Umpiring is like life, it is not a dress rehearsal – The Billy Bowden interview


By Trevor Chesterfield | March 29 2010

Billy Bowden
Billy’s crooked finger. Photo: © Alastair Burke.

Catching sight of Billy Bowden dripping with sweat and emerging from the gym at the fancy beachfront hotel in Colombo after a 90 minutes workout, explains just how seriously he takes his job as a member of the International Cricket Council’s elite umpires panel. He strolled into the lobby, looked around and smiled without complaint.

He did not seem too put out about the appointment being almost two hours later than planned, or even the quaint explanation for the delay. He gave a quirky smile when told that neighbourhood trishaw drivers intend to keep their own time on a Sunday: family commitments come first, so you do not question the delay, just accept that an interview planned days before, almost doesn’t take place.

As Bowden had arrived back in Sri Lankan capital the night before, and that after seven hours of standing in the fourth Janashakthi Series limited overs international at Rangiri International stadium in Dambulla, a visit to the hotel gym makes sense. It gets rid of whatever stiffness there is from the three and a half hour drive back to Colombo; it is all part of the job and he’s not weary by the previous day’s events.

“Okay, mate. Just hang in there and let me change,” he offers, and with a quiet chuckle adds, “Order some tea. I do hear that it’s a great country for tea.”

There’s a grin and clutching a bottle of mineral water, he escapes upstairs to change.

On a chair in the lobby coffee shop is a discarded local newspaper with a picture of Bowden in a part-crouching position to pick up his hat during an incident the day before when it had blown off in such gusty conditions. His chase after the hat had spectators cackling. It is the type of tactless act that an audience indulges themselves when someone such as an umpire is in pursuit of his errant hat.

As it happens the world over, it shows that Sri Lankan spectators are no different. But it’s not being smart to enjoy what they guess is chortling over someone else’s discomfort.

South Africa’s captain, Graeme Smith, a perceptive young man, doesn’t care for it much either. On enquiring about the visit to the hotel the Sunday afternoon, he gives a nod before leaving for a team practice. Smith explains that the bent finger Bowden displays when he signals a batsman’s dismissal is not part of the so-called eccentric cult image built around one of the game’s great modern characters. It is all to do with arthritis.

Bowden confirms it. The Auckland-born son of a Baptist minister and former Auckland B all-rounder discovered in 1986 that he had the disease that affects the tendons in the body. It was upsetting at the time as it ended his dream hoping one day to play for New Zealand. An off-spinner and number five batsman, he spent three seasons in the Lancashire Leagues with Unsworth and had developed into quite promising player. It also explains his instinctive approach to the game and how that it is more than just knowledge of the laws and their application.

He spent New Zealand summers of 1982/83, 1983/84 and 1984/85 doing part time work from washing cars to looking after young children in day care centres and then getting involved in a sports goods shop that he now owns.

Once seated comfortably after changing, he offers a simple explanation about the gym session.

“It’s a professional sport, so fitness is very big part of the game – part of being involved,” he says.
“Players do gym work as well as have net sessions. They train hard to retain fitness and skill levels. They understand the need for umpires to get involved in such a strict regimen.

“If they can do it, umpires should do it as well as we have to be on the field throughout the game – twice as long as the players and therefore we need to be mentally tough. It is part of our pre-match or tournament preparation. They appreciate the effort that we put into work by doing gym work and attending nets: it gives them confidence in our ability as umpires.

“When it comes to game time, you know that players accept the odd mistake as they know we are working hard to be as professional in our approach to the job we do,” he adds.

Bowden spends three 90-minute sessions a week working out in the gym: it involves cardio treadmill, cycling, stretching exercises, and working with lightweight and shyly admits to now having a diet. You wouldn’t think so though the way he tucked into the New Zealand lamb and mint sauce one night at a hotel about half an hour from the Rangiri Stadium in Dambulla.

“It’s lovely stuff. Can’t miss a chop or two of good Kiwi lamb,” he grins in that boyish way he has and recalls that his girlfriend, Jenny, now finishing her nutritional studies, advises him on his dietary habits.
He doesn’t reject either the image that he is a touch eccentric when it comes to the way he signals the boundaries, calls for drinks or indicates that the appeal for a line call is a little too tight to give a decision and decides to go upstairs to the TV umpire. Bowden admits to being different. It is easy to see this in his boyish humour that many mistake as a sense of the dramatic.

