I am going to be king of the sausages,’ chuckles Dickie Bird, in answer to my first question. When he had to retire from umpiring, at the age of 66, he expressed the fear that, without cricket, he’d be dead within the year. As he’s just celebrated his 75th birthday with a big bash in aid of the Dickie Bird Foundation (www.thedickiebirdfoundation.org), he needn’t have worried on that score, or even that three score and 10. However, worrying is one of the things he’s been world class at.
Another, of course, is umpiring. So how is he spending his retirement? Preparing to taste sausages for British Sausage Week this autumn, for one thing. ‘I’m chuffed about that I love sausages.’ Does he cook them at home? ‘No, I get them in restaurants. I can’t cook.’ He’s also set up his foundation, because ‘if I can give an underprivileged child a start in life in his sport we give out grants all over the country then Ithink I’m doing something with my life’. His life has been sport. ‘I never married; it would never have worked.
I’ve seen so many divorces in cricket, but I’ve missed having a family. Definitely.’ He joined his home-town football club, Barnsley, from school, but a knee injury shortly afterwards limited him to cricket. ‘I’m glad, as cricket gave me a longer career in sport.’ He then spent 13 years as ‘an average county cricketer’. Does he feel he should have achieved more? ‘With the ability I had, yeah, but if I got a series of low scores, I used to worry, and that’s no good, because it only makes it worse.’ Someone too nervous to make it as a top cricketer seems an unlikely candidate to be a top umpire. ‘I’ll be honest with you, when it was suggested that I became an umpire, I said “you must be joking!”. It’s funny, though I worried less as an umpire.
Once I crossed the boundary rope, I was okay. I was on top then. I used to say to myself “this is mine”.’ Arriving at the Oval to umpire his first game, he found the ground locked ‘I suppose 5.30am was a bit early for a game starting at 11.30am,’ he concedes, ‘but I was worried about being late’—so he threw his bag over the wall, and was clambering over to join it when a policeman arrived. ‘I said “You won’t believe me, officer, but I’m officiating at this here match today”.’ Did the constable believe him? ‘He did when I showed him my pass. We had a good laugh about it.’
Having a laugh about things has always been Dickie’s way. ‘I used to talk to the players, joke with them, handle them like professional men, because that’s what they are, and, in return, they treated me the same way. Players would ask me “Dickie, am I moving my feet okay? Am I falling over in the shot?”, things like that and I’d help them.’ He came into international umpiring when, in the words of one commentator, Australia had reinvented cricket as a form of gang warfare. ‘I never had any problems with any Australian cricketer. That’s the gospel truth and I say that as a Christian who goes to church every Sunday. Well,’ he concedes, chuckling, ‘not last Sunday, as I went to the cricket, so I said a prayer instead.’
In October, a statue of him will be erected in Barnsley. ‘I feel very proud about that. It’s going up in the exact spot where I was born in the centre of my home town, where I still live.’ Copies of it will be erected in Melbourne and Bombay. He’s always been especially popular in India. ‘People there stop me and tell me I was always honest and fair and I treated everyone equally. I think that’s very nice. ‘I gave my life to the game, and, in return, it’s done a lot for me. It’s given me a clean living and the chance to see the world and to meet some wonderful people. I’m very grateful for that. Memories I shall always treasure include having lunch with The Queen at Buckingham Palace. If it hadn’t been for my success with umpiring, then I would never have had the opportunity. Wherever I go in the world, the players whom I umpired,’ and he rattles off a host of the all-time greats, ‘all invite me into their homes for a meal. That means a lot to me.’ Clearly, this is a man who is never going to need to cook his own sausage