David Shepherd October 28, 2009

The epitome of the English sportsman

Shep was a cricketer before he was an umpire, and in both roles he loved the game immensely

Former umpire David Shepherd, who died on Wednesday at the age of 68, was perhaps the most popular umpire on the international circuit for over 20 years, until his retirement in 2005. Tubby and with the sunburnt face of a country man, he had such a genial disposition that players responded in kind to his presence. There was no conceit about him, nor was he overbearing. But with his high level of efficiency alongside that happy nature, his control of the game was usually smooth and unchallenged.

He naturally had his disappointments, such as when he missed three wicket-taking no-balls as Pakistan surged back to beat England in the final session at Old Trafford in 2001. "Shep" came close to quitting after those fateful errors, but friends reasoned with him and he went on to serve international cricket impressively for a further four years.

He was equally horrified one day in a Test at Headingley after giving Chris Broad out caught off a glove that was no longer in contact with the bat handle. We teased him about not knowing the law, but he explained that he knew it all right: it was just that he hadn't detected that the hand had left the bat handle. Mortified, he sank his pint of beer, shaking his head. He was an umpire completely free of pomposity and malice, whose mistakes could therefore so easily be forgiven.

He was proud of his record as an umpire, having stood in 92 Test matches between 1983 and 2005, as well as 172 one-day internationals, a mark of his standing being his officiating in three consecutive World Cup finals.

His geniality sometimes got the better of him. At Lord's, when Australian wicketkeeper Ian Healy scooped up a low edge and fairly quickly shook his head to indicate that it wasn't a catch, umpire Shepherd gave him a burst of appreciative applause. Yet while he was not beyond offering the odd pleasantry to a player, it was never in an ingratiating way. He never sought the limelight. He didn't need to. His rotund shape and florid face stamped him as a favourite character, and he had an outstanding talent for calming incipient frenzy out in the middle.

Most famously, of course, his peculiar weakness was always predictable: he was seized by nerves and superstition whenever 111 or its multiples showed on the scoreboard. Agitated, he would hop on one leg every few seconds as long as that score showed. If anybody thought it was showmanship - for some umpires behave unusually when television cameras are around - they were reminded of Shep's West Country origins. They have a rich folklore down there, embracing goblins and fairies.

His rotund shape and florid face stamped him as a favourite character, and he had an outstanding talent for calming incipient frenzy out in the middle

David Robert Shepherd was born in Bideford, Devon in December 1940, and even in his youth he was comfortably built. He played for his native county as a teenager, and marked his first-class debut for Gloucestershire in 1965 with a century against Oxford University at The Parks. Soon he was a useful part of a talented team that boasted Mike Procter and Zaheer Abbas as its glamorous and prolific figureheads. Capped in 1969, Shepherd served the county well over 13 summers as a middle-order batsman, and enjoyed cup final success at Lord's in 1973 and 1977. Youngsters who have watched him umpiring in recent years might not have suspected that he was once fit enough and good enough to hit 153 against Middlesex at Bristol (in 1968: his highest score).

He was pleasing to watch, and he smacked 12 hundreds for his county before time and avoirdupois caught up with him. Even Shep himself might not quite have anticipated how the second half of his career in big cricket would completely overshadow his years as a player. It was his high level of efficiency as much as his personal popularity that accounted for his success.

When it was all over - and he was a reluctant departee, for he loved the game and the companionship very much - he returned to his roots at Instow, walking the dog, helping his brother run a village paper shop, reflecting on his global experiences in that large white coat, and seeing as much as possible of his beloved Jenny, whom he married last year.

David Shepherd was the very epitome of the English sportsman, and those who remember him would serve cricket well if they recalled at every opportunity how he always kept things in proper proportion. And he smiled a lot.

David Frith is an author, historian, and founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly