Dickie Bird on Yorkshire CCC, The Queen and staying fit ahead of 90th birthday

Ten years ago, Dickie Bird released the latest in a long line of books on his life and career.

80 Not Out: My Favourite Cricket Memories captured the former umpire at a landmark age, with plenty of humorous stories included.

It was the following year, in 2014, that I found myself sitting next to Dickie on the team coach when Yorkshire went down to Buckingham Palace to receive the County Championship trophy from Prince Philip.

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I had just written a book myself (10 for 10: Hedley Verity and the Story of Cricket’s Greatest Bowling Feat - still available in fine bookstores everywhere, by the way).

Dickie Bird celebrates his 90th birthday, pictured at his home at Barnsley. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeDickie Bird celebrates his 90th birthday, pictured at his home at Barnsley. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Dickie Bird celebrates his 90th birthday, pictured at his home at Barnsley. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

And Dickie, who was then the Yorkshire president, asked me how it was doing.

“Oh, not too bad, Dickie,” I said. “I think it’s sold about 3,000 copies so far.”

“Three thousand!” said Dickie, sounding impressed.

Then, suddenly remembering 80 Not Out: My Favourite Cricket Memories, I responded in kind.

“And what about you, Dickie. How’s your book doing?”

“Oh, not too well,” he said, shaking his head.

“Oh dear. How many copies has it sold?”

“About 750,000,” he replied, deadpan.

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It is, I think, my favourite Dickie Bird story from a surfeit of contenders and just goes to show that it helps if an author is a household name as opposed to one who is not even famous in his own household.

As he approaches another landmark age on Wednesday, when he will be 90, Dickie remains nothing less than cricketing royalty, a miner’s son who became a national treasure and is loved and admired throughout the world.

In fairness, Dickie had reason to be underwhelmed by that 750,000 figure, for his 1997 autobiography had been the biggest-selling British sports autobiography.

“It sold over a million in hardback and over a million in paperback,” says a man who made more money in retirement than he ever did during a distinguished umpiring and - lest it be forgotten - playing career with Yorkshire and Leicestershire.

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Ninety is a terrific age, of course - “not many get that far,” laughs Dickie, and the old boy looks well on it, all things considered.

The eyes still sparkle warmly, the face still needs little persuasion to break out into the sort of smile that makes him so popular, and the voice remains noticeably clear and strong, especially when delivering cricketing views.

“Touch wood, I feel alright. Mind you, I’ve kept myself fit all my life. I still do my exercises - stretching, running on the spot, that sort of thing. Every alternate day I do an hour of exercises and, once a week, I go for a run. I live near a local park and I go round the football ground there a time or two. I don’t smoke, but occasionally I’ll have a glass of red wine.”

Few get to Dickie’s time in life without a health problem or two, and the advancing years have brought their challenges.

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He had a stroke a while back, then an irregular heartbeat was diagnosed and a pacemaker fitted. He also had problems with his eyes as a result of all those years umpiring and looking down the pitch through the glare of the sun.

“I got up one morning and couldn’t see. I couldn’t see a thing; I was completely blind. I went to an eye hospital in Manchester and it turned out there was a leakage at the back of both eyes. Of course, we didn’t know what sunglasses were in my era, but I’m alright now.”

Memory of having sat next to Dickie on the Yorkshire team coach that travelled to Buckingham Palace prompts me to ask about his love of the monarchy.

He was famously a huge admirer of The Queen, and I ask how many times he met Her Majesty.

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“Twenty-eight,” he shoots back, quick-as-a-flash, “and one of them was the best day of my life.”

Dickie explains: “I was sat at home one day in November 1990, feeling a bit miserable, and suddenly the phone rang. This voice said, ‘This is the Master of the Household. I am ringing from Buckingham Palace. I have been commanded by Her Majesty The Queen to see if you are available, Mr Bird, to have lunch with her.’

