India in Australia 2014-15 January 12, 2015

Bill Lawry's fancier life

The loudest appealer on the field when he played, the most excitable commentator when he called the game, Bill Lawry talks about his passion for pigeon-racing

"They thought I was nuts [for being a pigeon fancier], but when you're the captain you can afford to be nuts" © Getty Images

If ever there was a television commentator who made you feel like you were watching the cricket sitting next to him, it is Bill Lawry. He lives a different life away from the cricket, breeding and racing pigeons, which sometimes involves hours and hours of waiting for them to come back. The loudest appealer when he played, the most excitable commentator when he called the game, he talks about his other, more mellow, love.

How did your love for pigeons start?
Pigeon-racing has been in my family. My father was a pigeon fancier. My brother, who was 14 years older, was a pigeon fancier. So from the day I was born, there has always been pigeon love.

I am not sure if you understand pigeon racing. It's a sport that is very strong in places like Belgium and Poland and England. Becoming very popular in China and Japan. It was the sort of sport that was probably at its peak before the First World War. Everybody - particularly in England the miners - had a pigeon love. When I toured, particularly in England and South Africa, where pigeon-racing is very strong, when we didn't play on Sundays I would go out pigeon-fancying. The Queen in England, she has got a pigeon love. She doesn't obviously do [pigeon-racing], but she has got the pigeon love. George Duckworth, the former England wicketkeeper way back, was a pigeon fancier. Sir Gordon Richards, the famous England jockey, was a pigeon fancier.

It's a sport you are born into. I have been very lucky. I have made a lot of friends away from cricket through pigeon-racing.

What do you need to acquire the sport?
[Laughs] You have to be a bit stupid.

It's very complicated for people who don't understand. I live here, and I breed my pigeons here. You live there, and you breed your pigeons there. And there is 20 miles between us. And we race pigeons from up here, which is 400 miles away. We calculate 400 miles to my place and 358 miles to your place. And the pigeon has an electronic timer in the shape of a ring. When they are first born, you put on a life ring, which is registered in my name. Then you put an electronic ring on the other leg, which is a pigeon clock. The birds are let go, they fly down here. So I'm flying 400 miles or whatever. I clock it at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. And he flies at 3.38pm. Then the time and distance are calculated to arrive at a velocity. The birds go on a transport all together. Let go on a Saturday and race back. We race from 100 miles to 500 miles in Australia because of the mountains or whatever.

When was this electronic ring devised?
When I first started, we had the life ring and a rubber ring. We put a sheet in, take it to the club, and they put this rubber ring on my pigeon. They put a little slip with the ring number in an envelope. We had a timing clock. Different clock with a ratchet inside and a printing clock. When the pigeons come home, they put a little capsule, take the rubber ring off, put it inside the clock, turn the handle, and it would print the time. Take this clock to the club room, put it over against the master timer, and it would show what I am clocking.

Sounds more complicated than facing Wes Hall…
[Laughs] It's simple when you know. Trying to explain pigeon-racing to non-pigeon racers, normally I'd say go away because it is so hard. But it's a hobby that is unfortunately dying because we didn't have computers and mobiles when we were growing up.

I come from a poor working-class family. We had pigeons, chickens, dogs, ferrets. We used to go rabbiting. We used to go fishing. That was our hobby. I used to play cricket in the summer and baseball in the winter. My life has revolved around my pigeons, my family, my cricket, my dogs. That's what we did. I didn't have a motor car until I was 24.

I still don't have one.
[Laughs] It's unbelievable, isn't it? I used to ride my bike to work. To cricket practice. And if I was going to state practice, I used to catch the tram or the train. I have been sort of a late developer.

Before modern stuff came along and everybody had a motor car, in my street, a normal street in the suburb, there were four pigeon fanciers. Now there are none. Back then pigeon-racing was quite popular. Now it's dying because it is a different society.

Did any of your team-mates or opponents share this love for pigeons?
No, no, no. I have known a couple of Australian Rules footballers, but none of my team-mates.

What would they say if you talked about pigeons in front of them?
I would never do it in front of them. [Laughs]

What would happen is, on a Sunday, Bobby Simpson and Neil Harvey would go play golf. I would have some pigeon fanciers pick me up. In places like England, I would have pigeon fanciers come to me all the time. I have made friends through pigeon-fancying, still communicate with them.

Did they think you were some kind of an eccentric?
They thought I was nuts, but when you are the captain you can afford to be nuts.

Did cricket and pigeon-racing ever clash?
Yeah, it did. In fact, I have often thought I would love to be a professional cricketer now, with the money they are earning, but then I wouldn't have my pigeons because there is no time. I think I'd probably play, though. [Laughs] And then retire and race pigeons.

