A CRICKET umpire suspended for seven months over an allegation he nicked a bat during a rain delay says he has been treated like a "criminal".

Richard Howes, 37, was left stumped after being accused of the theft while officiating a game in Essex last July.

He claims he just placed a bat in his car for five minutes to get it out of the rain and keep it safe from other players before giving it to a groundskeeper.

But Richard, from Witham, Essex, then received a call days later to say he had been accused of stealing the bat - knocking him for six.

He protested his innocence but was told by the English Cricket Board (ECB) he was suspended pending a probe.

Richard was eventually cleared of wrongdoing last month.

He is happy his reputation has been restored and is looking forward to getting back out on the pitch.

But he says the way he has been treated by the game's authorities is just not cricket.

Richard said: “It’s been a witch hunt and it’s been a slur on my good nature and good character.

“I know I didn't steal it. There was a huge miscommunication here - we’re all human, we all make honest mistakes."

Richard was umpiring a match in Colchester last summer which had to be abandoned due to bad weather.

Spotting unattended bats in the dressing room, he decided to put one in his car to keep it safe, he says.

Richard says he immediately alerted a groundsman to the fact he had done so, who asked him to hand the bat over.

He says he did this immediately – claiming the bat was in his car for less than five minutes.

With no more said about the matter he went home - only to receive a call a few days later saying he’d been accused of trying to steal the bat.

Richard says he was then told a decision had been made that he would no longer be allowed to umpire.

He says he then didn’t hear anything until November - when he was told he was being charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

He says he was told to expect a hearing in December which was then pushed back to January.

He then spoke to the press, who contacted the ECB for a comment in February - and proceedings against Richard were withdrawn, effective immediately.

Now reinstated as an umpire, Richard said: “I wasn’t given a fair chance to defend myself.

"I asked them to put the matter to bed and drop the case against me, to call it not proven.

“The time it took for bat to go from the dressing room to my car to the groundskeepers' hands was no more than five minutes.

“I'm angry that this snowballed into what is quite a serious thing – it's quite serious to be accused of being a criminal."

Richard is now looking forward to resuming his role, adding: "I’ve always got on well wherever I’ve gone.

"I'm pretty young to be umpiring - most umpires are retired. But I enjoy it and it helps me play cricket."

An ECB spokesperson said: “A decision not to proceed with the disciplinary hearing was reached by the ACO Disciplinary Chair and Mr Howes is able to continue umpiring.”