David Shepherd retires June 3, 2005

End of the hop-skip-jump routine



David Shepherd: a very popular umpire, and a very good one too © Getty Images

International cricket is so crammed full of firsts these days that the lasts rarely get a look in. Old players tend to fade away (or take coaching jobs in Sydney) rather than retire. But the second Test between West Indies and Pakistan at Sabina Park will feature a notable farewell: it's the last Test match for the umpire David Shepherd.

The Kingston game will be Shepherd's 92nd Test - only Jamaica's own Steve Bucknor (102) has officiated in more. And even Bucknor can't match Shep's current total of 167 one-day internationals (there will be a couple more in England before he finally hangs up that wide-fit white coat).

Shepherd, who turns 65 in December, has been a fixture as long as most people can remember. He started as a ruddy-faced batsman for Gloucestershire - he hit 108 on his first-class debut, against Oxford University in 1965 - and continued, seamlessly, as a ruddy-faced umpire who soon floated to the top.

He played for Gloucestershire for 15 years, with modest success - he crept past 10,000 runs, at an average of 24, collected 11 more centuries to go with that debut one, and he didn't really bowl. But his ample waistline soon marked him out as one of county cricket's characters: I can recall an amusing batting partnership between Shepherd, red-faced and blowing hard, and the whippet-like Jim Foat, with Shep in some danger of being lapped. He was nonetheless a handy one-day performer, and played in both Gloucestershire's Lord's final wins in the 1970s - the Gillette in 1973 and the Benson & Hedges in 1977.

Popularity as a player soon translated into popularity as an umpire. He told Cricinfo recently: "I'd like to think I had a good relationship with most of the players I umpired. I think it helped that I played first-class cricket, it helps you to know what the players are thinking and going through if they are having a bad trot." In the white coat his size somehow added to his authority - he looked like an umpire, which always helps. Shepherd stood in his first ODI in 1983, and made his Test debut against Australia two years later. Soon he was part of the Test-match furniture, calm and confident, authoritative without being authoritarian.

He made mistakes - who doesn't? - and was particularly upset a couple of years ago when the all-seeing TV eye showed that he'd missed a number of no-balls, some of which took wickets. Square-on cameras and Hawk-Eye are great innovations for the armchair viewer, but they make the umpire's job a sight more stressful. And for the elite official, there's another problem: "The travelling has been the major change, not being able to umpire Test matches in your own country. Now umpires are expected to spend large amounts of time away from their families and this has put some people off taking up the role."

What really cemented Shepherd's name in the public consciousness, though, was not a super career but a superstition: those fey little skips when the score reaches Nelson - 111 - or a multiple. It all started back in the county dressing-room, with a belief that things would somehow work out better if no part of you was touching the floor, and carried on from there. The commentators were tipped off, and the cameras have zeroed in at the vital moment ever since: "I've always done it, I've always been superstitious," he told us. "When I went into umpiring people said I should carry on doing the hop, but I thought I would look an idiot. But I decided to go with it ..."

The bottom line is that you could have all the hop-skip-jump gimmicks in the world, but if you're not a damn good umpire you won't survive very long in county cricket, let alone the international cauldron. Dickie Bird showed that, and David Shepherd followed suit.

Steven Lynch is the editor of Cricinfo