Dickie Bird, born April 19, 1933, was more than an umpire. He was an institution within cricket, universally loved and respected, and instantly recognisable. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this only superstar among umpires.
Sir Garfield Sobers had flown in from the other side of the world. Geoffrey Boycott, Ray Illingworth, Brian Close and Fred Trueman were there rooting for their former Yorkshire colleague. There were filmed tributes from Dennis Lillee, Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Graham Gooch, David Gower, Imran Khan, Michael Parkinson, Brian Johnston — and even John Major. When the producers had got in touch with the British Prime Minister, he had replied that normally he would not do such a thing, but for this man, yes.
There were other guests — from the British peerage, pillars of journalism, famed actors. All had assembled for the episode of the British biographical television documentary This is Your Life focusing on Harold Dennis Bird, otherwise known to the world as ‘Dickie’.
The man himself was touched. What affected him the most perhaps was the presence of the wheelchair borne ‘Chunky’ Charlton, his old pit manager at Monk Bretton Colliery, where as a young man he had started to earn his wages. He had come a long way since then, one of the most respected and universally loved umpires ever, the first and only superstar in his trade. Bird himself wrote later on, “It has been my life, and it has been a marvellous one.”
For 22 years, Dickie Bird stood behind the stumps and at square-leg, white cap on his head, shoulders twitching, the forearms performing that idiosyncratic stretch, engaging in conversation with the players. Never once did he lose control.
He had to stop play often — because of reasons as commonplace as rain and soggy outfield and as exotic as snow, flying a VC10, bomb scares and streakers. He has had policemen accosting him as he tried to climb over the gates to get into the ground. He has had his share or intimidating bowling and the usual barrackers to deal with. He took all that in his stride. The standard remained impeccable throughout. The respect of the players increased with each passing day.
In his first season in the county championship, he finished fifth in the rating of English umpires that is conducted by the Test and County Cricket Board. Over the years, his lowest rating was 3.95 out of five, and that season he finished as first amongst his peers. He saw many changes — the stipulations of umpiring grew larger and meticulously detailed. Breaches in playing condition, light meter readings, conduct of players — clauses were added by the dozen. In 1995, the year before he called it a day, the system of rating had changed to a 10-point scale, and Bird got eight.
He stood in the first World Cup final, and had his trademark white cap snatched from his head by an enthusiastic West Indian fan. Years later he discovered it on the head of a West Indian bus conductor, who had proudly told him how he had taken it after the 1975 World Cup final off the head of Mr. Dickie Bird, the great Test match umpire.
He stood in the second and third World Cup finals as well. By the time the Reliance Cup was played in India and Pakistan in 1987, neutral umpires were in vogue. Allan Border, captain of Australia, made an official plea for Dickie Bird to be allowed to stand in the final. The team the Australians were playing in the title round was England. Bird commanded a respect that went far beyond the petty partisan problems. He was an institution.
Indeed, sometimes the regard in which people held him ended making him embarrassed. A devout man, he had once been officiating in Barbados and had gone into a Methodist church just before the start of the service. It was jam-packed with people and he had squeezed into the back of the gathering. The preacher had got up and started the sermon saying, “Brothers and sisters, we have in our midst Dickie Bird, the Test umpire from England.”
The Yorkshire cricketer
It is perhaps unknown to a sizeable section of cricket followers that in his day, Bird had been a good enough opening batsman to make periodic appearances for a very strong Yorkshire side.
Born in Barnsley, he was the son of a coalminer. As he says, “We had no bathroom in those days and the only toilet was outside, but it was a good place to read the sports pages without being interrupted.”By the time he went to school, he had been named Dickie — as with all the Birds in the register. At a young age, he started working on the pit top in the fitting shop at Monk Bretton.
Coal miners have had a long history with cricket. There was an era when it was said, “You only have to shout down a pit shaft and up would pop a fast bowler.” Harold Larwood, Bill Voce and Fred Trueman came from the mines. It was not restricted to fast bowlers though, because at the same time as Bird, growing up in another pit in Fitzwilliam was Geoff Boycott.
As a kid, Bird’s dreams were of being a double international for England. One of his best friends was Tommy Taylor, who went on to play as a centre-forward for Manchester United and England. Bird trained with him and played both football and cricket till a cartilage operation at 15 put an end to his soccer ambitions.
The day he went to Yorkshire for a trial, the coaches who looked at the young lad were Arthur Mitchell and Maurice Leyland. Mitchell asked him to pad up, pointing at a small group and indicating, “Them three there will send thee a few balls down.” Bird looked across the ground to realise that ‘them three’ were Fred Trueman, Bob Appleyeard and Johnny Wadle. He hardly lay bat on ball for the 15 minutes, but kept coming back and went on to play for Yorkshire.
