From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.35 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 19, 2012

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COLUMN / LONDON CALLING

A bird from umpiring paradise

Dickie Bird was — even his enemies would not argue with this point — the finest umpire of his generation and left his fellow adjudicators in his shadow. We did not see how fine an umpire David Shepherd was until Dickie retired and, in the days when neutrality was a dirty word, no one ever accused either of them of being partial towards England, writes Ted Corbett.

Dickie Bird, or Harold Dennis Bird as he is called in the official citation, has been given an award — an OBE, the Order of the British Empire — in the New Year's Honours. No one has worked harder for it nor deserved it more.

Dickie — as he is known throughout cricket — is, in modern parlance — a character. He cries at good news and bad and he might be from a Dickens novel like Mr. Pickwick or play a minor part in a Shakespeare play, much like Falstaff.

Not that he has much in common with these rumbustious men. They were fat and jovial from a life spent eating and drinking, but Dickie is more fastidious or perhaps careful is the right word. Like many another Yorkshireman he would rather save a shilling than waste one.

He was — even his enemies would not argue with this point — the finest umpire of his generation and left his fellow adjudicators in his shadow. We did not see how fine an umpire David Shepherd was until Dickie retired and, in the days when neutrality was a dirty word, no one ever accused either of them of being partial towards England.

They — and men like Peter Willey, who left the international scene to concentrate on county cricket — took it as part of their life's work to judge whether a batsman was out, or a catch held or a bowler take a wicket without any consideration as to whether those at the centre of events might be English.

Of course the old timers still argue the case. Was it right to bring in neutral umpires? I think it saved the game from even greater contempt; the sort of contempt that has rained down on it because of various stories of cheating.

In difficult circumstances, under pressure from both sides, the umpires stood firm. They were proud of their independence and if they sometimes made mistakes they apologised quickly and decent cricketers forgave them and the game moved forward.

Not everyone saw it that way. Imran Khan, behaving like the politician he is now, kicked up a fuss and was largely instrumental in getting the laws changed so that today you may see the leading umpires on your TV set one day in New Delhi, a week later in Cape Town and a month afterwards in Auckland.

Their pressures were unknown to Dickie when he was earning his reputation. He looked down at the bowling crease to judge a no-ball, then down the pitch and decided whether it was lbw. He was the finest judge of a run-out in the world.

Many a year on the county circuit as well as a Yorkshireman's belief that he is never wrong meant Bird could give his decision instantly. Now the umpire may need help to decide on a no-ball and an appeal. Delays, delays, delays.

Two umpires have become four and soon there may be none if technology advances as I guess it must. Think back 20 years to the way life used to be before computers and you will have no difficulty in imagining how life will change in the next 20 years.

More's the pity. The game is the richer for men like Dickie Bird, chattering away all day long, being duped by players showing off their instinct for a practical joke. He was always ready to visit the press box, bless him, and share a yarn with those who relished his company.

I remember the tales about him when he played for Yorkshire. He had not passed his driving test but during the Suez War people with provisional licenses were allowed to drive.

I was told — and remember exaggerated stories about him have always been common — that he would drive down straight and mostly empty roads to the Yorkshire hotel but would need someone else to park his car. It is true that he was so nervous about his first Test as an umpire that he climbed a wall into the ground four hours before the start. He repeated the climb to get into Geoff Boycott's house when he was invited for dinner.

He still lives in the same house although when he became a millionaire because his autobiography was so popular and bought a car he had to have the gates widened to get his new toy into the garage.

Nowadays he can usually be found at the big matches alongside the top people like Giles Clarke, the chairman of ECB who was also honoured at New Year. Dickie is still worth listening to telling the tale in that unchanging Barnsley accent of his.

Another little bird tells me that one day he might be Yorkshire president, elected by those who do not wish Geoff Boycott to have that prestigious spot.

In my opinion, although funnily enough not in their minds, it is a pity the county lost a mark of distinction by playing only men born there. They stopped that practice in order to fit an overseas player into their team hoping it would bring back the championship. It does not seem to have improved results.

Now they have even introduced the Australian fast bowler Jason Gillespie as coach. He played for them for several seasons and, I am glad to report, still has contrived to keep his own Australian accent.

They have a lot in common, these strong-minded Yorkshiremen and those descendants of hardy settlers from Down Under. I reckon that it might be a profitable alliance.



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