Lord's the perfect place for `Dickie' to bid adieu

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The Independent Online
The nation's favourite - and best - umpire will draw stumps on a unique 27-year career after the second Test against India next week. Derek Pringle talked to him

If the people at Disney ever feel the urge to create a cartoon character from cricket, they need look no further than Test umpire Harold Dennis "Dickie" Bird. With his trademark flat white hat and a whole repertoire of idiosyncratic tics and twitches, he is more famous than all but a handful of Test cricketers, proving that, for the chosen few, fame and vocation can still find you after 40.

Mind you, the animators will have to hurry if they want to catch him live in all his splendour. After donning said white cap and coat for 66 Tests, 95 one-day internationals - including three World Cup finals - and 27 years of hairline adjudication, His Dickieness is about to hang them up, and retire from the international arena.

He will be 64 next birthday and feels that younger umpires ought to be given a chance in what he believes is an increasingly arduous but better paid job. Still umpiring well - he came third last year on marks given by county captains - he decided some time ago that next week's Test at Lord's would be his last, though he plans to carry on at county level for another season.

"It's going to be something special though," said Bird, whose pay package for his first Test in 1973 came to pounds 25 - the current fee is pounds 2,200. "There is nothing to compare with Lord's on Test match day. And when I walk down the steps from the umpires' room, down through the Long Room and out on to the grass, it will be a very emotional occasion for me, and I think I'll probably shed a few tears."

Well, won't we all. It is a sad fact of this grim age of standardisation that characters who can combine a high level of skill with the propensity for fun, are increasingly rare. Even us bowlers, who have cursed and spat our disbelief at rejected lbws, will miss him, in spite of the constant stream of "Not outs" that have emanated over the years from this hardest of umpires to impress when pads are struck.

In fact, Dickie's mere presence in a county match seems to bring on a bout of irrational behaviour among seam bowlers. After a career of trying to connive and jostle for the downhill, wind-assisted end, they are suddenly happy to take on gales and Eiger-like slopes just to be away from him in the belief that any inquiries for lbws are far more likely to be answered in the affirmative by the other umpire.

"People say I'm a `not outer'. Well I probably have been hard on lbws. But one thing I've always tried to be is consistent to both teams. In any case, I was involved in a Test out in Port of Spain, between the West Indies and Pakistan, where there were 17 lbws in the match. That's a world record, though, of course, I didn't give them all," he smirked with a knowing glint of a man unlikely to go out in a blaze of leg-befores.

The fledgling Bird, who went to the local secondary modern in Barnsley, and played a lot of football as well as cricket, was far less cautious, he assures you. "My big mate was Tommy Taylor, who died in the Munich air disaster. I played inside-right with him at school and did well enough to be approached by Sheffield Wednesday and one or two other First Division clubs."

However, nothing came of football, so he played cricket for Yorkshire instead, joining them in 1956 when they closely shadowed Surrey as the most dominant county force in the land.

As an opening batsman, he admits to being something of a struggler and a regular berth for his native county eluded him. Undeterred, he left and joined Leicestershire in 1959. The move was prompted when he was dropped following an unbeaten 181 against Glamorgan - his highest first-class score - on a raging turner at Bradford Park Avenue.

"There was a selection committee of 39 there that game, and I remember Brian Sellers coming into the dressing-room and saying: `Well played Birdy, but get thee head down, thar's in second team next match. We've dropped thee.' Mind you, I wouldn't have minded so much if it had been a flat pitch."

He retired in 1964, but did not apply to become an umpire until 1969. A spell of coaching at Plymouth College sustained him until JJ Warr, the former Middlesex and England fast bowler, suggested he apply for the umpires' list.

"At the time I thought `you must be joking. Umpiring, that's the worst job in the world'. But I gave it some thought and when some of me old mates at Yorkshire reckoned it were probably the next best thing to playing, I applied.

"My first game was Yorkshire v Surrey at the Oval in 1970. I was so nervous I arrived at a quarter to six in the morning, so as not to be late. Of course the gates were shut, so I had some explaining to do when a London Bobby caught me trying to climb in."

It is not the only time he has been the early bird: he arrived four hours early at Buckingham Palace to have lunch with the Queen and receive an MBE - an event, he says, was the best day of his life.

Keith Fletcher, Essex's godfather and guru, reckons Bird is easily the best and most consistent Test umpire he's seen and tougher than he makes out. The impression of being frail and downtrodden with worry is simply a mask.

Certainly, he has never run away from the issue of intimidatory bowling. Many will remember the blazing rows over excessive use of the bouncer with Clive Lloyd at Edgbaston in 1984 and Andy Roberts, when he was coaching the West Indies, at Old Trafford last year. But in this controversial area that continues to blight the game, he has never once been publicly backed by the Test and County Cricket Board.

Apart from two holidays a year at the Livermead Cliff hotel, where he likes to breakfast every morning on kippers, he relaxes, he claims, by worrying. He doesn't mind criticism, and as long as people get their facts right he accepts it as part of the traditional banter that goes on in the pub afterwards.

"With all the money coming into the game, the need for the perfect decision is growing, though I don't like the mass appealing that has crept in with it. There is no doubt that the use of electronic aids for line decisions has been a tremendous help. I can see it being used soon for low catches [like Graeme Hick's scooped catch at slip to dismiss Vikram Rathore at Edgbaston] but not for other decisions."

He has seen more of the modern greats from closer quarters than most, rating Dennis Lillee's 5 for 15 and John Edrich's 37 on a treacherous rain-affected pitch at Edgbaston in 1975 as the best bowling and batting he's seen. Surprising then, that he does not mourn the demise of uncovered pitches.

Nor, he claims, will he miss the briefcase full of formulas and conversion charts that now accompanies the modern umpire.

"When I started I thought umpiring was giving them in, or giving them out. All that's changed and although after Lord's I'll miss the buzz of the Test matches, I'll not miss those bloomin' maths tables."