Obituary, 2006

David Sheppard

ESPNcricinfo staff



By 1952, 'he had turned to an intense form of evangelical Christianity, and the two poles of his life were starting to pull him in contrary directions' © The Cricketer International
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Baron SHEPPARD OF LIVERPOOL (Rt Rev. David Stuart Sheppard) died on March 5, 2005, the day before his 76th birthday. Rev. David Sheppard, as he was known for most of his playing career, was one of the most remarkable men ever to play cricket to a high level. His involvement was intermittent but always eventful. He captained England in two Tests in 1954. Had he devoted himself to cricket, Sheppard would have captained more often, and could easily have scored a hundred hundreds. Instead he devoted himself to the Church, where he rose to become a long-serving, distinctive and, by most reckonings, outstanding Bishop of Liverpool. Politics cost him his chance of becoming an archbishop.

Unlike his exact contemporary, Peter May, Sheppard was no schoolboy prodigy. At prep school, he was a slow left-armer and tailender, and he was 17 before he broke into the team at his public school, Sherborne. But, under the tutelage of Micky Walford and Len Creese, he blossomed as a batsman as he grew from a shrimp into a strong young man, good enough to get three games for Sussex just after he left school, and 204, 147 and 130 in 11 days for them as a 20-year-old late in 1949. The next year, when Sheppard and May arrived at Cambridge together after National Service, it was Sheppard who was first to sparkle, gaining national attention in 1950 when he shared an opening stand of 343 with John Dewes, and went on to a chanceless 227, against the mighty 1950 West Indians. That helped catapult Sheppard into the Test team at The Oval and both men on to the tour of Australia. Brisbane in December being far more than half a world away from Fenner's in May, they were palpably unready. But Sheppard slowly adjusted to the pace of the game, and regained his Test place at Adelaide, where he scored a second-innings 41 with the thoughtful determination that was the main characteristic of his cricket.

He scored heavily for Cambridge and Sussex in 1951, though now May was ahead of him in the selectors' minds, and Sheppard did not return to the Test team until 1952, when he took a century off the weak Indian team at The Oval without looking in touch. By now, after hearing an American Presbyterian preach in Cambridge, he had turned to an intense form of evangelical Christianity, and the two poles of his life were starting to pull him in contrary directions. He agreed, after some hesitation, to captain Sussex in 1953, leading them from 13th to a near-miss second. "We always said he was the best captain we ever had," said Alan Oakman. "He led by example and he supported everyone. He was the first captain we'd ever had who applauded your good bits of fielding. He didn't swear at us either."

Now he did put the church first, and studied for the priesthood at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. But his success at Sussex had given him a national reputation as a potential captain and, in 1954, when Len Hutton was ill, England asked Sheppard to take charge at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford against the infant Pakistan team. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, encouraged him to defer his ordination to obey this call: "Here is a piece of what I should regard as direct service to the wider interests of the Kingdom of God... And as I understand it there really is a crying need for someone to bring back into the higher ranks of English cricket a sort of moral decisiveness which has been slipping."

Now, with the 1954-55 Ashes tour looming, came one of those great captaincy controversies that so often convulse English cricket. To the discomfort of both men, the arguments raged between the claims of the gritty northern pro and the genteel southern amateur. It was resolved in Hutton's favour because he returned to cricket, and form, in the nick of time, which enabled him to beat the oldfashioned class prejudice that might have defeated him.

Sheppard returned to his studies, was ordained in 1955 and became curate of St Mary's in Islington. But still he could not wholly resist the call of cricket, and the selectors could not resist him. Despite minimal match practice, he was recalled for the 1956 Old Trafford Ashes Test made immortal by Jim Laker's 19 wickets. It is largely forgotten that England's position was set up by centuries from Peter Richardson and Sheppard - chanceless and showing no signs of rust. He did, however, ask May, now the captain, if he could move from short leg: "My reactions aren't what they used to be." He made another 62 at The Oval and 68 against West Indies the next year.

But that really did seem like his last hurrah. Gradually, the church took over. Sheppard could have been a comfy country vicar, and still become a bishop. But he opted for the sharp end, being appointed warden of the Mayflower Family Settlement in the East End, working, alongside his wife Grace, with the poor and the new migrants who were starting to pour in. Still, cricket pulled him back. And in 1962 he went on sabbatical, returned to the England team for the last two Tests, scored two half-centuries, and sailed to Australia.

If he was being self-deprecating about his reactions in 1956, they really had become dulled now. Throughout a freezing winter, English cricket followers would habitually wake in icy bedrooms to burst pipes and news that the Rev. had dropped yet another catch ("abiding in the field" was the joke). In Melbourne, he got a first-innings duck, dropped two catches, was dropped on a pair in the second innings - then went on to stroke a match-winning century. On Sundays, he would preach in the local cathedrals. "He drew bigger crowds than we did," noted Tom Graveney. After the tour, he returned to the East End and never played seriously again.

In 1969, Sheppard became Suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, and in 1975 Bishop of Liverpool, where for 22 years he became almost synonymous with the city and its troubles. He became an articulate spokesman for the poor, credited with anticipating the inner-city riots of the 1980s and turning into a more forceful opponent of the Thatcher government's policies than the official opposition. No one could have embraced the gritty north more completely. He was vice-chairman of the committee that produced a much-discussed report on urban poverty, Faith in the City, in 1985, and had to defend it at a lunch with Mrs Thatcher, who kept interrupting him. Sheppard said his mouth went dry, just as it had done when he faced Lindwall and Miller. When Archbishop Runcie retired six years later, Sheppard had no chance, even though normal Anglican politics dictated that the evangelical wing should provide Runcie's successor, and Sheppard was an outstanding figure. His views had also created a distance between him and Establishment cricket figures such as May; he was an implacable opponent of sporting links with South Africa long before it became fashionable, refusing to play against them as early as 1960. He never wavered. He retired in 1997 and became a life peer, alongside Colin Cowdrey, but was soon diagnosed with cancer, and his last years were difficult, although cricket was a great solace.

As a very young man, his evangelising could irritate his team-mates. He tempered his enthusiasm and became a popular dressing-room figure. "On a very hot day in Dubbo," recalled A. C. Smith, a team-mate on Sheppard's last tour, "we all went into the bar. Most Australian beer glasses are rather small, and there was just one English-style pint mug. Who won the race for it? DSS." His sermons sometimes had a little too much God and too little humour in them for the taste of fellowcricketers, but when he spoke at the 1995 Wisden dinner, he made a speech of outstanding grace and charm. His memorial service took place at a packed Liverpool Cathedral, with a bat placed on a table alongside his ordination Bible. &

© John Wisden & Co.