Billy Bowden: 'Take one ball at a time, seize the moment, be in the zone'

The great showman of umpires is deadly serious about his decision-making. Stephen Brenkley talks to the man in the middle of a dramatic series
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The Independent Online

"I didn't get to bed till three because it was such a tremendous game, and I'm still on a high from the game," he said. "But I feel good. I feel like going for a run and shouting out, 'It's over!' "

Bowden's extravagant antics at the wicket have made him the most recognisable umpire in the world, a status heightened by the last three games in which he has adjudicated. First, there was the thrilling tie in the final of the triangular one-day tournament at Lord's when England came back from the dead; then there was England's two-run victory in the Second Test at Trent Bridge to level the series at 1-1, which was a mere precursor to the spine-tingling draw in Manchester. Bowden was there for them all, subjected to a litany of appeals and close calls, concentrating furiously, muttering to himself, all the while trying to remain part-showman.

"When I did the tie, I thought, gee, I wouldn't want anything like that for another five or 10 years," he said. "And suddenly the Edgbaston match comes along and I'm saying, 'Why me, Lord, mamma mia, what's going on here?' And then I thought that I was pleased that's over, because I definitely won't have anything like it for a decade. Then the next week, here we go again."

The last two Test matches have left him drained. Their closeness has magnified every decision, and accordingly the number of decisions has also multiplied. He is aware that his zany style, more pronounced in the one-day pyjama game but not wholly discarded in Test cricket, brings him attention and makes it more important that he gets it right.

"I respect the game 100 per cent and I respect the players," he said. "I know that one ball could make me hero or zero, but as it got into the last hour in Manchester I was just going through the same motions like any other game, one ball at a time, trying not to get caught up in the moment and the emotions.

"The crowd of 20,000 were crying for wickets and the appeals just got louder and louder. There weren't just 11 appealers out there, there were 20,011. I just had to go on instinct, enjoy it and know that it's only a game at the end of it. I know it's the Ashes, but it's not the end of the world, and the sun rises in the morning, doesn't it?"

Bowden, the first New Zealander to be appointed to the International Cricket Council's élite panel, has stood in 29 Test matches and 78 one-day internationals, and had no hesitation whatever in saying that the most recent two Tests provided the most severe examination of his credentials. A measure of just how hard is that his previous toughest match was in Bangalore earlier this year, when Pakistan beat India with six overs left on the final day and 30,000 people in the ground sounded like 100,000.

His umpiring career began in his early twenties after he was forced to stop playing because of a form of rheumatoid arthritis in his elbows and hands. (He says that he knows when bad weather is on the way because the joints creak). He rapidly assumed the gregarious style that makes him so noticeable, all boundaries indicated with a flourish and batsmen given out with a crooked finger, which in itself has become a trademark.

This is not to everybody's taste, and the former New Zealand captain, Martin Crowe, has called him Bozo the Clown. David Shepherd, the former senior international umpire who became Bowden's mentor, frequently warned that if he drew attention to himself his decisions had better be right.

So they are most of the time, and nor will he be cowed. Time and again in this Ashes series he has resisted the exhortations of Shane Warne, several times persuading Warne to mouth: "Oh Billy". Billy was not for moving.

He has been steadfast in his refusal to buckle to pressure, and there is unquestionably an element of contradiction here. He wants to be the entertainer, but he wants to be taken seriously as well. Then again, he would not be the first comedian who wanted to play Hamlet.

If Warne or anybody else thinks that Bowden is biddable they are wasting their time. "It's hard, but we can only give what we see," he said. "Myself and the other umpires, we don't get intimidated or bullied by anyone. It's all about mind games and I don't mind that. They can ask as long as they ask in the right way. It's the way Shane Warne plays and that's fine. If he can break down an umpire, good luck to him.

"Australia target certain players and you have got to be strong, to have belief. I don't have any guiltiness when I wake up in the morning because I know that God is with me and looking after me, and there's not a better person to have on my side. I am stubborn, I am strong, I have faith, and umpires know when they go into battle they have a challenge on their hands."

As the son of a Baptist minister - his mother and father have been over in England this summer - Bowden's faith is perhaps to be expected. He gains an extra confidence from the cards he carries in his pocket, which were given to him by his girlfriend, Jenny, and which bear little homilies. "Just relax, God's in charge," said the one at Old Trafford. He does not dispute the suggestion that God is his third umpire out in the middle - and everywhere else.

Bowden is disarmingly candid about the probability that he has made mistakes in the series. A couple of those Warne leg-before shouts might have been out for a start, the final, fateful, decision at Edgbaston when he gave Michael Kasprowicz out caught behind when his hand was just off the bat was probably not out, on another day Brett Lee might have been out leg before some six overs from the end in Manchester.

"There are going to be mistakes because the pressure is so intense out there, but the players understand as long as they are honest mistakes and as long as umpires don't guess, because we are not in it for guessing. But the games in this series have been won and lost not by umpiring decisions but by the teams and players who have made the least number of mistakes."

He believes in communicating with the players and was happy to be approached by Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, after he turned down a leg-before appeal at Old Trafford last week. "He just wanted to know my thoughts; it's how captains ask that's important."

He will not be changing his style and he insists that he is merely taking his own personality on to the field, that he is equally flamboyant off the pitch. "There are no preservatives, no additives, I am 100 per cent natural, but sometimes I do get in a situation where I close up because I want to be taken seriously."

Actually, Bowden is not quite 100 per cent natural, since his real name is Brent. He has been Billy since the age of 13, after a combination of Bunter - he was always first to the school tuck-shop - Goat and the Kid.

Bowden was originally scheduled to stand in the final three Tests of this Ashes series. He was drafted in for the Second Test after Aleem Dar had to fly home to Pakistan to be with his wife for the premature birth of their first child. It meant that Bowden had to umpire in the back-to-back matches and he will now miss the fourth match at Trent Bridge - the Pakistani official is back for that game - but will return for the final match at The Oval. The concentration levels required over a long game are tremendous, and Bowden could be seen urging himself to watch the ball in the closing stages at Old Trafford.

He goes to Pilates classes, which helps him to control his breathing in tense moments, and in the last hour he reckons he breathed a dozen times more in every over.

"I breathe in and let it out and say the same thing: 'Foot, ball, keep watching the ball'. Say that time and again. Take one ball at a time, seize the moment, be in that moment, be in that zone, don't have anything negative in your head."

While he is as captivated as everybody else by the Ashes series, he is not sure he is enjoying it. "It's satisfying and rewarding, but you can't really enjoy it until it's over. It can be a lonely life at times, and I travel 300,000 miles a year."

The crooked finger is also here to stay. "When I first started the fingers were very sore and swollen because of the arthritis but I've stuck with it and I guess it's 50-50 now, part arthritis, part for show." The deadly serious comedian will be back for The Oval. Expect a close one.


Brent Fraser (Billy) Bowden

Born: 11 April 1963 in Auckland.

Test career: umpiring debut New Zealand v Australia (2000). Has umpired in 29 further Tests, the last being England v Australia at Old Trafford. In this Third Test, Bowden gave out 11 Australians and six Englishmen.

One-day Internationals: His first ODI was New Zealand v Sri Lanka (1995). Has subsequently umpired a further 79 ODIs, culminating in this summer's tied Natwest Series match between England and Australia.

And that finger: Bowden turned to umpiring after the onset of arthritis in his early 20s, and earnt a reputation for giving batsmen out with a bent finger.