LONDON -- The world's most famous cricket umpire is renowned for unusual twitches, unerring fairness and the unfailing characteristic of showing up hours early for lunch dates with the prime minister and the queen.
He once sought shelter during a bomb scare by sitting in the place he regarded as the safest in the world, the middle of Lords Cricket Ground. He also once stopped a match because it was too sunny.
Harold Dennis Bird, known as "Dickie," is the beloved and eccentric arbiter of a game that is a passion in England and much of its former empire. For three decades, he has helped determine on nearly every continent what is, and what is not, cricket.
This week, Bird bids farewell to the grand stage of international cricket, when he umpires a five-day match between India and England at Lords, the game's most famed home. It will be the 66th international appearance of his career, a milestone that is being celebrated with a television special and two books.
British Prime Minister John Major leads the plaudits in "Dickie: "A Tribute to Umpire Harold Bird," writing: "When Dickie was umpiring, the game was never dull."
At 63, Bird's reflexes and his eyes aren't what they once were. But nobody questions his love for a "gentleman's game" that often defines what it means to be English: Play hard, but most of all, play by the rules.
"Umpiring is application, dedication, concentration, consistency and common sense," he says in a rumble of a voice that identifies his roots as a coal miner's son from north Yorkshire.
"For an umpire, the most important thing is getting the respect of the players. Personally, I think being an umpire is born in you."
In cricket, the two umpires rule matches that last for days, that break for lunches and teas, and often end in ties. They may dress like medical technicians with their shirts, ties and white lab coats, but the umpires are on-field lawmen with the kind of clout that would make American officials envious. Players do not curse, bump or otherwise try to intimidate cricket umpires. They are, however, allowed to beg for calls.
The Chicago Bulls' Dennis Rodman wouldn't be a cricket kind of guy. Neither would former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver.
Yet Bird didn't earn his reputation by being officious. He did it by being eccentric, by fidgeting and worrying about such things as the weather, the light and the time. He was never afraid to look silly, to put a floppy hat over his familiar white cap on a sunny day, or dole out chewing gum to players as if they were children lining up at the front door on Halloween.
"A lightning conductor for misfortune," is how journalist Michael Parkinson once described Bird.
"No more restless man has ever trod a cricket field; he has imagined disaster lurking in the most innocent areas," writes David Hopps in the biography "Free As A Bird."
Players tell Bird stories like GI's spin war tales. There was the time someone ignited firecrackers at Bird's feet and watched in delight as the umpire hit the turf. Or the time a player handed Bird his cellular phone during a match. The phone rang and Bird answered it and had a conversation.
"I've always had a kind word for everybody," Bird says. "There isn't a player I've never gotten along with."
Bird, a bachelor whose one regret is not having a son to play cricket, has given his life to the game.
After a stint working in a coal mine, Bird became a journeyman professional cricket player for eight seasons. The pay wasn't much, but he was doing what he loved. After a stint of coaching, he took a course in umpiring and earned his domestic credentials in 1970. Three years later, he graduated to cricket's major leagues, international matches.
Bird, true to his nervous form, showed up for his umpiring debut at dawn and tried to enter the stadium by climbing over the locked gates. A policeman spotted him, heard his claim to be the umpire, and said: "Go on, you'll be telling me next you are the prime minister."
That would be one of the last times Bird would go unrecognized.
Queen Elizabeth II knows him, dining with him and later making him a member of the Order of the British Empire. She calls him Dickie.
The Queen Mother once told him, "I always know it's you when I see that white cap and all those twitches."
Like a true performer, Bird knows when it's time to go, retiring from international competitions before enjoying one last low-key season in England. Cricket is getting to be big business, now, the games filled with pressure. It's a sport for younger men -- and younger eyes.
"Characters have gone out of all sports," he says. "No one smiles anymore. Winning means everything. You have to enjoy the sport, because if you don't, you shouldn't play it."
So, beginning today with the start of the England-India five-day match, Bird will say his long good-bye at Lords. He will trudge through the Long Room, a glorious place lined with old trophies, old bats, old pictures and old men, and he will walk through the stands onto a field as smooth as a putting green. And fans will roar over him every step of the way.
"I shall shed a few tears," he says. "This is my life."
Pub Date: 6/19/96