Picking up a bat during a tense moment in the Asia Cup final and pretending to fire it at the offending players is another way of getting the crowd involved. In South Africa, the organisers of the local version of the twenty/20 series wanted umpires to adopt the Bowden metaphor of signalling boundaries and line decisions.

“It’s my cheeky side,” he says with a typical affable grin. “That is me – Billy Bowden. What you see is what you get.” That is the Kiwi way.

All this is followed by a mischievous wink as he takes a swig of mineral water and then becomes more serious as he explains his particular ethic of umpiring philosophy and refers to what calls the five Cs: communication, confidence, concentration, consistency, and common sense. The bonus ‘C’ is the sixth one that exemplifies them all and that is ‘correct’. Yet, as anyone who has umpired for any length of time can tell you, common sense is all about the unwritten law – ‘Law 43’.

There is also a sense of sadness as the day of the second limited overs international between Sri Lanka and South Africa at R Premadasa Stadium, August 22; Bowden wore a black armband to honour the memory of his mentor Graham Redaway who had died that day in Auckland. It was Redaway knowing that his young protégé had arthritis, involved him in umpiring.

“It’s going to be hard knowing that when I get back home I cannot pick up the phone and call him and see how he is and discuss my thoughts,” Bowden admitted. “It was Graham who told me I could make a career out of it.”

Being part of the ICC Air Emirates elite panel has also meant travelling the world. To an extent it has been a mental and physical challenge and also the way he views the job, as it also means ‘challenging yourself’ and knowing how to overcome such challenges.

He has a strong view about making decisions and admits to being conservative when it comes to giving lbw decisions. He would rather give the benefit of the doubt to the batsman. He contends that because a set up stumps is only nine inches wide, there is also much to consider when giving a decision.
It is a matter of going on the evidence the umpire sees before making a judgement; of whether “It is like an Emirates flight taking off and going over the top, or if the trajectory is low and other points need to be considered” as well: whether it was back or front foot.

“Players soon start to feel that if you give one lbw on the front foot you should be doing it for the rest of the match. It is where the word consistency comes in.

“What I don’t like is when a batsman is given out is the way he walks off shaking his head. That’s just not on,” he complains.

“You may get a few wrong, but you don’t see a batsman doing anything, or saying anything when he gets a decision going his way and it is the bowler who is aggrieved. The batsman gets one chance – he may get a second one with a dropped catch, but generally, it is one chance.

“I don’t want to be known as a ‘not out’ by saying that all the time,” he happily admits. “But I do want to give them confidence, and have the respect of the player and they know that when an lbw is made that it is pretty well, signed, sealed and delivered.”

He has respect for such senior elite panel umpires as Steve Bucknor and David Shepherd, but he adds that while watching them in action and how they handle pressure is important, he doesn’t want to model himself on either man. He wants to be seen as his own man.

“Billy Bowden – that’s me, pure and simple and without additives,” he grins. “I love the game. I have a passion for it and the players, and those who know me, understand that side of me, and the way I umpire. We are a part of the game: a part of the jigsaw. I do get tired of people saying that I’m a clown. To me it is summed up in one word and that’s jealousy. I don’t care any more what people think.”

He is not shy to tackle what he feels are pertinent issues involving him and the game.

“The way I umpire is not only for myself but also for the game. Cricket is a family game and we are all part of that family: the players, the media, spectators, administrators and umpires. It is our responsibility to keep it that way.

“The day that I do anything wrong, hurt the game in anyway, then please tell me and I’ll pack it in. But umpiring is fun; it is what life is all about. I know I make mistakes; that there are journalists and commentators who love to see me making mistakes. They get a big kick out of my making mistakes. That’s their problem. But they don’t say anything when I make a good decision.

“It is all about balance. Good bowling or batting and fielding are commented on; rarely good umpiring.”

Bowden was quick in agreement of a recent comment by ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed about how being an umpire was the toughest part of the game. It was in reference to the technology issues; of how it was another extension of the game, exciting spectator interest, whether waiting for the green light or the red light.

He felt while it was good for the game, there are questions of how far should technology go. He was against too much technology as it was a sport played by humans and as such was a team game and this is all about skills and ability.

