As he prepares to celebrate his 80th birthday, Dickie Bird has spoken candidly about how he has been affected by recent health problems in the hope that it will inspire other people in a similar situation. Chris Waters met the former cricket umpire.
THERE is a passage in Dickie Bird’s new book – timed to coincide with his 80th birthday next Friday – which stands out amid the anecdotes and memories of a lifetime in cricket.
Reflecting on the stroke he suffered in 2009, Dickie admits it’s affected his mental as well as physical well-being.
“Thankfully I never suffered from depression during my career as a player and umpire – I enjoyed myself too much for that – but I can sympathise with those who have gone through such a time, because the stroke I had in my retirement years has left me in a similar state,” he writes. “I can get very down, especially when I am lying in bed and all kinds of thoughts are going through my mind.
“I can even understand how someone might get to the stage where they think about committing suicide, and there have been numerous cases in cricket. Stuart Leary leaped off Table Mountain in South Africa; Peter Roebuck jumped from a hotel balcony; David Bairstow took his own life. It has happened in football, too, the most recent incident involving Welsh international Gary Speed.
“It can happen to anyone.”
Dickie’s admission, which will sadden his admirers and generate sympathy, casts poignant light on one of Britain’s best-loved characters. Although Dickie insists that he is not suffering from depression or indeed taking tablets for a condition that has affected such cricketers as Andrew Flintoff and Marcus Trescothick, he has clearly been through a torrid time ever since the stroke took hold at three o’clock one morning, sending pain through his body and panic through his heart.
“I thought I’d had it,” says Dickie as he sits in the lounge of his cosy 17th-century cottage in Staincross, near Barnsley. I honestly thought I was going to die.
“Luckily I managed to ring 999 and they got the paramedics round in time. Now I have to wear an alarm around my neck because once you’ve had one stroke, it leaves you susceptible to having another.”
To look at Dickie now you wouldn’t think he’d been struck down in such debilitating fashion. The sparkling eyes are keen and alert; the homely, weather-worn features are tinged with colour, while his whole body looks supple, the result of an hour-a-day stretching routine to which he religiously adheres in the privacy of his bathroom.
Four years ago, it was a different story.
The stroke forced Dickie to spend six weeks in hospital, robbed him of his voice, his strength and, most distressing of all, his confidence.
“All my confidence drained away and there were days when I simply didn’t want to get out of bed and go to the trouble of getting changed,” he recalls. “A stroke definitely affects the brain and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
“There are times when I still get very low but I’m not on tablets for depression; the only tablets I take are for blood pressure and cholesterol.
“But if I didn’t fight my situation I think I could go like that, I really do.”
It is the necessity of forcing oneself into action, of compelling oneself to get out of bed to face the new day, which Dickie is particularly keen to get across to anyone who might also be suffering. One of sport’s most famous bachelors, he admits his own predicament is made worse by the fact he lives alone, and he is concerned about those in a similar position.
“To anybody who has had a serious illness and lost confidence in themselves, I would urge this – keep busy,” says Dickie. “I know that if I just sat in my chair on my own at home all day I wouldn’t be around for long; I’d snap, I’d go crackers, I’d lose the will to carry on.
“It’s the worst thing you can do, to go into yourself, to stop doing the everyday tasks you used to do before.
“In my case, I made – and am still making – a conscious effort to get outside to meet people and talk to them, even if I just go down to the supermarket or to watch Yorkshire play.”
Along with his own strength of character and the help of his friends and immediate family (sister Marjorie helps with the cleaning but has not been too well herself lately), two factors helped Dickie back on his feet.
First, his appearance on BBC programme The Young Ones, which investigated whether people have the power to think themselves young again.
The show transported Dickie back to 1975 – the year he umpired the first World Cup final – by creating an artificial environment complete with food, films and photos from the period.
Dickie’s mood and ability to perform physical and mental tests improved dramatically during the experiment and he believes the BBC should repeat the series to help elderly people, many of whom wrote to him to say how much it inspired them.
The second factor was Dickie’s faith.
He is a devout Christian and, as befits someone whose bedroom was once slept in by John Wesley on his travels through Staincross, he attends the local Methodist church each Sunday.
“I’m convinced that God performed a miracle on me to get me through the stroke,” he says. “I have no doubt that He was looking out for me.”
