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Billy Bowden

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Author Topic: Billy Bowden  (Read 611 times)
« on: May 24, 2009, 03:35:29 pm »

Billy Bold

Cricket umpire Billy Bowden breaks silence

By STEVE KILGALLON - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 24 May 2009

CRICKET UMPIRE: Billy Bowden wants to be recognised for his ability, not his antics.

  CRICKET UMPIRE: Billy Bowden wants to be
       recognised for his ability, not his antics.

THE CROOKED finger appears slowly around the doorframe. There's a pause. It waggles. Then, wearing that Krusty the Klown grin, the rest of Billy Bowden emerges.

The world's best-known sporting official knows precisely the cause of his infamy: his sponsored car, parked outside, even bears a picture of the crooked finger of fate.

So beloved by cricket-obsessed India that he was awarded a bizarre cameo in Slumdog Millionaire, Bowden has become the antithesis of the archetypal umpire, the understated, sober, unnoticed chap in the white coat.

But while he loves the attention, Bowden hates the accompanying media criticism and is desperate to be taken seriously, to be recognised for his ability, not his antics. So for three years, he has laboured under the weight of a self-imposed media ban.

He has asked the permission of the International Cricket Council (cricket's world governing body) to be interviewed by the Sunday Star-Times, and wanted advance notice of the question topics, to which he has compiled judicious written replies.

Then, over the space of two hours, he happily answers every question anyway, talking about everything from the crisis of faith he suffered when arthritis ruined his cricketing career, to how he sings adapted Michael Jackson lyrics for motivation. And so emerges the other reason for the media ban: Billy Bowden can't help himself.

By the time we part, he's effusively trying to talk me into plugging his sponsors (Albany Toyota, Line Seven and New Balance there you go, Billy) and even wants to remind me which of his answers he had rather liked and thinks I should quote.

NO ONE, surely, really wants to be a cricket umpire?

But Bowden says he was "destined" to become one, although he too admits he would rather have been an international cricketer.

When he was 21, he contracted severe viral arthritis the original reason for his bent fingers curtailing a career he thinks might, with hard work, have culminated in national selection.

Until four years ago, when he became an ambassador for Arthritis New Zealand, he didn't talk about it publicly. "Was it because I was embarrassed, because I was a failure, my faith was tested... because it was why, why me?" he says. "I was healthy, only 21, my life was in front of me, and it was an injustice. I wasn't happy."

Eventually, his strong Baptist upbringing allowed him to reach a more positive conclusion. "Arthritis has been good for me, because I am sitting here now talking to you about something I would probably never have done if I had been healthy and played cricket. God has got a plan for everyone, and that was my plan... my arthritis has changed my life and turned me into someone I might not have been."

Ad Feedback Twenty-five years, 46 test matches and 132 one-day internationals later, Bowden is the only New Zealand member in a 12-strong world elite panel. He reckons he spends just 90 nights a year in his own bed. His wife Jenny, a nutritionist who writes a column for the Listener, travels with him only half the time. He leaves the country again on Thursday for the Twenty20 World Cup in England, the day after their third wedding anniversary. While he's told his schedule only three months in advance, it's likely that this year's schedule alone will include Dubai, England, South Africa (for the ICC Champions Trophy) and perhaps the West Indies.

He agrees that it is, at times, a lonely existence. Then he chirps up.

"I follow the sun, I experience cultures, the different countries, and basically, I do something I love. It can't get much better than that, can it? Just quietly, I think any criticism that I do get in the papers, on radio or on TV, I just say to myself, that's OK, I probably had a more fun day than them anyway."

He once, reportedly, danced around an Auckland pub on South African captain Hansie Cronje's shoulders and gave the craggy Australian captain Steve Waugh an impromptu hug at the end of his final test ("I think Steve liked it," he says wryly. "If I saw him now, I'd give him another hug"). So the reality of modern-day cricket must make it even more painful; there's little socialising between player and official.

"It's more like business than pleasure now," he says, "they've got their team, we've got our team." Then he adds: "Unfortunately you can't be seen in the bar or cafe with them because the next day you might have to make that tough decision and there could be a journo, like you, with a photo."

Bowden's like that. A lot of replies, which began life about other topics, slowly meander around to the media, their treatment of him, and his attitude towards them.

He'd contend that his dad is far more obsessed. Marcus Bowden, an 83-year-old retired Baptist minister, is a big fan of his youngest son. "He looks after everything that goes in the paper, good, bad or indifferent, he cuts it out," says Bowden. "He might need another house to put it all in. It's just a hobby." Bowden tells his dad not to make agitated phone calls to Radio Sport and sports editors.

The media bans, announced to the Dominion Post in 2006 and the Sunday News a year later, were, he says, not arrogance on his part, but about improving his own performance.

"Are you getting the best out of yourself, are you too concerned about other people and what they are doing?" he explains. "Most of the papers want to have a story that 95% of the time isn't positive, it's negative, so why give them fuel to make a bonfire?

"Is it helping my performance? Is it helping my game? If the answer is no, then I don't think I need to, and they can move onto someone else." He laughs. "The day you don't get mentioned in the paper is the day you're doing OK. I haven't been mentioned for a little while; so I'm doing OK, I've been in hiding."

