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THE END OF AN UMPIRE

 

Dickie Bird is hanging up his Test match jacket. How will international cricket survive without him? And can he survive without it?

 

You would be forgiven for thinking that a man who fills his front room with over 100 photographs, portraits, cartoons - even a tapestry - of himself must be insufferably arrogant. Not Dickie Bird. To meet the world’s most famous cricket umpire is to understand the difference between arrogance and pride. 

 

For Dickie Bird’s predominant emotion is one of gratitude. He can scarcely believe that the game has done so much for him. In return he has turned his Yorkshire house - and indeed his whole life - into a shrine to cricket. “I’ve given everything to cricket. I’ve never married. I’m married to cricket, you see.”

 

I can hardly fail to see. Even the safety grille inside his front door is forged out of iron bars cast in the shape of interlocking golden cricket bats. Signed bats are propped against the wall, a glass cabinet is filled with cricket balls and trophies and Dennis Lillee’s tie hangs in the corner. A framed card inviting Mr Harold Bird to lunch with the Queen is on the mantelpiece, next to the menu detailing his meal with John Major at Chequers - quail’s eggs followed by roast venison.

 

Yet despite the innumerable accolades, he is constantly seeking reassurance, particularly now that he has just made the hardest decision of his life. Although he is only 62 and does not have to retire until 1998, he has chosen to leave international cricket this summer, and the shockwaves are still reverberating through his psyche. 

 

“Do you think I’ve done the right thing?” he asks me, of all people. “I wanted to go out at the top and be remembered with dignity. I didn’t want people to say Dickie Bird was slipping.” 

 

The phone rings for the first of many times during the morning and an almost identical conversation takes place. “Do you think I did the right thing?” he asks the caller. 

 

Speaking to his sister, Marjorie Wyatt, later that day, I realise that it is little more than a conversational tick. “It drives me mad,” she says with fondness. “He’s been asking me all week what I think about him going, and to be honest, it shocked me, yet he never mentioned it before he made up his mind. At the end of the day, he always knows what’s best and does exactly what he thinks anyway.” 

 

But decisions, at least those that are taken off the field, do not come easily to Dickie. Even a simple arrangement, like where we are going to sit, becomes semi-farcical.

 

“Shall we sit here or here?” he asks, pointing to two rooms either side of the front door.

 

“Whichever suits you,” I reply.

 

“Well, let’s sit here then,” he suggests doubtfully, leading the way into the main sitting-room. But he looks unhappy. “It’s entirely up to you but we could move through here,” he says, diving towards the kitchen-cum-study next door.

 

“Okay,” I say, following him. He starts pulling a chair over to the desk, strewn with letters and offers from publishers. “I usually sit through there though,” he says, looking towards the sitting-room. 

 

To cut a long story short, we end up in the sitting-room. He explains happily that he worries about everything. He nearly didn’t go to umpire in India recently because he was worried about the pneumonic plague. “And if there’s nothing to worry about, I invent something.”

 

Every time he leaves the house, he invariably returns to check something. “I’ll be charging down the motorway and I’ll suddenly wonder if I’ve turned the gas fire off. So I come back, and when I leave again I worry whether I remembered to turn the burglar alarm back on.”

 

To forestall all these potential crises, he always makes sure he has several hours in hand. For lunch at Buckingham Palace he left his 17th-century cottage in the mining village of Staincross, near Barnsley, at 5.30am and arrived at the palace gates three hours later. “The police recognized me and said, ‘You’re a bit early for lunch. We haven’t had the Changing of the Guard yet.’ So I went and sat in a coffee shop round the corner for four hours.”

 

The event itself was one of the happiest days of his life. He was particularly worried about the grapes, which he had decided to avoid as he knew they had to be cut with scissors. Yet when the moment came, he thought it would be rude to refuse. “They went all over the floor but the Queen said: ‘Don’t worry, Dickie, the corgis will look after them.’ She made me feel so comfortable.”

 

The Prime Minister was more accommodating when Dickie arrived early. He tells these stories in a tone of surprise, as if a force beyond his control lands him at the appointed place well before the appointed hour. “I was supposed to be at Chequers at 12 o’clock and somehow I got there at 9.30 so the police rang John Major and he said: ‘If it’s Dickie, then send him through.’ So I went and sat with John and Norma for two-and-a-half hours, nattering about cricket.”

 

Didn’t John Major have to run the country that morning, I ask?

 

“Oh no,” exclaims Dickie. “It was a Sunday, you see.”

 

“He’s always a bag of nerves,” says Martyn Moxon, the former Yorkshire captain. “Before a match, he stalks around, rabbiting on and on. I think it gives him the nervous energy he needs to go out there.”

