Beloved Bird

Umpiring legend, administrator, philanthropist. The many shades of Dickie Bird

50-Dickie-Bird Neeru Bhatia

Harold Dennis Bird, 86, watched the India-Sri Lanka match on July 6 from the VIP suite in the Carnegie Pavilion at the Headingley Cricket Ground. The stand to his left had the dressing rooms. Its viewing gallery—Sir Dickie Bird Players’ Balcony— was funded by him (£1,25,000). He did it to make the hot Headingley dressing rooms more comfortable for the players. Why? Because cricket, particularly cricket in Yorkshire county, is his whole world.

It (technology) has taken away all authority from the umpires. [But,] we have to live with it because it is here to stay. —Dickie Bird, former umpire

Bird was born in the county, in Barnsley, in 1933 into a working class family. His father, a miner, wanted his son to pursue a career in sports. Bird and his two sisters had a happy childhood in a two-up two-down terraced family home near the mining pits. He played cricket and football with his father in the evenings. Fellow Yorkshireman Sir Geoffrey Boycott was his teammate at the Barnsley Cricket Club. At 19, Bird signed a professional contract with the Yorkshire County Cricket Club (YCCC) on an annual retainer of up to £650. He also started work as a travelling salesman for a sports goods shop during winters.

He played 93 matches for Yorkshire and Leicestershire as a right-hand batsman, but being in and out of the teams made him look towards coaching and, later, umpiring as a full-time career. He umpired 66 Tests and 69 ODIs and retired in 1996 as the most beloved and respected umpire in the world. His last Test was England versus India at the Lord’s. The recent chapter in Bird’s cricket journey is an administrative stint as president of the YCCC.

As he speaks, there is a twinkle in his eyes. There is also a lot of emotion and pride. “I watch Yorkshire a lot because I was president of the club for two years and we won back-to-back championships,” he tells THE WEEK. “I come here every day and watch Yorkshire matches. I come here during Tests. I will come here every day when the Ashes match happens.” Never once while he spoke did he take his eyes off the game (Rohit Sharma was crafting his record-breaking fifth century in this World Cup). Does the umpire in him judge the action? “Oh no, I just watch it as a spectator,” he says. Bird has attended all the matches at Headingley, the home of the YCCC. “It has been a good World Cup so far,” he says. “I said England would win the World Cup before the tournament started and I do not think [the result] will be far from my prediction.”

His favourite cricketer of all time is Sachin Tendulkar, who played for Yorkshire aged 18. “I thought he was a genius,” he says. “The first time I saw him playing for India, I said so. He was so young, just out of school. I said he will put his name in the record books. He had so much time to play the ball.” He adds that Tendulkar took umpiring decisions in his stride. Bird is quite excited about England Test skipper Joe Root, also a Yorkshireman. “He picks the line and length quicker than anybody else,” says Bird. “I love watching him bat.”

As the decision review system (DRS) overturns an umpiring call in the India-Sri Lanka match, the conversation turns to technology in cricket. His dislike for technological innovations in the game is well known, but he has come to grudgingly accept some of them. “Technology has taken over umpiring. So it is difficult to judge who the best umpire is,” he says. “It is a great shame. It has taken away all authority from the umpires. [But,] we have to live with it because it is here to stay.” Surely, DRS and ultra edge help when the stadium is so noisy? He smiles and responds, “Yes there is a lot of noise here, but I do not think it is as much as in Calcutta!” Bird has officiated in stadiums like Eden Gardens in the pre-DRS era and his decisions were rarely questioned. But, he believes that debates over umpiring are good for the game and that aspect has been taken away by technology. However, he does give credit to technology in deciding run-outs.

Bird is very proud of the fact that he never had to exchange a “cross word” with any player. “You have to earn your respect,” he says. He recounts an incident with the fiery Australian pacer Merv Hughes during an Ashes match. “Hughes was a great character,” says Bird. “He was bowling to Graeme Hick, who was playing and missing, and Hughes’s language was not very good. I told him, ‘I want you to be a good boy, stop swearing.’ He said to me, ‘Dickie Bird, you are a legend. I won’t swear again.’ The next ball, Hick played and missed, and I have never known language like that in my life!”

An advocate of upholding the spirit of the game, Bird says, “Play hard, but do not go overboard.” About the Mankading debate, he says: “I think that (Mankading) is going too far. Yes, it is within the laws of the game, but I would ask the fielding captain whether he wants that dismissal. If he says yes, then I would give out.” As a former administrator, Bird is pragmatic about changes in the game and he is not willing to condemn 100-ball cricket, despite furious criticism of the impending format from purists in England. Watch it and then react, he says.

Bird suffered a stroke in 2009, but recovered fully. The bachelor was alone at home when it happened, and the experience left him shaken. Home is a 16th century cottage in Barnsley with four bedrooms, one with a garden, overlooking the Pennines mountain ranges. He has lived there for 50 years, but makes it a point not to become a recluse. The octogenarian is wealthy thanks to his massively successful book, Dickie Bird: My Autobiography, and plans to leave behind a fortune for child health care. He gets emotional while speaking about children with congenital diseases. Bird is also the proud owner of a Jaguar. Why? Because it is a British car!