“A match is won by a team that makes the least mistakes – not the umpires. Sure, umpires make mistakes, but I would like to suggest that possibly one in every fifty Tests or fifty limited overs internationals are lost because of the umpiring decisions.

“The problem is that because there is so much money involved, the game has become very competitive. Because of this technology has become more evident with television adding the speedometer, the red mat (for lbws), the hawk eye, the tracker . . .

“No wonder there is an outcry as an umpire has no chance of competing against such technology. Yet they get three or four replays before they realise that the umpire has made a good decision. “By the time the commentators make their comments, the bowler is into the next delivery. My feeling is that rather allow the umpire to make his decision and if he is in doubt then go up to the third umpire; it gives us the option if we need it.”

Billy Bowden
Photo: © Zynx.

He hasn’t as yet umpired in India or Pakistan, but they are countries to which he is looking forward to standing in matches.

“They say that if you umpire on the subcontinent and do it well, you can umpire anywhere in the world. There is no doubt about that. It is unfamiliar territory for many umpires. There is the culture, the heat, the noise in the stadium with the constant drumming, constant whistling and singing and chanting.

“You go to bed after a day/night game and there is still the beat of the drum in your head. But I have enjoyed it, and that is important from an umpire’s point of view. Wherever you go, you have to be strong, patient as well as enjoy what you are doing and believe in yourself. The ICC have appointed you because they believe in you.

“I am proud to have been selected by the ICC to do this job. When you go out to umpire a game I go out not as a New Zealander but someone who is an independent umpire who represents the ICC,’ he says carefully, being cheerfully acknowledged by Sri Lanka players Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillekeratne Dilshan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Samantha Jayantha and Nuwan Zoysa who have also just come out of the hotel’s gym.

“Umpiring in Sri Lanka has been a great experience,” he readily admits. “I was here in February for a five match (limited overs) series and enjoyed it. It is good when you umpire well and players respect you and enjoy your company. When that happens, you know you have earned your keep.”

Bowden offers no inside secrets of Australian superiority only advice. He points first to their ICC rankings at Test and limited overs level. Then there is list of medals won at the Olympics in Athens. For a nation with a population that is not much larger than Sri Lanka’s 20 million, fourth position with 49 is an exceptional achievement. They ended ahead of countries with far larger populations: Germany, Japan, England and India.

“They are the best side in the world. They don’t know what second place is,” he explains. “To them that is unfamiliar territory. They only know one position and that is number one. They never give up. They play it very hard – right to the line and they don’t give many chances to other teams.

“They believe in one another: even when they are under the hammer, they still believe they can win. They are as ruthless at home as they are away.

“Most countries are hard to beat at home – Sri Lanka, India, New Zealand . . . England, too these days. Australia though have that extra depth. Domestically batsmen score century after century, bowlers taking any number of wickets, yet they still cannot get a look in. They know that competition is tough. There are other teams coming through and they are starting to play well and Australia are going to know that they are not going to have it all their own way.”

As expected, his views on captains were according to his experiences. Steve Waugh topped the list. A man with a big heart, a never-say-die attitude and is mentally tough.

“He knew how to get the best out of each player and how to get them to absorb pressure,’ Bowden said with admiration. ‘The pity is that there are those who go out of their way to try and discredit such people as Steve (Waugh) and I feel sorry for them as they don’t know any better. They tear down rather that create.”

There is also praise for India and their Test series against Australia. Bowden felt it a privilege to umpire in Waugh’s last Test in Sydney and the way India applied themselves after losing in Melbourne.

“India are becoming a special team. They have three or four of the top batsmen in the world and it shows. Just to be at the other end, umpiring, and watching Tendulkar, Laxman, Dravid and Ganguly is so special. Just watching their technique, or the way each one concentrates, is such a pleasure.

“It is the same as standing with bowlers that are also world class. There’s Brett Lee, Shoaib Akhtar, Shane Bond, Chaminda Vaas, young Zoysa, Zaheer Khan . . . Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan and (Glenn) McGrath . . .” he reflects for a moment. “It is such a privilege to hold their hat and jersey and have a bit of fun with them.”

Then he admits that standing with someone such as the Sri Lankan left-arm seamer Vaas is one of the toughest jobs in the game and in the nicest way possible explains why “he is a nuisance bowler”.

“He’s always at that line and you know that you have to be working hard – always watching; he is such a world class bowler that he makes you sweat. When he hits a batsman on the pad, you know you have to be watching hard and be aware of what he is doing; if you are not vigilant, you know you are going to miss something.

“But he is also such a good guy and it’s a bonus to have someone like Chaminda. I can’t understand his English though if he is unhappy about a decision. But he plays the game: it’s hard and he enjoys it, and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

There is also the question of a bowler foot-faulting and a matter of communication between the umpire and bowler. This is needed to make the game flow. Too many no-balls disturbs the rhythm of the game as well as the bowler’s action.

“You soon get to know who are the ones you need to watch and it is a matter of helping the bowler through communication. It is amazing how many appreciate it.”

Next comes the subject of Murali. There’s no opinion about the doosra, it’s not his role to comment on such matters, but Murali the bowler is different.

“Warne and Murali are two of the most exciting bowlers I have seen. They ooze talent. Just to watch them bowl. They have a plan to get out a batsmen and you have to be aware that at some stage, during an over or two, they are going to get his wicket.

“You have to show a lot of patience when they get excited . . . I love to see that. Murali is a freak and there is nothing wrong with it either. It’s part of the game.”

Yet when the schools of batting theories are examined, each country has its own particular specialist; some countries have more than do others. Tendulkar is special and a class act with his own style: a real gem of a batsman; Dravid is solid and with singular technique; Lara is all flamboyance yet with that equal hard-nosed desire to score runs.

“Each country has them,” he offers, “the hard-nosed types with that special technique and who score runs and bat on and on and grind down the opposition. There is Steve Fleming, Tendulkar and Dravid, Ponting and Hayden, Jayasuriya and Atapattu then there is Sangakkara. They are all different types of player. They can really play – their concentration; like that of an umpire is so important.”

Bowden suggests that umpiring each Test or limited overs game presents its own challenges; some of this had to do with conditions, the environment: heat in Colombo or Dambulla, freezing cold in Dunedin, perhaps the wind in Wellington, or the rain in Melbourne. Each game is different at each venue. Umpires though had to be aware of danger signs. Taking the game for granted “is just asking for trouble”.

It was like a batsman scoring a magnificent hundred in one game and getting a first-ball dismissal the next. An umpire could have a great first day in a Test and the next day he was not quite there. No one messes with ‘Mother Cricket’ as she would bite back. It is like life: life is not a dress rehearsal; you are here for a good time not a long time.

“I have faith in what I am doing as I enjoy it. Yet it can be a lonely life . . . living in and out of suitcases for weeks at a time. But it is also a job I have built myself up for and I am not going to let it go just as I don’t take it for granted as I know there are many other umpires out there who would love to have my job. I have to be professional, act professional, and still enjoy it . . .

“It is a matter of keeping fit and preparation for each match. What I do find is that there is not enough appreciation of what is needed to make a good umpire. Sometimes we are away from home for six weeks to two months at a time. As it is we are away for seven to eight months of the year and it is very hard on family life.

“It is where your family and friends and support network is so important. You are only as good as your good lady as they are there for you through it all – the good, bad and the ugly . . . times. You need to go into a Test or limited overs game without any emotional problems; you have to be focussed: no worries about your business, or monetary, your children or relationships; if you don’t, it can create serious difficulties for you and making decisions if your mind is elsewhere. You are letting yourself down, umpiring down, the players and the game down.

“It needs a lot of courage to pull out of a game. It would, though earn a lot of respect if you pulled out of the game for personal reasons. The days of umpiring the game for money, or because it is a job have gone.”

Bowden admitted to feeling nervous and a little excited when going into his first Test. It involved New Zealand and their great cousins across the ‘Tasman puddle’ Australia at Eden Park (one of his three favourite grounds – Melbourne and Sydney are the others). It was at a time when Australia were on a match-winning streak and led by Steve Waugh.

Steve Waugh is not one for turning down autographs either as they are part of the game and in a sense, he feels it is a privilege to be asked to sign. He signed Bowden’s hat and a memento of that game.

(This two part series interview, written in August 2004 during South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka, excerpts of which were used on the Dilmah cricket website and The Island – this is the full unexpurgated interview on Island Cricket).

©: Copyright – Trevor Chesterfield.
(For reasons of copyright, permission is required from the author and/or webmaster/editor of for publication).

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