22 years ago, a 32-year-old Kiwi umpire made his debut. The match in question was not important, because the spotlight shone away from the players that day. Every cricket fan remembers when Billy Bowden stepped behind those stumps in a hat. With the fate of matches in his hands, literally!

It wasn’t because of any controversial decision that he would take a permanent spot in our memories. It was because of what came to be known as the ‘crooked finger of doom’.


It seemed out of the ordinary. It obviously seemed funny. Back then, who wasn’t guilty of making fun of it? Martin Crowe went as far as calling him Bozo the Clown. His postures for other decisions were not conventional either. For a six, both his hands sported the crooked finger. His flamboyant style however, did make him one of the most polarizing officials in the game. Criticized by many, loved by many more. 

He gained so much fame, especially in India, that they even cast him in Slumdog Millionaire!

It’s said that the game is about the players and the fans, so automatically umpiring takes a backseat. They apparently have to be decisive and not entertaining. That latter is to be left to the players. But Bowden’s eccentric style was always attracting. He varied his style depending on the format of the game. 

And no matter what anyone said, Billy Bowden did not change.


But it wasn’t just because of him wanting to be ‘different’, that his signalling was so out of the ordinary. The story dates back to his younger days. Billy had a promising career as a fast bowler ahead of him. But his life on the 22-yard strip came to an abrupt end. Aged 21, Billy was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

His career as bowler, as a player, faded away. But his love for the game did not. 

Cricket still remained in his heart, so he turned to umpiring. His medical condition prevented him from lifting that finger straight up over his head. Straightening his fingers results in immense pain. Hence, the bend. His other signals are also semi-fuelled by the need to maintain body fluids. The rest is him being himself. Like he puts it:

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.

It isn’t just about the courage to come back to cricket as an umpire when he could’ve been a bowler nor is it just about the bravery that he showed by defying his condition. But it also says a lot about his character. He has been criticized but his signalling never changed. There’s more than just physical bravery at play here. He did not reveal any of this for a good decade after coming on to the scene. He tells the world that however different, this is how we have to accept him. 

Billy Bowden remains the most unique umpire in cricket, the one who always stands out proudly.


It’s sad that he got demoted from the elite panel in 2016, and his entertaining umpiring is restricted to just local games in New Zealand and international women’s cricket. He is a much missed character on the field. We may not see the 54-year-old that often now, but his name from the history books can never be deleted. 

Not just for officiating in over 300 international matches, but for being Billy throughout and leaving his mark with a simple bend of the finger. Hats off to him for his contribution to the game, the courage he displayed and that crooked finger of his.