Has he ever been hurt about the things that have been written? While he shrugs off how one 2007 survey of Australian players rated him test cricket's worst umpire, the one that seems to have stung (and he accepts as valid) was when he was widely criticised for openly souveniring match balls and stumps.

"People think umpires have skins like rhinos, or hippos, but I think we're sensitive, we've got feelings," he says. "When you get that criticism, it's how you deal with it. You either take it, use it, lose it, or fight it, or say `OK, there's an element of truth, maybe, in this'."

This mantra, which he repeats later, appears to have come from Jenny, whom he describes as his "inspiration" and his "hero". They've been together for eight years (he has two children from a previous relationship, daughter Brooke, 19, and son Fraser, 16, who captains Westlake Boys' cricket team). "My gorgeous wife says `bingo, they are on to it, they are correct, so don't try to fight it'," he says.

He's already told me how he's changed Michael Jackson's Man in the Mirror to the more appropriate Man in the Middle and he quotes the great man again. "You try to change your ways, just like Michael Jackson are you prepared to look in the mirror and make that change? I am asking you to make that change, are you willing to, I challenge you? That's what I tell myself every time a criticism comes my way."

SO TO that conflict in the heart of Billy Bowden.

Ignore the capering: he's clearly a dedicated professional. Nowadays, for example, his ascetic lifestyle means he barely feels any pain from his arthritis. Bowden is virtually teetotal (except for a South African drink called amarula, he prefers a mixture of ginger ale and pineapple juice), he doesn't smoke, he gets at least seven hours' sleep, does 30 minutes of exercise a day and follows a diet planned by Jenny. "Some people think I'm on something, some kind of pill or tablet, but I just tell them that I'm high on life."

He says he's modelling his approach on the "humility, honesty and humbleness" of two of umpiring's venerable old stoics, Englishman David Shepherd and the Jamaican Steve Bucknor. He says he's come to accept he can make wrong decisions, and learn from them, and says "it can at times be egotistical... we have to step down a bit and say we're like anyone else". He says he loves cricket and he "won't ever take it for granted"; that he believes he's only at 80% of his potential and may have another 10 years' top-class umpiring left.

And, after detailing how his preparations include motivational cards, studying individual players' behaviours, visualisation techniques, singing to himself and a nightly phone call home to Jenny to pray together, he also says to me several times: "I just want to be the best umpire I can be."

He's so affable, engaging, and a natural talker that eventually, of all those prepared answers, there's only one he sticks to and that's on the topic of his movie appearance.

Midway through Slumdog Millionaire, a television is switched on and in the brief scrap of intelligible commentary, you hear the distinctive Indian drawl of "Billleee Bowden".

First, bear in mind that Bowden is an old hand. When he lobbed up in England in 1999 to watch the world cup, determined he would officiate at the next one, he ended up appearing as an extra on Coronation Street (he had a snack in the cafe and a ginger ale in the Rovers). So he repeats, with a grin, his prepared line: "As I say, it's just my name: if you yawned or coughed or stopped to have a Jaffa, or had a drink, you would've missed it."

Then consider that he's secretly, I think, rather happy about it. Not for the celebrity, but because he likes being liked and Indian fans love him.

"They enjoy my style because they just love cricket. They just see me enjoying myself, and that's what they do. Their culture, their whistling, laughing, dancing all the time, I think my sort of personality rubs off on them ... I'm on the move the whole time, meeting and greeting people, and I enjoy having fun. I've been like that since I was born I probably came out dancing anyway."

Bowden's own conclusion is "what you see is what you get". I disagree there's a whole lot more going on than what you see when someone feathers a catch, and everyone looks to the bloke in the white coat.


THERE'S HIS signal for six, which most resembles the reaction of credulous punter being saved at a revivalist prayer meeting. The mournful, arms-bent gesture to award a wide. And the infamous crooked finger of fate, the party piece that has forged a career.

They are all preserved on YouTube, accompanied by a helpful video of Bowden providing a signal-by-signal demonstration behind a pair of plastic stumps in someone's back garden.

Yes, they have tried to change Billy Bowden. No, as befits a man who declares he's the same bloke now that he was 20 years ago, he won't be told. When the ICC first appointed a fulltime umpires manager, Chris Kelly, Bowden fielded an email asking him to at least conform when he signalled a wide.

 "Because I looked like an albatross with broken wings," says Bowden, in mock anguish. "But I replied to him `Sorry, it's the best I can do, I can't do anything more Sir Kelly'. I think they have given up trying." For several years, Bowden's stock answer to everyone's first question has been that his unique array of signals evolved as "50/50 reality/show" originally a necessity of his debilitating arthritis, now a declaration of independence. "My body ached all over ... my fingers were swollen and aching ... I was basically struggling to straighten my fingers, they were so sore," he says.

"Players understand it and they walk off when they see the finger, even if they think they are half-out.

"It says in the rules you've got to lift your index finger above your head, that's what I'm doing. It doesn't say you have to lift your index finger straight above your head.

"Umpires have their own characters and their own personalities. We're not clones. We're not paper cut-outs. It would be a boring place if we were all exactly the same. There's no additives when you see me, no preservatives. It's freshly squeezed. What you see is what you get."

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