Do you read up more about pigeons than cricket?
Is Ian Chappell around? [Looks around] I'm not a cricket vegetable. By that I mean, Ian Chappell can sit here and talk, and would talk, cricket to you all day. When we played, after stumps they'd be in the dressing room still in their gear, talking cricket till 10 o'clock. Half-past six, I am gone. If we are on tour, I'll go out to the theatre or somewhere. Between 11 and 6, I was fanatical. Once six o'clock comes, it was a new world out there.

Nobody would believe that after listening to you on air.
That's between 11 and 6. That's when I get worked up. Even if my batting might not have shown it, I was always excited. I always appealed the loudest on the field. A bloke like Ian Chappell would, after the game, sit down with a drink. Doug Walters and four or five around him. You come back the next day and the dressing room would be wrecked. For me, I just loved the competition. Didn't necessarily like the next part after that. I didn't mind it. I would rather go with somebody like Ian Redpath or Keith Stackpole to the movies or the theatre or to the foyer. Even here with Channel Nine, after the game, Tony Greig and I would go for a meal at half-past seven and come back at half-past nine, and the others would be going out then. Everybody is different.

"One day a pigeon landed in the grandstand of the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the cameramen go, 'There's a pigeon.' And Greigy said, 'There's a pigeon.' And I said, 'There's Wendy, Greigy.'" © Getty Images

Can you tell from looking at a pigeon that it could be a good racer?
No I can't. I breed a hundred pigeons a year. If I can get two really good ones - two out of a 100 - then I am having a very good season. It's a little bit like breeding a greyhound or a racehorse. Pigeons are unlike the greyhounds or the racehorse, which you can see go around. With pigeons you can't. So it's more trial and error.

So you send them only for the main race or is there a trial?
We build up. We have about 22 races in a season. We start with 100 miles, 150 miles, 200 miles and 300 miles. As you go, you find that the weak ones drop off and the better ones come forward. That's how you work out which ones are good.

Do you communicate with these pigeons?
[Laughs] No. Imagine I am a horse trainer. Or a trotting trainer. They have horses. I have pigeons.

Do you have names for them?
No, but if I walked into my loft, I can tell you each one, who its parents are. They are like looking at your brothers and sisters. If you walked in, they will look all the same to you.

Can you call a pigeon race?
You can't call a pigeon race. The thing about a pigeon race is, it's a patience game. They take them away to the race point. I am sitting here. I have to wait. I wait and wait and wait. If it's a strong headwind, say they are racing that way and the wind is blowing this way, they will do 40 miles an hour. If the wind is blowing that way, they might do 65 miles an hour. I am waiting at home with my pigeon clock, my time and my friends, and you wait and you wait. There might be a storm here that I don't know about at 200 miles. Until they come, you don't know.

The home stretch?
Yeah, you jump up like going, "He's out. Here's one." And you go "What a ripper", and you think you have a winner and you go down to the club. This other fellow is an hour in front of you. So, all of a sudden you are down again.

You scored Test hundreds and won Test matches as captain. Can you describe the thrill of winning a pigeon race?
It's a different thing. I suppose the thing with a pigeon race is, you breed the parents, then you breed the bird and then you train it every day of its life. You feed it. I am cleaning the loft every day. Every day of my life I am cleaning out a pigeon loft. Then you send them away. My pigeons are in a race with 4000 or 5000 other pigeons and I send 15. So the odds aren't great. When you get a good one, that's when you get a thrill. It's a friendship that you make. When you win, it's great. Like when you win a Test match, it's great. I have got a friend of mine. We trained together. We sit there for two or three hours waiting. That's wonderful. We are both in our 60s and 70s and we enjoy it.

You were once quoted saying you have made more friends in pigeon-racing than in cricket…
That's my choice. Don't get me wrong. I have made a lot of friends in cricket. But as I said, every tour I went to England or South Africa, I would spend every Sunday with pigeon fanciers. I've still got heaps of friends. Bob Barber I send Christmas cards to every year since the time I played against him in England.

Did your wife know she was marrying you and your pigeons?
I told her, "Look I am playing cricket. This will last about ten years and then cricket will be over. If you can put up with that. I have to be honest with you. I am a pigeon fancier and I will have them for the rest of my life, so you have to be prepared for that." Because that was the only way I would be happy, and she was happy to put up with the pigeons. But unfortunately my cricket career went for ten years there to 37 years here [in commentary].

Who came up with the name Wendy?
What happened was, Greigy used to know about my pigeon love because he had a few South African fancier friends. We are sitting one day and a pigeon landed in the grandstand of the Sydney Cricket Ground, and the cameramen are fantastic and they go, "There's a pigeon." And Greigy said, "There's a pigeon." And I said, "There's Wendy, Greigy." And it went on. And we come back next day and Greigy says, "I have given Wendy the kraaahhhh [the cut-throat]." And I go, "What?" This is going on air and people are loving it. That's Greigy. He could make something out of nothing.

What did you think of the ribbing from the other commentators and Billy Birmingham?
First they made fun of me because they thought I was slow when I batted, and now they make fun of me because of my pigeons. [Laughs]

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo