A real, rare bird!

Having witnessed the evolution of umpiring, Dickie Bird believes that with technology taking the front seat, on-field umpires will soon lose their relevance.

Umpire Dickie Bird (right of centre) is given a guard of honour by the England and India teams as he enters the Test arena for the last time. This was in the second Test of the 1996 series at Lord’s.   -  Getty Images

The legendary English umpire, Harold Dennis Bird, better known as Dickie, officiated in 66 Tests and 69 ODIs between 1973 and 1996. Eighty-six years old now, Dickie still visits Headingley in Leeds to watch cricket.

“I am following all the matches of the World Cup,” he tells Sportstar. As Sri Lanka posted a thrilling win against host England in Leeds, Bird watched the proceedings from the stands. Having witnessed the evolution of umpiring, Bird believes that with technology taking the front seat, on-field umpires will soon lose their relevance.

“In my time, the umpires were very much part of the sport. They made the game more interesting. That is all gone now,” he says.

What are your thoughts on the standard of umpiring these days?

It’s difficult to comment on today’s umpiring standards because all the decisions are done by technology. The umpires today can always refer to technology and it gets them out of any problem, and they just (convey) that.

With technology coming into all sport — be it football or rugby — things are getting vague. It takes all the authority away from the umpires. Let’s not forget, the umpires have been a part of the game.

How different was umpiring in your time?

In my day, if an umpire made a mistake, he was dropped from the club matches or the English league. Umpires were very much part of the sport, they made the game more interesting. That is all gone now.

In those days, we made decisions on the field of play, but now the third umpire makes all the (crucial) decisions.

Do you remember any incident where you regretted taking a particular decision?

I have changed my decision before the batsman got back to the pavilion or before he crossed the rope. We changed our decisions a lot in those times because we were allowed to do so. That is how it was, going into history.

Do you fear that the on-field umpires will further lose relevance?

I think that a day will come when they will not have umpires in the middle. Every bit of umpiring will be done by technology, which will be very, very sad for the game. But I think that is coming. I am 86 years of age, so whether it comes in my lifetime or not, it will come. It’s a great shame and pity that nothing much is in the hands of the on-field umpires.

In the recent past, international umpires have drawn flak for wrong decisions. Do you think the overall umpiring standards have gone down?

It happens. In any walk of life, in any job you are doing, the man who makes the least mistakes goes to the top. Things are no different in cricket. Mistakes happen and it is important to rectify.

Dickie Bird had a splendid tenure as an umpire, officiating in 66 Tests and 69 ODIs.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

In your long career, what is that one moment — a particular match or a decision — that you will always cherish?

The two games that I cherish are the two World Cup finals I did. The first one was in 1975, between the West Indies and Australia. It was a great game of cricket.

The second was India versus the West Indies in 1983. That was a fantastic match because the West Indies side, which was probably the greatest team in the history of cricket, was beaten by India. Batting first, India was bowled out for 183. No one in the world would have thought that India would defend that total. But Kapil Dev was a great captain, he told the India players, “We are going to win this match. We are going to bowl the West Indies side out.” And he instilled that confidence into the players. Though defending a small total, the Indian team went to the middle with a (positive mindset) and the rest is history.

In your illustrious career, which player  do you think was very good?

Quite a lot of them in fact. Ray Illingworth from Yorkshire was a great captain. Steve Waugh of Australia was great and there’s also an Indian.

Probably you don’t remember this man, but he beat all the cricketing nations in the world — it was Ajit Wadekar (laughs). Imran Khan and Kapil Dev were also great. But I think Garfield Sobers was the greatest player I have ever seen.

In your time, umpiring was more challenging. Before taking the field, how did you prepare for a game?

I kept myself fit. I used to play with a football club, Barnsley. I used to train with their professional players. We had to stand for long and stay calm, so I was always mentally fit.

While officiating a high-octane clash like a World Cup final, there are always chances of decisions going wrong. Knowing that there could be a backlash, did the umpires in your time feel intimidated?

In my years, we had a good panel of umpires. And if an umpire made a mistake, we wouldn’t worry about it.

Because the most important thing in umpiring is the next ball going down. If you made a mistake, get it out of your mind, because the next delivery is going to be very, very important. That’s how we approached the game!