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Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Little Bird Told Me

The sound of clickety-clack in no way overpowered the urge to take a peep into the gorgeous M.A. Chidambaram stadium. As the train whistled past the stadium, the glimpse of the sanctum-sanctorum with the lush green outfield and the 22 yard strip was just the sight the tired eyes were yearning for. My spirits soared at the mere sight, but did not peak as it should have for the moment of truth was far away.

The wait at the stadium for this moment of truth is a nerve-racking ordeal. Minutes, perhaps seconds, would mean a whole day at the stadium waiting for the action to begin. The excitement begins only when two men walk into the field, signaling the start of play. The limelight they hog, for minutes, virtually falls on the men in white as they make the entry. Their tribe counts more sticks thrown at them than the carrots that come as a pittance.

Judgmental errors, lack of control, misuse of authority, intoned bias have been the curse for some men of this tribe who have paid a heavy price. Not so for one man who escaped the eye of stormy decisions, a man who became as popular as any star batsman or bowler of his time. He simply glorified his tribe. It was a little bird who told me this.

Perhaps the white cap he wore gave him away. Perhaps that he was the early bird for a match, eagle-eyed to take decisions spot on gave him away. Perhaps tell-tale stories of passion, love of the game, compassion, empathy, dignity, and esteem had earned him this Iconic status.

Cricket had become his vehicle to do and express what he wanted - Be fair and square in life, treat everybody with respect. It isn’t mere hyperbole to say that this bird and cricket were inseparable like fish and water. This Bird is now lodged in an unconquerable perch, all his deeds coming together to put him at that coveted point of honor.

His quirks and quiddities were his byname. They wouldn’t go unnoticed as would his signature of signaling the maximum runs. A decision here, hearty chat with a player there and then his very own fatherly talk to make an enfant terrible shed that tag on the field.  And what faith did players all around the world invest on him; you will have to see it to believe it, so said a little bird.

The crucial semi-final of the 1987 world cup was reaching a pivotal moment. The charismatic Imran and the Industrious Javed were scripting a solid partnership to revive the hopes of the Pakistanis. The border of uncertainty hadn’t yet been crossed, when Border took the ball to dislodge the partnership. As it were, it was a tossed up delivery that could tempt any in this trade. Imran was no exception as he launched into a wild ball chase.

The next thing we knew was the Australians were screaming in unison. The flow of adrenaline was too much to handle. Up went the finger of the umpire. Imran, caught behind, stood there at the wicket for a second or two, faint disbelief written over his face. Perhaps the ball did not find the edge of the bat. Then he took that weary walk back. It was the little Bird who had ruled Imran out. Like so many other cricketers who held the Bird in high esteem, who believed in his verdict, Imran dispelled the doubt in his mind to take the walk back. A little bird had to raise his finger to tell me all this.

Out there in the middle, testing times were brimful for the bird, not to mention the wild characters that took the field and taxed his tribe. But, taming wild characters on the field came naturally to this Bird. The 1970s proved to be a time when teams around the world came to rely on their pace batteries. And so it was for Pakistan at the Oval, a happy hunting ground for them.

As the battle between bat and ball grew fiercer, Sarfraz Nawaz was pitting his wits against the tall and lanky Tony Grieg. Where Sarfraz is, mischief is not even a stone throw away.  The cunning pace man, who to a generation of cricket lovers watching Test match cricket in the 1970s and 80s, could well be the first practitioner to orchestrate what is now staggeringly referred to as the Reverse swing.

At Oval, a dirty trick had brewed up in his mind. That would erupt only into a confrontation, if measures were not taken to nip it then and there. In wobbles the medium pacer to the crease and bowls a beamer. My boy and you should have seen Tony Grieg turning red with rage. Greg, smart that he is, manages to keep his head safe but not his temper from flaring. Tony's rage to threaten the perpetrator was overwhelming; his bat was about to turn into a bludgeon.