“I said, ‘If I’ve been invited to have lunch with The Queen, I’ll walk it from Barnsley to Buckingham Palace.’ He said, ‘That’s all I want to know, the invitation will follow.’

“Anyway, I went down, and we had a magnificent lamb lunch. Afterwards, The Queen said, ‘We’ll go into the lounge now, Dickie.’ I sat with her the whole afternoon, talking cricket, horse racing, her love of New Zealand, all sorts of things. It was a wonderful day, and the time went so fast.”

Dickie corresponded with The Queen right up to her death.

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“I actually got a letter from her about a week before she died. She just asked how I was, how my health was, how I was keeping. She was a wonderful woman, and I was very sad indeed when she passed away.”

Inevitably, conversation drifts to cricket as Dickie looks back on a lifetime in the game, but not before a nod to the present at Yorkshire CCC.

The club has been devastated by the racism scandal, a state of affairs that upset him greatly.

“When I was in Australia one time, umpiring a Test match in Adelaide, Sir Donald Bradman invited me to have lunch with him and his wife.

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“We were sat around the table chatting, lovely man, and I’ll never forget his words. He said, ‘Dickie, the greatest cricket club in the world is Yorkshire County Cricket Club.’

“It’s been so sad what’s happened these past two years, so sad that the greatest club in the world, as Don Bradman put it, was brought to its knees.

“I often wonder what Freddie Trueman would have said had he been alive, or Ray Illingworth or Brian Close. It’s just so sad.”

As ever, Dickie still plans to watch as many games as possible - “I’ve booked my hotel for Scarborough, all four matches” - and believes that the club will rise again.

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“I think Yorkshire will come back, I do honestly, but it won’t be days or weeks, it will take a few years.”

Dickie will be at Headingley on his birthday for a celebration lunch, when more than 200 people are set to attend.

“Michael Parkinson is going to interview me like on one of his shows, and some of the old players will be there, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Doubtless there will be anecdotes and humour aplenty, and I ask Dickie if he has any particular favourite from his time in the game.

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“The one that sticks out was a match between England and Australia at Headingley. Merv Hughes, the Australian fast bowler, was bowling from the Kirkstall Lane end, and I was umpiring at that end as well. Graeme Hick kept playing and missing, and Merv kept swearing; his language was terrible.

“I said, ‘Merv, could I have a word with you, please.’ He said, ‘What is it, Dickie?’ I said, ‘I want you to be a good boy, Merv. I don’t want you to swear again. This Hick’s done you no harm, and your language is disgraceful. Now be a good boy.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Dickie Bird, you’re a legend. I won’t swear again. I’ll be a good boy.’

“Anyway, Merv came in next ball, Hick played and missed and I’ve never heard language like it in all my life! Everyone just fell about laughing.”

A lovely story and an insight, perhaps, into why Dickie was so popular and respected by players.

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“Allan Border once said, ‘You’ve a marvellous way of handling the players, Dickie.’ It meant a lot, did that.”

There was a postscript to the Hughes tale.

“When I was in Australia some years later, doing book signings, I fell ill and was in my hotel room, feeling rough. Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and who should come in with a bunch of flowers and a box of chocolates but Merv Hughes. He put his arm around me and said, ‘Here you go, me old mate.’

Dickie remembers some umpiring highlights - four World Cup finals (three men’s, one women’s), standing at the bowler’s end when Shane Warne delivered the ‘Ball of the Century’ to Mike Gatting, and then some of the greatest players he saw - Warne himself, Abdul Qadir, Barry Richards, Garry Sobers, Dennis Lillee, Alan Knott, the names trip off the tongue and echo down the years.

Dickie was particularly touched when Sobers flew in from Barbados when the Yorkshireman was honoured on This Is Your Life.

“Sobers was the best that’s ever lived and when he came on last and hugged me, I had tears in my eyes.”

The best paying tribute to the best.

Happy birthday, Dickie.