Considering that apart from ‘them three’, the Yorkshire team comprised of Willie Watson, Frank Lowson, Jimmy Binks, Ray Illingworth, Don Wilson, Brian Bolus and Brian Close, it was quite natural that he had to struggle to find a place in the team. Bird spent most of his days as the 12th man.
Yet, he did play some good innings, including 181 against Glamorgan in 1959. The Yorkshire team of the day was such that after this innings Bird was dropped. Later, having moved to Leicestershire, he added 277 for the first wicket with Maurice Hallam against the touring South Africans of 1960.
Bird retired from First-Class cricket at a fairly early age of 31, and for a few seasons coached at Plymouth College and played professionally for Paignton Cricket Club. He even obtained an advanced coaching certificate and went to South Africa to coach in schools, along with Geoff Boycott, Phil Sharpe, Don Wilson and Tony Nicholson.
The budding umpire
It was during one of Paignton’s games against a touring team called Heffle Cuckoos that the visiting side’s captain, former Middlesex and England fast bowler JJ Warr, asked Bird whether he wanted to be an umpire. At first Bird laughed at the idea. However, the thought stuck.
Illingworth, Boycott, Parkinson and others, who knew him well, thought he was too nervous to make a good umpire. However, eventually Bird changed his personality altogether. He had soon made up his mind, and by May 1970 he was officiating in his first First-Class match — between Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire in Trent Bridge, with the cast of characters including Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Lance Gibbs, Mike Smith and Dennis Amiss.
Bird adhered to two sound principles. Syd Buller’s words of wisdom — “If you make a mistake, and we all make one from time to time, put it out of our mind straightaway and concentrate on the next ball.” And the most important rule: “Never try to even it up. If you do, that is two mistakes you have made.”
The transition from player to umpire took a bit of time. In his second match between Surry and Yorkshire at The Oval, he had problems finding a hotel, and had to settle for a Swiss Cottage on the other side of Thames. Since it was the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, Bird was terrified of being late due to the streaming crowds. He got up at 4.30 and reached the ground before six o’clock. He was climbing over the gate when stopped by a London policeman. It took some convincing to establish that he was the umpire.
In another of his early matches, between Surey and Hampshire at Guildford, Richard Gilliat lofted a ball into the air, and Bird ran from his position behind the stumps to the boundary and almost caught it before signalling six. And when at Southampton Lancashire wicketkeeper Keith Goodwin set off for a second run which seemed impossible, Bird yelled, “No Goody, get back, get back.”
The Tests commence
However, soon he had adjusted into his new role, and in 1973, he stood for his first Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley. Naturally, he was at the ground at seven o’clock and had to wait for the ground staff to arrive and let him in. At that time he was the third youngest umpire in the history of the English game.
John Snow, who bowled magnificently in the Test, wrote in his newspaper column: “There is nothing like a Test match at Headingley for bringing out the best in a Yorkshire-born cricketer… Geoff Boycott’s great century, Ray Illingworth’s highest score in the series, Chris Old’s performance with the ball… Don’t overlook the performance of another Yorkshireman, Harold Dickie Bird from Barnsley, making his debut as a Test umpire. Dickie was so keen to get going that he was at Headingley on the first day while the rest of us were still tucked up in bed. He is easily recognisable with his white flat hat, his elaborate signals and his speed off the mark getting into position for run-outs.”
During that match, a regular lively spectator, Ronald Griffiths, had barracked Bird. When a delivery by Old had been signalled a wide, Griffiths had yelled, “Give the lad a chance.” Bird immediately took off his white umpire’s coat and offered it to Griffith. The crowd was won over. All his career, this was the standard Bird treatment for barracking spectators, and it seldom failed.
Soon, Bird handled everything thrown at him with composure. Complaints often flowed against other umpires, and it was common for touring teams to request for Dickie Bird to take over. In first happened when the West Indians objected to Dusty Rhodes for the 1973 Test at Lord’s. It was the first time Bird officiated at Lord’s and it was a full house. However, the match was held up when it was announced on the public address system that there was a warning from the IRA that a bomb had been planted in the ground. The West Indian supporters asked him to look at the scoreboard — the visitors 652 for eight — and worry about that rather than the bomb, but it was a harrowing experience. Especially since a bomb had gone off in Baker Street that morning.
It was the 1975 World Cup final, when Bird, in spite of losing his cap, found a place in the immortal tales through John Arlott’s magical description, “Gilmour comes in, bowlers, and Lloyd hits him high over hill and dale and mid-wicket, the stroke of a man knocking a thistle-top off with a walking stick… Umpire Bird’s having a wonderful time, signalling everything in the world, including traffic coming on from behind.”