To contemplate Dickie’s rags-to-riches story, one could argue that God has been looking out for him all his life. He has always been a deeply emotional man – even more so since the stroke – and one suspects that the ease with which the tears flow sometimes is because he cannot quite believe how lucky he has been.
Born into humble beginnings in a two-up, two-down terrace house in Barnsley, his father was a miner for over 50 years and crawled in a seam just 18ins high.
Yet no matter how tired he was after finishing his shift, he’d spend hours playing cricket and football with Dickie, and there are tears in Dickie’s eyes as he talks of him today.
Dickie was school friends with Tommy Taylor, the Busby Babe killed on a freezing Munich runway in 1958, and Dickie was good enough at the winter game to sign amateur forms with his beloved Barnsley, where he still has a season ticket. But a knee injury curtailed his hopes of playing professionally and he concentrated on cricket, showing great promise as a batsman at Barnsley Cricket Club, where his team-mates included a couple of chaps called Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Parkinson.
Dickie signed professional forms with Yorkshire and scored 613 runs for them in 14 first-class games, with a top score of 181 not out against Glamorgan at Bradford in 1959, but, Yorkshire being Yorkshire, he was dropped for the next match.
He joined Leicestershire in search of greater opportunities and scored 2,702 runs for them in 79 matches before retiring in 1964; along with never having married, Dickie cites leaving Yorkshire as his biggest regret.
After a brief coaching career, he fell into umpiring by accident after former Middlesex and England pace bowler J.J. Warr suggested he give it a go.
Dickie umpired his first county game in 1970 and his first Test 40 years ago this summer, against New Zealand at Headingley, who visit Leeds again this year.
Dickie stood in 66 Tests and 69 one-day internationals before hanging up his white coat 15 years ago.
When he officiated his last Test between England and India at Lord’s in 1996, he was applauded on to the field by both sets of players, who formed a guard of honour as Dickie’s glasses steamed up with tears.
“What got me going first of all was walking from the umpires’ room down through the Long Room,” he remembers. “Everyone in the Long Room was stood up, applauding, and then when I walked down the pavilion steps and on to the field itself, the players were all lined up and there was this great whoosh of noise from the crowd.
“People who were there when Don Bradman played his last Test match at the Oval in 1948 said to me that I got a bigger ovation than Bradman. Me, a bigger ovation than Bradman…”
The words melt away and the eyes moisten as Dickie sits in his chair and stares out through the lounge window across a rolling garden of apple and plum trees to the distant peaks of the Pennines beyond.
His 1997 autobiography is one of the biggest-selling sports books of all-time and made him a millionaire overnight, while he has met the Queen no fewer than 29 times.
On one occasion, Dickie famously turned up at Buckingham Palace at 9.20am in readiness for a 1pm lunch.
He has always carried punctuality to the extreme; when he delivered a moving tribute at the funeral of his former Yorkshire team-mate Fred Trueman at Bolton Abbey in 2006, the only thing that was there before Dickie – who arrived at 7am – was the church itself.
His house is a shrine to a remarkable career; the OBE, MBE and a myriad of umpiring medals are on display, along with a certain big red book presented by Michael Aspel, while the walls of the oak-beamed retreat are festooned with team photographs and of meetings with royalty and VIPs.
A recurring theme in the photographs is laughter; it is everywhere you look – on Dickie’s face but, above all, on the faces of those he is talking to and standing beside.
For cricket has never known a more popular figure, which stems from his inherent decency and the fact that he talks to everyone and is interested in people.
As the umpire with the trademark white cap and nervous mannerisms, Dickie was universally esteemed by the players themselves, who knew they could have a laugh and joke with him; why else would the great Dennis Lillee hide a rubber snake in Dickie’s lunchtime soup, or Ian Botham ring him on the field during the middle of a Test?
The answer is simple: they loved the man, they respected him, and, as he celebrates a landmark birthday, you can be sure that they will be among the many thousands wishing him all the sad times away and many happy ones ahead.
• Dickie Bird 80 Not Out: My Favourite Cricket Memories is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20 and is available to order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on 01748 821122.
• In 2007 the Yorkshire Post took Dickie Bird back to the Barnsley school that inspired him. Click the screen above to watch the video.