Cricket: Bird calls over on a glorious career

Cricket: A British institution hangs up his white coat this weekend and there will not be a dry eye in the house
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been an emotional summer for Harold Dennis Bird. Having turned 65 in April, he is compelled, after 28 white-coated years, to hang up his trademark white cap and step down from the rota of first-class umpires. Every match, usually his last appearance at one ground or another, has had a sense of finality.

His home near Barnsley has filled up with mementoes, new ones every week, and he has shed a few tears before moving on to the next show of appreciation and affection. Today, however, the journey reaches its end.

The meeting of Yorkshire and Warwickshire at Headingley is Dickie Bird's final swansong. He will stand in the Championship match between the sides and bow out for good by officiating in the AXA League fixture between the same teams on Sunday. He does not expect to remain dry-eyed.

"I feel very sad, very emotional, but the laws of cricket say an umpire must retire at 65, so there's nothing you can do about it," he said.

"But it will leave a big hole in my life. I've known nothing else but cricket. I've been married to the game, really.

"I started at Headingley 50 years ago, as a 15-year-old turning up to practise. It's nice that I'm finishing at Headingley, too, because I do have some happy memories of the place."

Then again, he has happy memories of almost every corner of the cricketing world, having achieved the distinction, probably unique, of winning the respect of players and his peers in all the nations where the game is played. Viv Richards called him "the best Test umpire I ever saw", and there are few higher compliments.

"Wherever I go in the world, there are always friends, always invitations to dinner," he said, before reeling off a Who's Who of the game's most celebrated names. "I like to think it is because I gained people's respect.

"I shall miss that part of it most of all, the comradeship and friendship with players and with my fellow umpires."

Few were more consistent - and consistently right - in decision-making than Bird. But he managed also to be a character, an entertainer, a figure of fun sometimes, almost to the extent that no match he stood in could be regarded as complete without some incident to provoke the repertoire of agitated twitches and gesticulations for which he is known and loved.

Crowds would almost want there to be a spectator in front of the sight screen, some unruly pigeons encroaching on to the wicket, or the reflected sun causing unwanted dazzle, just so they could see Dickie in a flap. In time, he acquired such a catalogue of bizarre happenings that his fund of after-dinner stories will never grow stale.

He feels humble but proud at the same time. "I'm very grateful to the British public, to the cricket public everywhere, really, for giving me such wonderful support. They have been fantastic to me."

In 1986 he was awarded the MBE, which he values as his most treasured possession, even ahead of his three World Cup medals.

Bird stood in 66 Test matches and 92 one-day internationals, both record numbers. Among them are countless indelible memories. For a man so steeped in cricket's past, however, his view of the present is entirely positive, even approving.

"I don't think there is a lot wrong with the game," he said. "The system in England, I think, is just about right now, if we leave it as it is. Four-day cricket is the right format for the Championship, although we must play on good pitches. There are too many matches that end in two or three days, which is not fair to the members and no good for the game.

"You have to prepare the best possible surface so that spin bowlers come into the game on the last day.

"And the electronic aids have been a boon, as well as making umpiring easier, although I would not introduce any more. Using fixed- position cameras is fine for run-outs, stumpings, close catches, but I don't think you can use them for lbws or bat-pad because you can't be 100 per cent sure from a television picture."

He does not even share the common despair over England's future in the international pecking order. "We'll produce good players again," he said. "I believe these things come in cycles. There are a lot of good young players coming through and as long as we don't over-coach them, as long as we don't coach out their natural game, in three or four years England could well have a very successful team."

And if they do not, he intends to be around to stand corrected. Much as he loves the 17th century cottage in Staincross in which he has made his home - "John Wesley once slept there, you know, in my room!" - he cannot see himself spending too much time there, alone with his memories.

"If I have good health - and I hope that I do - I'll go all around the world watching cricket. I've known nothing else all my life; always lived out of a suitcase since I was 19. That's why I never married, because it would not have been fair to a woman to subject her to that kind of life."

There will be tears on Sunday, inevitably, although it will be a while, he says, before the full impact of retirement brings itself to bear.

"From now until Christmas, I'm really busy. My book is coming out in paperback and I'll be going all round the country, doing signing sessions. And there is a video, too, about my Test matches.

"Then in January I've been invited to Australia, to watch the Ashes series.

"But I know it will be April when it hits me hard, when it is time to get everything organised for the new season and I'll not be going off. That will be the most difficult time."

Nonetheless, he accepts the change in his life without bitterness.

"I'm a big Christian; I go to church regularly and I have a strong faith. I know I have been lucky. The good Lord gave me a gift and I hope I have not let him down."

IT COULD ONLY HAPPEN TO DICKIE BIRD

1970 Spotted by a policeman scaling a wall at The Oval after arriving at 6.30am for his first umpiring assignment.

1973 England v West Indies, Lord's. Trapped on field after stands are evacuated during a bomb scare, taking refuge sitting on top of the pitch cover.

1980 England v Australia, Centenary Test, Lord's. Bird is barracked by abusive MCC members who are angry at the delayed start to the third day's play.

1987 England v Pakistan, Old Trafford. Has to be replaced by Jack Birkenshaw after a throw by Salim Malik hits him on the knee.

1988 England v West Indies, Headingley. Forced to suspend play when water begins to come up through the ground from a blocked drain.

1990 England v New Zealand, Trent Bridge. Persuaded by Allan Lamb, who is batting, to look after his mobile phone, which rings in Bird's pocket in the middle of an over. The caller is Ian Botham.

1995 England v West Indies, Old Trafford. Suspends play because of dazzle from a hospitality box.

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