Dealing with problems
Over the years, Bird dealt with his share of intimidatory bowling, but with such sublime grace that every maverick bowler eventually accepted his words of wisdom. When Kenneth Benjamin bounced Devon Malcolm, he said, “I don’t think Devon Malcolm can defend himself. He is not good enough. I don’t want any more of it.” Benjamin pitched the next ball up and the stumps were flattened.
When Malcolm Marshall bowled too many short balls, Bird stepped in. Marshall childishly kicked the ball to the boundary. Bird said, “Malcolm, while I have a word with the captain, I would like you fetch that ball back” Marshall kept to a good length and took five wickets, and as they were coming off, the great fast bowler observed, “It probably did me a lot of good, Dickie.”
Even when Sarfraz Nawaz bowled a beamer and Tony Greig threatened to wrap the bat around the bowler’s neck head in response, it was handled impeccably. The terrible two of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee agreed to cut the bouncers down. In fact, a character like Lillee presented him his official touring tie with the message, “Going back to Australia with an open-neck shirt. You can have my tie because you are a great guy and we all think you are a fair umpire.”
Bird always made straight, concise decisions. Not many were disputed, and even if they were, his integrity was never doubted. He liked to be absolutely clear and meticulous. His ‘no ball’ call rang out so loud that once it induced a batsman in a neighbouring ground into a false stroke. Once at Lord’s he was practicing his signals. Don Wilson, head coach of the indoor school at the ground called the young trainees over saying, “Look there, that’s my old pal Dickie Bird. He’ll practice his art at every opportunity and I’m asking you all to do the same.”
He had his problems, but most of them were minor and linked to incidents peripheral to cricket. In 1986, a buxom Joanna Duchesne ran on the pitch with nothing on but her panties, and, grabbing the bails, put them down her only piece of garment. It had placed Bird in a spot, until police-woman Lorraine Arscott saved the day.
And then there was the lady who had a drink or two. She was fully dressed, but refused to leave unless kissed by Mr. Dickie Bird. “So naturally I obliged and very nice it was.”
He had been dehydrated in the sweltering heat of Sharjah and had to be carried off the field by Roger Harper and Courtney Walsh.
Once, lying ill with fever in a hospital in Pakistan, he had been visited by Allan Lamb, who had asked half a dozen army guards to come into the room and take aim with their guns, “Right. Put the poor bugger out of his misery. Aim and fire.”
Lamb also once set fire to the paper Bird had been reading (providing the hottest news of the day)
And while at the crease, Lamb had once asked Bird to hold his mobile phone for him. Bird had obliged after initial hesitation, but then the phone had started ringing. Lamb asked him to answer it.
“Hello, Dickie Bird speaking on Allan Lamb’s phone.”
The response rang through in concise words: “This is Ian Botham from the dressing room. Tell that fellow Lamb either to play a few shots or get out.”
Money is not everything
But overall, Bird enjoyed a wonderful 22 years, umpiring 66 Tests, 69 ODIs, including three World Cup finals. He has had people recognising him at far corners of the world, dishes named after him in India, and racehorses in England. He had been umpiring a match between Kent and Worcestershire at Canterbury when Dickie Bird the horse pipped the others to the post.
His autobiography, written with Keith Lodge became the biggest seller among sports books. And before a heart attack slowed him down, he had been a much sought after and entertaining after dinner speaker.
He has met the Queen often, and when presented his MBE, he had naturally arrived four hours in advance. When they finally met, Her Royal Highness had informed him, “I’m coming to the Test Match on Friday, so I’ll see you there. You will give me time to sit down and have my cup of tea, won’t you? Oh, by the way, I don’t want you bringing them off for bad light.”
And when John Major invited him for lunch, Bird was at Downing Street at nine o’clock. After two hours in the car, he announced himself to the security men. They buzzed Major, “Excuse me Prime Minister, we’ve got a right early Bird here. What shall we do with him?” Major answered, “If that’s Dickie, send him down”
During his career, Bird turned down a mind-boggling offer from Kerry Packer, and an offer to umpire matches in South Africa.
Bird writes, “When I was a pit lad at Monk Bretton I watched my dad crawling on his stomach 18 inches high. It was so tight he had to take his trousers off halfway through and leave them to be collected on the way back. But for cricket, I would probably have been having that myself for five days a week. Instead, I’d had a life of sunshine, travelled all over, brushed shoulders with royalty many times. What more could I want? Anyway, what is the good of money in the bank when the sun is shining in June and you have nowhere to go?”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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