While the storm was brewing, somebody had to step in to make sure that the storm brewed only in a teacup. In stepped the Little Bird chirping ''Tea gentlemen'', creating a wall between the two to diffuse the bomb that otherwise would have exploded. Taking control of the situation, a little told me, and that spur-of-the-moment thinking saved the face of the game.

Beyond his call of duty, the observant bird watched and weighed the protagonists of play. A classic pace bowler had him stumped with his run up. There was no whoosh, buzz, whiz, or the Wham. No onomatopoeic sounds could catch or sum up his run up to the wicket. He just glided to the wicket and delivered those death knells – who better than Boycott can vouch for this. Stealth and secrecy were the trademark of this bowler from Jamaica.

You knew that he was about to begin his long run to the wicket, yet you wouldn't be sure if he was coming. The whispering run up to the wicket was only a cloak to the spell of death he delivered. A little bird had told the world that he was the one and only Whispering Death in motion.

His cricketing pilgrimage had taken flight as a batsman, he then representing Yorkshire and Leicestershire. What was to follow was the trading of white & white for the Black and white. Getting into the Black and white would one day set him apart as the epitome of umpiring the cricket world has never seen before. That also meant that he had the ringside seat to witness glorious cricketing moments.

Richards had come to be the cynosure of this bird's eye. Barry the barnstormer, showstopper it was. He was playing for Hampshire then. You could watch his cover drive all day long. The pull shot also cast a spell on you. Front or back foot play, off or leg side, spin or pace, sublime strokes flowed from his bat. The ringside seat gave the little bird the chance to lap it all up in delight. The kittenish buoyancy would ooze out when words of praise came gushing out of his mouth. Barry was the best, so tells a little bird to me.

How’zat claims Pringle when the ball hits the pad of the marauder Gordon - Pringle was on the verge of a hat-trick. Not out says the Bird.  That was one of the many LBW appeals turned down by this bird. Nor was the Bird going to budge since Pringle was his country man. Well, LBW sounded more like the Love before Wedding than the Leg before Wicket to him – That was to be fathomed from the way he fell in love with the game from the time of his backyard cricket before tying the knot to cricket.

The bird’s well-known deeds on the field did well to justify his magnetic presence – naturally that bond of admiration and love was forthcoming from a generation of boys and men. It was not mere mortals that expressed their fandom for the bird, for there was also a budding star smitten by the bird’s accomplishments.
 
It was at Sharjah that the boy wonder met the Bird for the first time. The adulation bottled up in him was about to erupt into words of admiration. For one thing, the boy wonder craved for the bird’s opinion about his batting. Bird had no hesitation in crowning him the future star, no inkling of doubt that the boy would put his name in the record book. And so he did by notching up 51 test hundreds.

Hick plays and misses, Hick plays again but misses. The bowler was nettled. The bowler was none other than the burly, foul-mouthed Merv Hughes. As foul words were pouring in excess with each passing delivery, it was time the Bird in the middle intervened. Like the Master guiding his pupil to travel the right path, Bird made Merv the ‘good boy’ he was supposed to be on the field with that masterly chat.

The final appearance was special for the bird. But something else gave the feeling that he was very special, treasured by the cricketing world. As he stepped into the ground to make the one last appearance, there was this Corridor of Honor awaiting his arrival - English players on one side and the Indians on the other. Atherton had taken the pains to bring the two teams together to orchestrate the Bird’s final symphony. And then in play, Bird ruling Atherton out turned to be an irony of it all.

The love of cricket still lingers and the Bird, Harold Dickie Bird, serves cricket in whatever way he can. Still he remains in his nest, as happy as a lark with many a feather embellishing his cap. As I am about to take the bails off, it is time to unwind how a bottled drink manufacturer rode their luck on this Bird’s specialty – Passing Judgment that was. Everything was official about it. A Daniel come to judgment had lived true to his role on the cricket field.




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