoned umpire Louis St John paved the way for her introduction to the umpiring fraternity.“Louis asked me if I would be interested in becoming an umpire and I said: ‘Yes, I think I can do that’.”Mahon took the course offered by the Barbados Cricket Umpires Association (BCUA) for new trainees and passed the examination at the first attempt.With her knowledge of the 42 laws of the game and a certificate to boot, umpire Clarke, as was her surname at the time, ventured to the fields of play to practice her new skills.“I remember my first game being a School’s game” she recalled fondly.Since then she has presided over matches at various levels, from softball to tapeball, and the BCA’s Second and Intermediate Divisions. A stint as vice-president of the Softball Cricket Umpires Association is listed on her résumé.Of her first day in the “big league”, she said: “I must say that my first day was wonderful. For me it was like any other day in the middle and I didn’t feel overwhelmed . . . I had a relaxing, fulfilling feeling of warmth and friendliness coming from both teams,” she said.And what has been the overall reaction of the players to a woman standing as umpire in a male-dominated environment?“I work in a male-dominated environment and that would have prepared me. Generally they were quite receptive,” Mahon said.As with all other decision-makers, umpires’ judgements are frequently called into question by aggrieved players and spectators whose criticisms are often harsh and uncharitable. Mahon has a philosophy to help her overcome such eventualities.“You will get criticism but you must be able to deal with it. Criticism can’t break me; it can make me better but it can’t break me. I don’t see it as a major challenge.”And as for other women who may be interested in entering the field of umpiring, she advised: “Forget the negatives. Think positively and whatever you set out to do you go for it. Don’t let anyone put you down or hold you back. Remember, God should be in the forefront of every decision you make and once you have God you can stand to any task.”Mahon counts meeting and interacting with the likes of internationally renowned umpires Steve Bucknor, Billy Doctrove, Simon Taufel and Clancy Mack as among the best memories in her 12-year career.The late Stanton Parris, Pat Greenidge, who serves as an administrator of women’s cricket in the region, Geoffrey Griffith, Louis St John and fellow umpire Hartley Reid are among the people whom Mahon credits with being influential in her development.But there are two people who come in for special mention. First on the list, naturally, is her mother.“When I first told my mum that I was entering the umpiring arena she was really proud to see her daughter doing something positive and she actually made my first jacket and pants.”Next is the one whom she glowingly describes as her main source of support; husband Michael, with whom she exchanged vows two years ago at the River Road New Testament Church Of God, where they both worship.“I am so proud. Not only can I say I have a husband. But he is my friend and my mentor whom I know has my back at all times. He is my number one supporter and always offers me sound advice.”Meeting people, going to church and listening to gospel music are some of the activities that she enjoys when she is not umpiring or on the job at the Criminal Records Office of the RBPF.During this game she is being graded by the island’s leading umpire, BCUA president Vincent Bullen for marks that go towards her overall assessment in the WICUA Examination. Successful completion of this part of the course will eventually lead to qualification to officiate in first class matches.