Official view of the early Bird

Stephen Brenkley talks to Charlie Elliott, who stood with a legend in his first Test
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The Independent Online
When Dickie Bird walked out for his first Test he had yet to become the best umpire in the world. That honour still belonged to the man who accompanied him to the middle, Charlie Elliott, who was standing in his 39th Test that July day in 1973 when New Zealand faced England at Headingley.

Elliott was as respected then as Bird would become, a fearless adjudicator - calm, unruffled, a phlegmatic Derbyshire man different to Harold Bird in every respect except for the vital similarity that if their index fingers pointed skywards, the judgement was usually impeccable.

"The great thing about Dickie," Elliott said last week, "was the contrast. He was a complete bag of nerves when it came to things like the weather and what to do. But when it came to making a decision on the play on the narrow strip he was marvellous, and he didn't make many bad ones."

Elliott is 84 now and after 42 Tests in all, the last of them 22 years ago, he reckoned not to recall much about the match in which Bird made his debut. Until he glanced at the scorecard and it all came flooding back. There had been a key decision that even then marked out the Yorkshireman as an umpire to watch, a man who would assume the Elliott mantle.

"Richard Collinge, the New Zealand fast-medium bowler, was coming round the wicket to Ray Illingworth. He was the England captain mind," Elliott said. "The ball hit his pads and Dickie didn't hesitate in giving him out. I thought that it was a brave decision because from the angle he would have had to have done so much. But Dickie was right." He was on his way.

Elliott has the utmost respect for the man. There is no doubt that he did things differently, however. Elliott did not become bosom pals with the players as Bird has done: he did not engage in chatting with them out in the middle and never had a post-match drink with them, but he was revered all the same. They did not argue with Charlie, and he was awarded an MBE too, though without quite the publicity that attended Bird's award.

"It's all to do with your temperament and the ability to make those decisions quickly," he said. Maybe you wouldn't think that Dickie could but he's got that concentration that is so necessary. "I'm sure he didn't become as good a player as he might have been. I remember umpiring when he was still playing and sometimes when he came out to bat it was as though he could hardly manage to pull on his gloves."

Like Bird, Elliott's umpiring career ended with a Test match at Lord's. It rained hard, water crept under the covers and Pakistan became the victims of Derek Underwood at his most lethal. Understandably, the tourists were not happy about the conditions and made protests to Elliott as the senior umpire. Characteristically, Elliott was unflappable and with commendable fearlessness simply ruled that the ground was fit for play, paying no attention to the disputes that raged around him. Nobody would wish all that on Dickie this week.

Elliott walked away without regret, without fuss, glad still to be at the top. When he departed - to serve as a Test selector for seven years - only Frank Chester had stood in more Tests - 48. That was then a world record, but it has been superseded by Bird, who will stand in his 67th on Thursday.

Elliott had replaced Chester on the umpires' list in 1957 (he read about his appointment in the News Chronicle) and came to replace him as the best in Britain. In Elliott's controversial last Test, he stood with David Constant, who himself vied with Bird to be regarded as the top official for a while. With Bird at Lord's on Thursday will be the self-assured Australian Darrell Hair. He declined to comment on the occasion, maybe aware that it belongs to the Yorkshireman, maybe pleased that the focus of attention will be on the man in the other white coat. He will probably be pretty pleased if the mantle eventually passes to him, that he too may one day be seen as the best cricket umpire on the planet.