Bird on the high wire

Guy Williams meets a veteran umpire facing a formidable task in Australia
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The Independent Online
LIKE the monarchy and motorway cones, Dickie Bird is a national institution, a seemingly ageless component in the British way of life. He has been a permanent fixture for so long that it is perhaps surprising that cricket's most cherished umpire has officiated in only 64 Tests, 92 one-day internationals and three World Cup finals since his white cap first appeared at Headingley in 1973.

Always willing to relish the heat of battle, Bird, 62, is sacrificing comfortable seats at Oakwell and Hillsborough to umpire in the potentially explosive series between Australia and Pakistan. Given the volatile background - the Salim Malik affair and the allegations of Pakistani ball- tampering - Bird's skills could be tested as never before in the second and third Tests at Hobart and Sydney later this month.

"I wouldn't say I'm worried, but it saddens me to read the happenings in Australia. I think the captains, Mark Taylor and Wasim Akram, will calm it down during the series. It'll be played in a good spirit. I umpired in Pakistan against Australia last year and the conduct of both teams was a credit to their profession. If any trouble happens, I'll crack a joke to get them laughing. All sports are to be enjoyed. Let's have a smile and a laugh. People in sport are now very serious. They don't seem to smile anymore."

Bird is indignant at mutterings that maybe at 62 he is showing signs of decline. "My reactions are still very good and I get the same buzz as I did in my first Test," he says. "If you're physically fit, you're mentally fit. I do 20 minutes of exercises every morning. I do trunk curls which strengthen my stomach muscles and the bottom of my back. I also walk a lot, don't smoke and seldom drink."

The heat in Australia, though, will surely be too much for someone approaching his pension: "I don't mind it. I've umpired there before and in all the hot countries. You have to keep talking to yourself out there, 'Come on, concentrate, concentrate.' So far, I've never nodded off.

"Experience is golden in any profession. I feel in the last few years, the experience I've gained has certainly helped. I've always said umpiring is application, dedication, concentration and common sense. The most important thing is to gain the respect of the players. If you treat them as professionals, they'll respect you in turn."

Unquestionably, the job retains its appeal and satisfaction - "after all, I've given my life to the game". But there are some reservations.

"Umpiring's got more difficult because of the media exposure," he says, "and the other point is mass appealing. It's putting pressure on umpires and there's nothing in the laws to stop it. Maybe there should be."

Bird is also in favour of the most recent innovation, the TV umpire: "The camera is a tremendous help for the line decisions and it could assist with low slip catches. But I wouldn't like it for lbws and catches behind. If you brought cameras in for nearly every decision, the umpire would lose confidence. It's cost a lot of money and I think we've got to go for the camera, because you never know."

So while a flak jacket may be of more use Down Under than a light meter, there is no thought of putting it away for good, and Bird intends to wear his white cap for another three or four years to come.

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