With rain and bad light robbing us of precious Test Match cricket too many times this summer it got me thinking back to weather delays in the past and a character from a bygone era who used to get extremely twitchy at the merest hint of some moisture in the air. A man who was followed by a series of strange interruptions, delays and incidents throughout his stellar 23-year international umpiring career.
Harold Dennis Bird CBE (or Dickie to, um…. everyone actually) as an umpire was a rare commodity. Officious, strict and a stickler for the rules but at the same time a complete individual, able to tame the most volatile cricketer with his humour and charm. Respected throughout the world and widely acclaimed as one of the very best umpires in the history of the game. Daft as a brush yet as sharp as a tack. Everybody loved “Dickie”.
I’m too young to have witnessed Bird’s somewhat, by his own admission, underwhelming first-class career but as a massive cricket fan growing up in the 1980s, I consider myself very lucky to have watched him umpiring.
Whilst David Shepherd runs him a close second in terms of popularity there is only one Dickie Bird. Ask anyone over 40, cricket fan or not, to name an umpire and invariably they’ll come up with his name. He was synonymous with the English summer and managed to enhance a game without making it about him.
No self-indulgent, over the top boundary signalling to draw attention to himself, Dickie’s down to earth, honest nature drew respect from players and fans alike.
Whether it was turning up 5 hours early to meet the Queen or having to deal with a bomb scare at Lord’s in his first international summer of 1973, incident would follow Dickie everywhere.
Two of my favourite Bird memories involve the weather, Headingley 1988 and Old Trafford 1995. Both times the sides were England and West Indies. On Dickie’s home ground in Yorkshire the great Curtly Ambrose brought it to his attention that there was a problem with his run up and he had water pouring over his boots coming up from the pitch. Although the weather that day was set fair, frustratingly Dickie had to take the players off because the previous day’s heavy rain had caused a blocked drain to overflow. As he walked off the pitch with David Shepherd, he was barracked by the locals for always stopping the play whenever he came back to Yorkshire to which he hilariously pleaded with them “I can’t help if it’s a burst pipe coming up…. not my fault that”
At Old Trafford in 1995 there was the occasion when “sun stopped play”. Light glaring off the greenhouses in Manchester, shining through the stands was blinding on the pitch. With Bird already distressed and on edge more glare came to haunt him. From somewhere behind the bowler’s arm there was a bright light shining from a hospitality box. The image of a severely het up Bird shouting at spectators in their hospitality box was a joy to behold. Walking off the pitch, through the gate and on to the edge of the grass pointing and shouting, “Inside your box! There’s summat shining inside your box! Shining in your box!” Classic Dickie Bird.
Cricket, and indeed life has moved on and there seems to be less time or perhaps opportunity nowadays for extrovert characters in the game for various reasons. A 12-month cricket calendar with limited breaks has possibly created a vacuum as players and umpires alike are riders on a constant, excessively tiring merry-go-round. Increased revenue, higher stakes, greater professionalism has all gone some way to taking the fun out of the modern game.
Perhaps I need to readjust my rose-tinted spectacles but for me Dickie Bird will never be matched as an umpire nor a character. He is the most watchable in my lifetime and it’s crazy to think it’s been 24 years since he last stood in a Test Match. Where has that time gone?!
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