Dickie Bird: the most famous of all umpires, 1997

The man who stole the show

Tony Lewis

Harold Dennis Bird known to the cricket world as Dickie, retired from Test match umpiring in 1996, aged 63. He had completed 23 years at the top and his 66 Tests were a record; he stood in three World Cup finals and 68 one-day internationals. His career coincided with the advent of television coverage of cricket by satellite to many parts of the world; consequently his fame was global. Frank Chester, who umpired in England between 1924 and 1955, was once described as "the most famous of all umpires". There is no doubt that this accolade now belongs to Dickie Bird.

Personal celebrity, however, was never thought to sit easily alongside excellence in a professional cricket umpire, and so Bird's retirement provoked debate. Was he television-made? Was he better known for his eccentric, theatrical behaviour than for his wise judgments? Administrators of the British game used to throw their hands to their faces, hoping to mask the sight of Dickie running to the boundary behind the bowler's arm to deliver loud Yorkshire strictures to someone disturbing the batsman's concentration. Hands on hips, he would address a hospitality box three floors above, informing them that their open glass door was reflecting sunshine into a player's eyes. Everything he said was in the manner of the lugubrious northern over-the-garden-wall comedian. "Shut that door. Shut it. Where d'yer think you are?"

Sometimes he himself seemed to be the interruption. When he prepared to umpire in Sharjah, in the Gulf, for the first time, he was advised not to subject his eyes to the dazzle of the sun which bounced up off the shiny pitch. Instead he was told to look away from the playing surface between balls, and to divert his eyes to the grassy surrounds. So after the first ball from his end, he set off on a crouching, circular walk, like someone searching for a lost contact lens within a 15-yard radius of the stumps, and kept that up all day. Afterwards, he thanked his adviser: "Me eyes were great, they were. Great they were, me eyes". The conclusion was that he was not performing theatricals but that it was "just Dickie".

In Frank Chester's day, umpires were seen but rarely heard. They had been brought up as players on ground staffs in counties captained by amateurs but heavily influenced by the senior professional. There was hierarchy and discipline, and so the control they exerted as umpires was by the odd word to the captain or senior pro - and perhaps only a whisper: "Have a word with your fast bowler. He's pushing his luck with that appealing".

Chester virtually created the modern profession of umpiring by his serious approach to the smallest detail. After him, Syd Buller was outstanding: massively unobtrusive, entirely dependable. His decisions were quick and clean. Players were happy with his judgments; even if they had not been, no one would have dared leave the field with a shaking head. Charlie Elliott, another protector of the spirit of cricket, was often Buller's companion in Tests, and also operated without fuss or palaver. And so it must have been a fascinating umpires' room at Headingley in England's Third Test against New Zealand in 1973 when Elliott, of the old school, welcomed Dickie Bird to Test cricket.

"I have never seen anyone so nervous in my life," Elliott recalled. "I thought he would never make it to the middle let alone give good decisions. Then I saw something which was a clue to his future reputation. He gave Ray Illingworth out lbw. The bowler was the New Zealand seamer Bruce Taylor and he was bowling round the wicket. I thought from square leg - 'How can that be out? A seamer bowling right-arm round the wicket?' But I saw it later on television and I liked what I saw. Dickie was absolutely correct: the ball had moved back into Illingworth from the line of off stump. It was a top-class instant decision."

There are not many secret corners to Dickie Bird's life; he has written autobiographies and has been the subject of many written and broadcast profiles. Son of a Barnsley miner, still cared for by his sister; nervous, dithery off the field, highly strung. A former Leicestershire team-mate of his, Ray Julian, remembers how Bird needed help to strap on his pads and put his sausage-fingered gloves on the right hands before walking out to bat. And not a lot has changed when we share an umpires' dressing-room now. Julian, like Charlie Elliot, talks of a different Dickie once he is crouched behind the stumps.

There is no doubt that his failure to become an established county cricketer heightened his appreciation of being an umpire. But it was the cricket he did play - from 1956 to 1959 with Yorkshire, from 1960 to 1964 with Leicestershire - that helped him become such an outstanding umpire. So has it been with most first-class umpires in England. Bird carried over from his playing days a strong sympathy for the legion of cricketers who plied their daily trade. He cared for professional standards.

Everyone agrees that he has been a very good umpire for a long time. It is the other little choices he has always found so difficult. But there is a special relationship between Bird and other umpires. His colleagues have been willing to take over when Bird's nerves are twanging at the thought of making tricky decisions about bad light or resuming play after rain. Where Dickie has been unique is in his rapport with players, and with the crowds watching at the ground or on television. The message emanating from Bird's whole being is his complete understanding of the spirit of the game, and his ability to preserve sporting play. Charlie Elliot agrees that international umpiring is more difficult these days. These is far more shouting, far more concerted appealing; as fielders, protected by helmets and padding, have moved in closer to the bat, the appeals for catches off bat and pad are now acted out in order to deceive the umpire. This is cheating.

If there was similar trouble in the old days, Buller or Elliot or Harry Baldwin would simply address the captain and tell him to control his players; the captain, after all, is responsible for preserving the spirit of the game. Bird, however, was able to chide individuals who specialised in sledging opponents and cursing umpires. He had their respect. Merv Hughes, Dennis Lillee and Javed Miandad, who were all verbally bellicose, accepted that he could laugh with them and yet caution them. They knew Dickie Bird put cricket above his own life.

As he leaves the Test match scene, the job has become more and more burdensome. Decisions made by humans in white coats are checked endlessly against technology on television and they are sometimes proved wrong. The use of a third umpire to pass judgment may bring about correct decisions but it undermines the authority or the umpire in the middle and erodes his confidence.

We are left looking back at the Dickie Bird phenomenon. His huge appeal was based on his personal vulnerability. He was a magnet for minor disasters. But the watching world was affectionate; old ladies wanted to mother him. Here was a real character, fun to observe in days when the cricketers themselves had become anonymous under helmets and behind visors. In a busy main street in Colombo he once got out of a car on the wrong side and found himself in the middle of hooting Ambassador cars, fast bicycles, slow ox-carts, and listing Leyland buses, all bearing down on him. Suddenly everyone stopped. They began pointing and shouting: "Mr Dickie Bird". He played to the crowd and gave them his funny hunched run to safety, repeating louder than any of them, "Mr Dickie Bird. Mr Dickie Bird".

His final exit at Lord's, 1996, was incredible. He was given a Hollywood-style reception which has never been afforded to any player, let alone an umpire. Don Bradman and Viv Richards were applauded to the crease when they played their last innings in England, and The Don was given three cheers. Umpire Bird walked out of the Long Room and the whole of Lord's stood and applauded. Even more, the players of the England and India sides were out on the grass to form a corridor of appreciation. Frank Chester would not have recognised the scene nor, I guess, would he and his contemporaries have approved the elevation of an umpire so far above the real craftsmen who bat, bowl and field.

But if you wanted the essence of Dickie Bird encapsulated in a few minutes, you could have seen it that day. One moment he was dabbing at his tears with a handkerchief; then at the fifth ball of the match he gave a rock-solid decision for lbw against Mike Atherton, the England captain. It is probably true that Dickie was a natural character who became a conscious character. But he never allowed anything to stand in the way of the fair conduct of the game. This is why he retained the trust of the players and stayed at the top so long.

Tony Lewis captained Glamorgan and England. He is a journalist and broadcaster

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