January 2005

Hard path to glory

David Sheppard was a good captain - and an even better church leader

David Sheppard was a good captain - and an even better church leader. Christopher Martin-Jenkins traces the Right Reverend's journey from public school to inner city

Lord Sheppard: much of his life's work, always with a bias to the poor, was hard graft against the odds © Getty Images
I have a bronze on my desk depicting a Walter Hammond cover drive. It might just as well have been David Sheppard. Essentially a steady, orthodox batsman with deep powers of concentration, he could be as graceful and classical as any of his contemporaries in the powerful Cambridge and England sides of the 1950s.

Cricket, said former MCC president Harry Altham, is endless in its appeal to those who love it and understand it. As a boy Sheppard was as fanatical as anyone but when he was asked if he missed the game, as he often was after giving it up, he would explain that it was not so much "giving it up" as "taking up" something else that was infinitely worthwhile, "out of gratitude to Christ for all that He has done for us."

His second autobiography, Steps Along Hope Street, makes it clear that much of his life's work, always with a bias to the poor, was hard graft against the odds. He achieved the most conspicuous of his successes with his counterpart in the Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool, Archbishop Derek Warlock, with whom he formed a partnership in the ecumenical movement more invincible than any he had shared with his opening partners for Sussex and England.

A short while ago, ill from cancer and facing the latest of several operations, the retired Bishop of Liverpool (and former Bishop of Woolwich) seemed to accept that the journey was almost over when he summoned fading energy to give a moving sermon to fellow sufferers and a host of carers in the city's Anglican cathedral. Photographed in colour in the Liverpool Daily Post he looked a frail shadow of the Adonis he once was, but his face seemed also to be suffused with an inner radiance.

That was nothing new. There is about him a serenity that can come only from a deep personal faith. He had his setbacks even in the carefree days early in his career but always came back stronger. He made a duck in his first match for his school, Sherborne, and another, first ball, in his first innings for Sussex. He played only one match for the Army, failing in both innings, and remembers a dreadful run of dropped catches in 1949, one that was repeated on his second tour of Australia in 1962-63, for which he came close to being chosen as captain ahead of Ted Dexter. Normally he was the safest of catchers, especially close to the wicket, prompting FS Trueman's oft-repeated aphorism that "when the Reverend puts his hands together he stands more chance than most of us."

He made his Test debut against West Indies in 1950, then scored 2,000 runs each season from 1951 to 1953, making 24 hundreds and topping the national averages in 1952, his year as Cambridge captain. In 1953 he led the Sussex side with a notable steel, intelligence and thoughtfulness that got the best out of his men. They came closer to winning the Championship than at any time since the days of Ranji and Fry, but a match-saving innings by his former Cambridge team-mate Peter May in August meant second place in the end.

Willpower was a feature of his cricket as it has been of his ministry. He applied intense determination and intelligence to the extent that he scored 45 first-class centuries and averaged 37.80 in his 22 Tests. But there was never a doubt about his priority after committing himself to Christ as an undergraduate at Sidney Sussex. The final hymn at a service to mark his 25 years as a bishop, very much his own choice, was "All my hope on God is founded".

A career of dedicated hard work followed his ordination in 1955, a few months before he made the painstaking 113 that helped to build a platform for Jim Laker's phenomenal wicket-taking against Australia at Old Trafford. `Rev DS Sheppard', as the scorecards now listed him, had prepared with a mere four matches for Sussex, but the selectors were shrewd enough to know his quality.

His ministry started in Islington and continued at the Mayflower Family Centre in Canning Town where, in derelict surroundings by the docks, he began what might be seen as his greatest contribution to the Church - an ability to make the Christian gospel credible to inner-city folk of all colours. As chaplain and warden, he lived with his wife, Grace, in a flat created out of a corridor of the hostel, with wire over the windows to protect them from missiles and a view of a scrapyard guarded by an Alsatian. As David admitted in Steps Along Hope Street the centre had the look of a fortress from the outside, warm though its atmosphere was within. "Friendly visitors", he wrote, "often found it hard to spot just where you were meant to enter. Unfriendly ones never seemed to have much trouble."

When he next involved himself in cricket, in the rumpus that followed Basil D'Oliveira's omission from England's planned tour of South Africa in 1968, he was firmly against the establishment and for the need to make a public challenge to apartheid. Until Mike Brearley joined him, he was the most prominent figure in a group that forced a special general meeting of MCC to investigate the club's handling of events that lead to the cancellation of the tour by the South African government. The Bishop spoke forcibly at the meeting at Church House in Westminster and called for no further tours to South Africa until there was evidence of real progress towards non-racial cricket.

It was but one of many examples in the years before and since of what the Bishop of Warrington once called Sheppard's "deep concern for the underdog, his clear passion for the cause of the poor and his willingness to challenge the very highest in the land."

This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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