 

Once on the pitch, he shows a swift and unerring judgment. Wearing his distinctive white cap, he twitches incessantly, hops around in agitation and stares manically at his light-meter. But he has an extraordinary instinct for the right verdict. It is only in the past year or so that a couple of his decisions have been called into question, and a fear of ruining his reputation with a serious error has perhaps influenced his decision to depart. 

 

“I don’t think anybody in his sixties can be as good as when he’s in his forties,” he says, sadly. He has had a good innings. In 23 years he has umpired 65 Tests, 92 one-day Internationals and three World Cup finals. “No one in history has done that,” he states proudly. 

 

Dickie repeats this a couple of times. “If I say something, nine times out of 10 I will repeat myself,” he says, repeating even this without a hint of irony. 

 

Bird may be eccentric but he is no idiot. Although the cricketers play practical jokes on him, they have the greatest respect for him. His countenance can quickly change to one of thunderous scorn if he disapproves of someone’s behavior. 

 

Although technological advances have changed his job drastically, Bird does not think the human umpire will ever be redundant. “We need electronic aids for the close runout and the close stumping but that is all. I think umpires will be here until the end of time.”

 

Not this umpire however. Although he will continue with country cricket for two years, June 20 will be his last day at International level, and he cannot contemplate that day at Lord’s without great emotion. He speaks ponderously as though reciting a poem: “When I walk down those stairs at Lord’s, through the Long Room at Lord’s, when I walk down those stairs for the very last time, I think there will be a few tears shed.” He sighs deeply and shakes his head: “Oh dear! I’ve got a tear in my eye even now.”

 

He invests it with such drama that you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is not a life-and-death situation. But to Dickie, of course, it is everything, and it must have taken a great deal of courage to make his decision. “He has nothing outside cricket,” says his sister Marjorie, who lives nearby and cleans for him. “He’s like a recluse in Barnsley.” 

 

Although close to marriage on three occasions, he never went ahead. “I have lived my life out of a suitcase and I knew I could not be fair to a wife.”

 

Dressed in torn slippers and an old sweatshirt, he has an engaging smile which lights up his face. He is an emotional man and is usually poised between chuckles and tears. Sometimes the two combine. “I’ve cried for joy on occasion,” he says earnestly. 

 

One of his biggest regrets is not having a son in whom he can inspire the same devotion to cricket. Coming from a close-knit family, he speaks very lovingly of his parents, particularly his mother, with whom he lived until her death. “You can have all the friends in the world, but your mother is your best friend. She will never let you down.”

 

Harold Bird, who was nicknamed Dickie at school, wishes his father could have witnessed his success. A miner, he never wanted Dickie to follow him into the pits and encouraged him as a cricketer. As Marjorie says: “Cricket domineered - and I mean domineered - the household when we were children.”

 

Although Dickie was a good cricketer, he was never first-class. Unable to play for Yorkshire’s first team on a regular basis, he was thrilled to score 181 not out for the county and mystified when dropped for the next match. In an unusual fit of bitterness, he resigned and went to play for Leicestershire, a move he regrets now. “If I’ve made one mistake in my life, that's it. I’m a man of loyalty and I should have stayed with Yorkshire.”

 

Dickie hopes that he will be able to act as a referee now and travel the world watching Test matches. He has even received an invitation from Paul Getty to become resident umpire on his own cricket pitch. Although umpiring is not particularly lucrative, he says that he is “comfortable” financially. 

 

“What worries me is that if I sit here where you see me now” - he pats the side of his tall crimson armchair - “I will just worry myself away. I’d be dead within 12 months.” 

 

A deeply religious man, Bird prays at his bedside morning and night and says he will take in his stride whatever the future holds for him. “I am prepared to suffer now because I am so grateful to the good Lord for everything he has given me, particularly my MBE, which means more to me than my own life.”

 

Ray Illingworth, paying tribute to Dickie Bird, says that besides being the greatest umpire in history, he has no malice. Bird agrees vigorously, saying that he has never disliked or criticised anyone. But, rather than basking in self-glorification, he worries that it might mask a failing. “I’m the type of bloke that never questions anything. Probably I don’t fight for the things I should fight for.”

 

In a rare moment of self-analysis, he adds that his docility is partly due to shyness. “If aunties and uncles came to visit us when I was a child, I would always go out of the room. I was probably shy with girls too.” He repeats this last sentence three times.

 

He admits to loneliness, but says he has become too set in his ways ever to share his life now. One suspects that he prefers his solitude and uses cricket as an excuse, a shield against intrusion.

 

“I only ever think about cricket,” he explains. “In the middle of the night I jump up, dreaming that bowlers are appearing at me, shouting: ‘Howzat! Howzat!”

 

Won’t it be nice to watch cricket matches in the future without worrying about hairline decisions? “No,” he says bluntly: “I’ll miss it.” The words are invested with such gruff emotion that for once he does not feel the need to repeat himself.

As published in The Sunday Telegraph on January 21st 1996

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