November 2005

Shepherd's hop for the best

David Foot celebrates the life and legend of the world's favourite umpire, David Shepherd, who has raised his finger for the last time and returned to his brother's post office in Devon

David Shepherd retired from umpiring at the end of the 2005 season © Getty Images

Cricket has lost its Falstaff. David Shepherd, full-bodied in good nature and girth, retired from umpiring at the end of the season. The game around the world is going to miss his infectious humanity, a sense of fun never too far away, and an old-fashioned regard for integrity.

But beneath those trademark physical contortions, paraded theatrically when the scoreboard registered Nelsons and double Nelsons, and doubtless emanating from his native Devon's myths and superstitions, lurks a wise and shy man. The more expansive and comic Falstaffian flourishes are only a paradoxical part of his appealing presence. He is, after all, one of the best umpires in the world. And that is to do with decision-making rather than vaudeville.

Not so long ago he returned from New Zealand and had to snatch an overnight before travelling straight out to the West Indies. On the escalator at Gatwick he suddenly lost his balance, tried in vain to grab his bag and went headlong down the moving staircase. It was a spectacular fall, pure and endearing slapstick. Someone fortunately stopped the escalator, eyed Shep's official blazer and said: "Hey, you're David Shepherd - on one leg again!" The well-fleshed umpire dusted himself down and grinned. He has always been able to laugh at himself; he was also aware that his legendary whims at the wicket were with him for life.

No one would claim that he was the most agile or coordinated of sportsmen even if he once played pluckily in the unlikely role of scrum-half for South Molton, the All Blacks of the West Country, as they were known. However, those who watched him, almost straight out of school, relishing club and Minor Counties cricket noted how well he timed the ball and what a belt he gave it past extra cover. Had he not announced his arrival for Gloucestershire, too, by scoring a hundred against Oxford University on his debut? Roly-poly he may have been but not simply a figure of fun.

Since 1981 he has been a first-class umpire, calm in making the right call, wary of duplicitous tricks by batsmen who do not walk or bowlers who cynically appeal too often. "I really hate cheats," he says, with more public passion than he normally reveals. By nature he does not like confrontation. That is why whispered words of warning, softened by the gentle Devon vowels as they are directed at a potential felon, so often pre-empt trouble. He has the advantage of an equable temperament, the eyes twinkling rather than blazing in a private exchange at the crease. The undeniable fact is that most top cricketers like him.

Umpires come in many guises. They are often pedantic or punctilious. Some are inclined to be bumptious, more obsessed with their egos than the state of the game. The uncomplicated Shepherd, mostly untroubled by all the distracting nuances within the structure of big-time cricket, likes to smile. He glances at the scoreboard and then goes into his surreal Barnstaple dancing routine, because he knows that the spectators expect it of him.

Barrie Meyer, his fellow Gloucestershire player and later umpire, was a valuable influence on Shep when he, too, turned from player to umpire. "In many ways I took my cue from him. I told him I liked a pint, so should I mix with the players in the evening? The advice was that, if they wanted to talk, let them come to us. The first move should be theirs." But Shep is convivial by nature. He has learnt, however, at times to keep his head down, remaining detached from any controversy fanned by aggrieved players.

Above all David Shepherd has an all-embracing affection for cricket, especially the county game. And it shows, whether he is walking a boundary or reminiscing as he sips his glass of red wine (he has had to cut down on the beer since diabetes was detected). He has travelled the world, listened in horror to all the gossip of match-fixing and murky deeds at the top level and been depressed by Sir Paul Condon's anti-corruption report. Just once, tucked away in a foreign hotel room, a melodramatic approach was made to him. He slammed the phone down; only later, however, did he place it in the context of shady contemporary dealings and see it as an exploratory attempt to see if he might be corrupted.

Maybe his naivety is part of his appeal and strength. He remains today as romantic about the game as he was when his one-eyed father ("No jokes, please") umpired matches at Instow and brother Bill, slow left-arm and sturdy bat, captained the talented local side. Bill was, on Shep's ready admission, the better cricketer. He went to Lord's for coaching. Instead of a county career he took over the Instow post office and newsagent's from his mother. Now he is about to retire himself. In midsummer Shep gave up his regular job as paper boy. He would be up before 6am, juggling his duties for Bill between the cricket fixtures. On one occasion, after delivering The Times to an ex-headmaster, there was a double-take. "I can't believe this, David. Here I am, reading a report of yesterday's match in Sharjah where you were the umpire and now you're bringing the paper to my front door."

Shep will never leave Instow. He likes the sand-dunes and the estuary - the lapping water virtually reaching the outfielders at the ground - too much. He always insisted that his return ticket to North Devon was his most prized possession when he went off on his many overseas commitments. Now he will have time to spend with Jenny, his partner, who must have felt she was spending more time packing his bag than seeing him. There will be more walks with Skip, the faithful dog, over the dunes: to see his old village and school mates, enlarge his stamp collection and take his golf more seriously. He and Bill will no doubt spend hours at weekends stretched on the grass in front of the thatched pavilion, just as they once did after they impatiently threw down their schoolboy bikes, dutifully to chase the rabbits away and hope a couple of the regulars did not turn up, so there might be a last-minute game for the Shepherd brothers.

