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The strange case of umpire Billows

At least 50 members of the Marylebone Cricket Club submitted membership proposals for television personalities, notorious prisoners, and trade union officials, after falling under the hypnotic control of Ralph Robbins, 67, an umpire who until his recent capture was better known as the 'MCC Mesmeriser'.

The emergence of Robbins' umpiring past has brought back memories of the strange case of Essex Sunday League umpire Archie Billows, a far less sinister hypnotist from the not so distant past.

Billows was a man of integrity and exacting standards. Players may have privately complained that he was a 'hardliner' but very few openly challenged his authority. The laws of cricket were to be obeyed and transgressors disciplined.

Imagine his frustration then when lazy and slovenly tea ladies exercised their right to overrule him in the kitchen.

Unwilling to disobey long established catering conventions, Billows could do little more than stand aside and watch as they neglected their tea making duties with apparent impunity.

It was an impossible situation for a strict disciplinarian to find himself in. Inevitably, his tolerance gave way to action.

Billows began to secretly hypnotise tea ladies after receiving one black tea too many in 1964. "Back then meagre food portions were the norm, tea was always weak and tepid, and they [tea ladies] allowed people to leave wet spoons in sugar bowls," he once recalled.

"All the problems stopped after I reprogrammed the worst offenders. Ask anyone and they will tell you that these days the best cricket teas are in Essex."

Tea lady Elsie Matthews retrieves two bottles of 'misplaced' milk from her home refrigerator.

He might have had very best of intentions but his actions attracted the unwanted gaze of officialdom. Something had to give and unfortunately for Billows the powers to be were immovable.

An emergency meeting was held at the conclusion of the 1972 season and he received a lifetime ban from practicing hypnotism at cricket matches.

The ban was overturned in 1975 after an independent inquiry found "unacceptable levels of tea bag reuse, the overuse of powdered milk, and endemic 'biscuit swapping' - tea ladies replacing Club purchased premier grade biscuits with cheap supermarket equivalents."

Apologetic officials urged Billows to reintroduce his mind control methods and he dutifully acquiesced; surreptitiously hypnotising underperforming tea ladies right up to the moment of his premature death from choking in 1979: he was physically fit and barely 63 years old.

Wicketkeeper Don Sturges recalls: "He was standing at the bowler's end and our medium pacer Ginger Roland had just bowled the final delivery of his over. Billows had been devouring three-ounce homemade digestive biscuits in between deliveries all over; I guess five was one too many.

"His eyes were brightly coloured and spinning, and fine wisps of smoke were coming from his ears. He finished his mouthful, called 'over' then collapsed. It was all very sudden."

The funeral of Billows was attended by a veritable "who's who" of Essex cricket caterers. That he was respected more than he was liked is a testimony to an umpire's life well led.

Sadly the same can not be said of the MCC Mesmeriser. Robbins set out to humiliate and forgiveness seems unlikely.

Basil Percival sums up the mood at the MCC: "How can we forgive him for what he did to us? I will never live down nominating Beckie McDonald from Coronation Street for MCC membership and others have done far worse. One poor chap even proposed Charles Manson as an overseas member."