Billy Bowden: The enigma who transformed incurable rheumatoid arthritis into umpiring brilliance

Billy Bowden is one of the most famous umpires in the history of cricket across formats
Billy Bowden is one of the most famous umpires in the history of cricket across formats

Billy Bowden's story is the ultimate story of making omlettes when life doles out broken eggs. It's an eye-widening story of a man who passionately dreamt of becoming a cricketer, but an unfortunate medical condition took that dream away.

Umpiring is the true soul of a cricket match, but the soul-bearers were unfortunately bereft of recognition back in the days. In came a fresh face in 1995 and the world started to witness that even umpiring can be entertaining. This was none other than Billy Bowden.

There are numerous true stories of a cricketer fighting against all odds and eventually emerging as a true champion. Bowden's inspirational story is unfortunately lesser-known to cricket fans around the globe.

Let's take a look at both the sides of his story:

Side 'A' : Billy Bowden's rise to prominence

Bowden officiating for Womens T20 Cricket - New Zealand v South Africa
Bowden officiating for Womens T20 Cricket - New Zealand v South Africa

Brent Fraser "Billy" Bowden made his international umpiring debut in a match between New Zealand and Sri Lanka at Hamilton in 1995. Bowden did a fairly good job for several years, which earned him a spot in the "Emirates Elite Panel of ICC Umpires" from 2003 to 2013.

It was a pleasant surprise to witness such a peculiar umpire who entertained the crowd whilst taking charge of one of the most serious jobs in the sport. Despite the tedious job of making 100% accurate judgements on the ground, Billy Bowden managed to keep the atmosphere as light as possible.

Random video of Billy Bowden doing Billy Bowden things. #BillyBowdenHappy birthday Billy Bowden 👍❤️

Billy became one of the star attractions of any game he officiated. With every stadium that he stood in while donning the umpiring hat, it was a sight to behold. The crowd roared with deafening loud cheers every time Bowden stamped his trademark exaggerated signals and friendly interaction with the players.

Thousands of fans used to stand up in unison to impersonate Billy Bowden's iconic "crumb-sweeping" wave of the arm to signal four. Every time he signaled his "double crooked finger six-phase hop" to call a six, crowds around the world cheered with joy.

Apart from numerous first-class matches and cricket tournaments, Billy Bowden officiated in over 259 ODIs, 104 Tests, and 32 T20Is over 25 years.

Side 'B': Broken dreams, inspirational battle and paving his own path

Billy Bowden signalling a boundary the perfect way he knew
Billy Bowden signalling a boundary the perfect way he knew

It might be surprising for many to learn that Billy Bowden wanted to be a cricketer and worked hard for it.

A middle-order batsman and a handy off-spinner back in the day, Bowden captained his high-school team for three years. After leaving school in 1982, he spent four back-to-back summer seasons playing league cricket in Manchester, where he broke the league's batting record in his second season.

When he was 21, his dream of becoming a cricketer shattered as he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It's an incurable chronic auto-immune disease, in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your own body's tissues. This causes severe joint pain, stiffness, severe fatigue, and even deformity, usually in the hands, shoulders, knees, and/or feet.

In an interview with Stuff (via Times Now News), Billy Bowden opened up about his struggles and what kept him strong. He said:

“It hit me for six. It really tested me. In the end I decided there’s two ways I could go about it – sit around doing nothing or accept it and move on. A lot of people are worse off than me. I can walk and see and I’m still involved with cricket. It doesn’t stop you doing things you love. You might not be able to do them 100 percent but you can do them. It’s all in the mind. It is a pain in the butt to live with though. Arthritis is a life sentence of pain. It’s like walking on glass.”

Understandably, it was incredibly tough for him to see his dreams crumble. Moreover, the path lying ahead was visibly a lifetime of enduring severe body aches and joint deformities. But his determination was such that he remained strong enough to take on these life battles with a smile on his face.

Instead of taking his medical situation as an obstacle, Billy Bowden used it to come up with his own style for all the cricketing signals. With his animated antics and infectious smile, he made his job as entertaining as possible.

Who wouldn’t want Billy Bowden signalling 4 or 6 for one of their shots! 😱🤩…

Bowden's unique way of signaling was not because he tried to be extra funny on purpose. Due to rheumatoid arthritis, it was painful for him to raise his finger straight and over his head. He had to use a crooked finger sign to avoid the pain. In order to straighten up his stiff fingers, he had to use hot water before games to loosen them up before matches.

Similarly, it was difficult for him to signal a six by raising both his hands without avoiding joint pain. He balanced his overall movement by raising his leg at the same time whilst adding just a little extra flavor with his own eccentric style.


Take a look at some of his most memorable moments here.

The way he converted such an adverse medical condition into his own different brand of umpiring is quite commendable. Although he couldn't be a cricketer, Billy Bowden's love for cricket led him to remain associated with it in a different crucial capacity for over two decades.

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Edited by Puranjay Dixit


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