13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 75


Educating Dickie

Michael Vestey

One of the few pleasures to be had in watching England bat in a Test Match was the sight of Harold `Dickie' Bird umpiring at the bowler's end. He only had to hop out of the way of a struck ball to relieve the gloom because no one hopped and flapped like Dickie Bird, a cross between the Bird-

men of Bognor and a crow reluctantly lift- ing off from carrion.

Seeing Bird on the field would, unac- countably, raise the spirits. Without mean- ing to, he would somehow perform a one-man show that delighted spectators, almost separate from what was going on around him.

Even lifting the finger to give a batsman out would take on a drama of its own, a Shakespearean frisson. So hearing him on Classic FM last Sunday in David Mellor's amiable tutorial on classical music, Across The Threshold, had the same effect. What would he say about Bizet and Dvorak, this lover of Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole and Shirley Bassey? Would he bring out the light meter, frown at the darkening Mellor, and take the team off the field? Would he consult the square leg umpire about a close run-out? 'I think Mellor was definitely out, don't you? Back to the pavil- ion.' In fact, this wonderful, sirriple, uncom- plicated, flat-vowelled Yorkshireman said, `I'm only an umpire.' Oh, no he's not; as Mellor demurred, 'You're an institution.' Of course, he's no longer an umpire, hav- ing retired in 1996 amidst great sadness and emotion. He was the best. No doubt he made umpiring mistakes, most umpires do as the television replay cruelly reminds us, but he was probably the most accurate of all the men in white coats. Too fond of bad light, perhaps, but he was thinking of

the players' safety, not the entertainment. So what would he make of Mellor's pas- sion for classical music? I thought the light meter might make a reappearance when Mellor played him a jazzed-up version of Bizet by the BBC Big Band. He thought it brilliant but,•'I don't think it's my kind of music, David.' He went on, 'Someone said, "If you hadn't been a professional sports- man [he played for Yorkshire and Leices- tershire] what would you have liked to have been?" I said, I would have liked to have been an opera singer.'

Mellor asked if he'd ever been good at singing or had even been to the opera. 'Well, I haven't, to be honest with you, David.' But in his car, travelling to speak- ing engagements, he played a CD of the three tenors. He liked Ave Maria. Mellor thought he had to get beyond that and played him the 'Flower Song' from Carmen. For a moment, though, I thought Mellor might hit the stumps with his bat after being given out when Bird replied, 'It's a bit too advanced for me.' No,' said Mellor sternly, showing dissent, 'it's a mat- ter of attitude.' Would the third umpire be called in here? I wondered. Or would Mel- lor petulantly throw his sweater at him. 'You've got to open your ears to this stuff, Dickie.' Bird, perhaps thinking of the aggression of hard men on the pitch from the past, Lillee, Mervyn Hughes and Alan Donald versus Atherton, chose diplomacy. 'That's right, open my ears ... oh dear.' Things were getting hot out in the middle. A bit more from Carmen and Bird was enthusing about the tune. 'Oh yes, that was class.' This Mellor man was about as diffi- cult as Hughes at his most hostile. 'I've expanded your repertory?' You have this afternoon, David, not half,' said Bird, per- haps thinking of the tea interval. Although he liked Pavarotti, Bird, sud- denly emboldened, thought of something: 'I tell you who sang better than Pavarotti ... Mario Lanza. He was class! Class will always come out.' Mellor scurried to his loo to find some Lanza, pointing out that the young Pavarotti had modelled himself on the singer who became a Hollywood star. Bird liked Walton's Crown Imperial, written for George VI's Coronation in 1937, and vouchsafed that he was a royalist. Mellor put on some Mozart — whom he called 'the W.G. Grace of music, or even the Don Bradman . .. "Class, isn't it?' said Bird. Then it was time to draw stumps. After Dvorak's New World Symphony, Mellor asked in hope, 'Have you really taken something away from this programme of a positive kind about music?'

'David ... you've certainly educated me, I'll be honest with you, and I will certainly now get one or two classical CDs, to play in my car.' And then, no doubt, the great man hopped into his car and reached for his favourite Shirley Bassey.