The Jamaica Test in early June was Shep's 92nd and last. Only Steve Bucknor has stood in more. Then followed duties at Cardiff, Trent Bridge and Edgbaston in the NatWest Series between England, Australia and Bangladesh - before the Lord's final on July 2. At the final count he had stood in 172 one-day internationals, by some distance a record. The NatWest Challenge between England and Australia on July 12 was a memorable Oval farewell for him. He has been umpire in three World Cup finals, at Lahore, Lord's and Johannesburg. The biggest stage has been his. Perhaps his appearance for Gloucestershire in two winning finals, the 1973 Gillette Cup and 1977 B&H Cup, gave him the taste for the special occasion.

'The undeniable fact is that most top cricketers like him' © Getty Images

Fittingly his umpiring farewells were back on the county scene. White-haired, rubicund, a little more sedate now, he was most comfortable there, chatting to the players on the way out or waving to a familiar West Country face. As an elder statesman he was treated with some awe by the succeeding new influxes of county cricketers. His decisions, quietly considered, never rushed, were respected. In return he could not resist offering a kindly compliment to an emerging tyro. Not only the young appreciated his worth. When Courtney Walsh made his final Test appearance in England, at The Oval, he made a point of going off with Shepherd, arms around the Devonian's neck.

Shep's last four-day match was at Taunton on September 21. It is the nearest county ground to his home. And then came the most considerately arranged of valedictory fixtures: Gloucestershire v Glamorgan in Bristol on September 25. He signed off in front of the Nevil Road spectators who long ago used to see him mopping his brow, scampering selflessly for singles, thumping boundaries and once getting carried off with dehydration. Their regard for him has never wavered. His former captain, Tony Brown, summed him up as "pleasantly rustic, someone who turned himself from a club to a county cricketer". Shep happily settled for that.

He may have remained in spirit the village boy. Yet his achievements and that unrelenting schedule to the most diverse and exotic cricket venues in the world are all the more remarkable because of that background. His travels have provided a close-up view of world cricket. He feels that sledging has decreased. Like most of the top umpires he took a sceptical view of the evolving electronic aids "before accepting the virtues that come with most of them". The incessant international fixture-lists "in pursuit of the mighty dollar" bother him.

Umpiring is a human activity and it would be absurd to suggest he did not make mistakes. Flustered and despondent, he was perilously near to resigning after the much-quoted 2001 match against Pakistan at Old Trafford where he failed to spot three no-balls from Saqlain Mushtaq which took wickets. "Some wonderful people helped me through that. I got letters and messages from others I'd never met and I received kindly words at the ECB. I listened to them all and decided to stay." He was an ever-present on the ICC's international umpires panel - and later in their elite group. You cannot get any higher than that.

The superstitious Shepherd should have the final word. "Do you realise that my hero, Nelson, died exactly 200 years ago? I reckoned that it was also a pretty good time for me to retire from the scene."


A superstition revealed

Why is 111 known as 'Nelson'? "I've no idea!" That was the first reaction of Professor David Crystal, one of the world's foremost experts on English usage. There are more theories than hard facts:

1. The term stems from the mistaken idea that Nelson had one eye, one arm and one leg: hence one, one, one. (In fact, he had two legs.)

2. That it commemorates Nelson's three great naval victories: Copenhagen, the Nile, Trafalgar. Hence: won, won, won.

Shep says: "I always believed it was one eye, one arm, one testicle, because they reckoned Nelson was one short down below as well. But I always say one eye, one arm and one lump of sugar in his tea."

Why is it considered unlucky? One theory says batsmen are allergic to 111 because it resembles a set of stumps without bails. The number, so the argument runs, then became more widely associated with bad luck.

Shep says: "Nelson's always been an unlucky number. Whether it's 111 because of the three stumps, I don't know. It's just a tradition in English cricket."

Is it used only in cricket? No. In pre-decimalisation days, bankers seem to have called a sum of one pound, one shilling and one penny `Nelson'. It is also listed as slang for 111 in a darts book of 1938.

Why did it become associated with jumping up and down? Supposedly this started in the Gloucestershire dressing room when Shep was a player. Some believed that having no part of your body touching the floor brought better luck.

Shep says: "Whenever I was in the field as a player and the score was 111, I would do a little jump but no one really knew I was doing it except one or two friends. When I did my second Test as an umpire at Edgbaston, in 1985, someone had written in to dear old Brian Johnston and said `Watch this idiot when the score gets on 111.'

"It did, I did my little jump and there was a titter in the crowd. I thought there must be a streaker on the field but it was Brian telling the world - and the spectators were listening on their radios. I've been lumbered with it ever since."

Paul Coupar and Mark Eklid

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