Obituary, 2010

David Shepherd

David Shepherd poses before his final international appearance tomorrow, at The Oval, July 11, 2005
Shepherd umpired 92 Tests, spread out over 20 years, and 172 one-day internationals, and these did include three successive World Cup finals: 1996, 1999 and 2003 © Getty Images

SHEPHERD, DAVID ROBERT, MBE, died of cancer on October 27, 2009, aged 68. David Shepherd made his name in two separate cricketing incarnations: first as a highly distinctive if never outstanding county cricketer; and then as an umpire, in which capacity he rose to be, by common consent, the best in the world. In both roles he remained "Shep" to everyone in cricket, and without an enemy. He was placid, friendly, humorous and devoted to the game, its players and its best traditions. The authorities struggle for a definition of The Spirit of Cricket. Perhaps the best answer is simply "David Shepherd".

His secret lay in his roots. They were always in the Devon village of Instow, where his mother and then his brother, Bill, kept the post office. Instow was home to North Devon CC and he naturally gravitated towards the ground. Even as a youngster David was ruddycheeked and rotund but still nifty enough to be a serviceable scrum-half for South Molton. And at Barnstaple Grammar School he developed into a formidable run-getter, which took him into the Devon minor counties team and - after a brief stint as a teacher - on to the Gloucestershire staff. On his debut at Oxford in 1965, he made 108 out of 139 while he was at the crease, though it took a year to establish himself in the team and four before he began to live up to expectations. Then in 1969 he ran into form before succumbing to a back injury which hampered the county's assault on the title. Shepherd won his cap and his reputation.

The crowds loved him, and he became "Good old Shep" by the time he was 30. The affection came partly from his build which, after a car accident robbed the game of Colin Milburn in 1969, was unique in professional cricket; partly from his obviously sunny disposition; and partly because he was a typical burly batsman, and whacked the ball. "He could play all the shots," said his captain, Tony Brown. "He could late cut and hit off the back foot, but he did love the aerial route. He was brave too: I remember him taking on Butch White, who was very quick. And he was surprisingly nimble on the field, very light on his feet. He was as fast over 22 yards as anyone."

Writers loved him too: he was such an obvious countryman that even the best of them could not resist the bucolic imagery. "Any film producer making The Farmer's Wife or Lorna Doone on location would seize upon him as an extra, with double rate and free cider," wrote Alan Gibson. "His bottom hand is clamped massively just above the shoulder of his bat," observed Geoffrey Moorhouse in The Best Loved Game, "as some ancestor probably held a scythe, or possibly a blacksmith's maul. He stands, ready to back up, with a bunch of knuckles on one hip, head scanning the field of play the way men do by gates when they are contemplating their crops… When he runs down the pitch in response to the striker's call, he does so with shoulders squared and arms heavily round, as though he were chivvying bullocks out of a field and into the yard."

He had regular failures and he would return to the pavilion, as Gibson noted, purplefaced rather than red. But his triumphs could be lustrous, like his wonderful unbeaten 72 against Surrey that rescued Gloucestershire from 24 for five early in their triumphant march towards Lord's in the 1973 Gillette Cup. The club did try to persuade him to lose weight: his friend and team-mate Jack Davey has a story about him being booked into a health farm which was, unfortunately, dangerously close to one of the players' favourite pubs. A ground-floor room… a large sash window offering an escape route… and a landlord not averse to making late-night fry-ups for his regulars. Shep liked a pint, without being an uncontrolled drinker, but he really did like his grub, and would often have dinner with his team-mates and then nip out for a solitary curry.

Shepherd played on through the 1970s but never troubled the heights of the averages or the England selectors. He then began to contemplate a move into umpiring, which surprised Davey, since - beneath the bonhomie - he knew Shep to be a worrier. But Dickie Bird made a success of umpiring on that basis. And Tony Brown says that Shep worried about getting things right, which is what umpires should do. His second debut (almost wholly rained-off) was again in the Parks, 15 years after his first appearance there. A year later he was on the full first-class list. In 1985 he was umpiring his first Test; before 1987 was out, he was in charge of a World Cup semi-final, disqualified from the final because England were in it.

He umpired 92 Tests, spread out over 20 years, and 172 one-day internationals, and these did include three successive World Cup finals: 1996, 1999 and 2003. There never was any doubt about his skill as an umpire: his decision-making was excellent - but it was not the only consideration. "What doesn't get highlighted is man-management skills: creating a happy environment for players to play in. And Shep was magnificent at that," said his colleague Simon Taufel. "The players had this enormous respect for him as a person. He put them at their ease and forged relationships that crossed all cultural and political divides."

Shepherd stood in at least one Test in England - nearly always more - every year between 1985 and 2001. But as the pattern of umpiring changed, he increasingly worked abroad, a regime that became particularly tough, almost oppressive, when the elite panel was set up in 2002 and neutral-country umpiring became the fixed pattern. Then the Shepherd temperament would stand him in even better stead, and his younger colleagues were more grateful than ever for his calm sagacity, and his endurance. As Taufel put it: "He wasn't the fittest bloke in the world, but he was match fit. He could get through five days in Multan or Mumbai as well as anyone." He was certainly still a trencherman: there was a deal with Taufel, who would do an extra lap of the gym for him, and he would have Taufel's scoop of ice cream in return.

Spectators will remember him best for his one affectation: the superstitious hops and skips that came whenever the score reached Nelson or its multiples: 111, 222, 333… This seems to have been his own invention, dating back to his Devonian club days, and went little-noticed when he was playing. At Old Trafford in 2001, Shepherd had a rare bad match against Pakistan, missing at least two no-balls that took wickets. He was so upset he tried to resign, and also forgot to skip on 333. That, he concluded, was responsible for a small earthquake off the North Devon coast.

Generally, though, he disliked fuss, and turned down an offer from the ICC to subvert modern practice and let him have a farewell appearance at Lord's in the 2005 Ashes. Instead, he retired quietly and returned to Instow, as he always had done - to Jenny (his partner for 36 years but not his wife until 2008), his dog, and brother Bill at the post office, whom he liked to help with the paper round. Shortly afterwards, however, Shepherd was diagnosed with cancer, and his last two years were sad and painful. But he leaves a legacy of happy memories far richer than those of many greater cricketers. He will always be good old Shep.

© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack