Both as player and umpire he entertained the public. But behind the hopping was a private man writes David Foot
Who says we can’t have a jolly thanksgiving church service in memory of a departing sportsman? Some of us went to two of them for Shep. There were no tears; these were not occasions for oppressive, inhibiting bereavement. Instead we were encouraged to chuckle and applaud as the stories, sweet-natured and laden with humanity, were unfolded. They needed no embellishing.
At Instow – where Shep grew up chasing the randy conies from the outfield, sharing early hundreds with brother Bill, doing the paper rounds and ceaselessly ruminating as he gazed across the estuary – dozens of his friends now walked the mile or so up the hill to the little church in the rain. None of them resented their wet shirts; instead they swapped stories under shared umbrellas.
And then a fortnight later to Bristol, where the parish church was larger and grander, filled not so long ago when Arthur Milton, Shep’s Gloucestershire team-mate, was laid to rest. Top brass from the ECB and ICC was well represented. But any hint of ostentation always made Shep feel uneasy. He was immeasurably modest. Famous officials, umpires and players crowded into the pews, a few slightly self-conscious in their best Sunday suits. The congregation was full of chummy, overweight village cricketers, their faces bronzed from the summer and some still wincing from shoulder strains picked up from uncoordinated, injudicious singles. There were rows of genial Friar Tucks – Shep’s mates.
Everyone wanted, rightly, to say uplifting things about him. But the adjectives would have gone on embarrassing Shep. He really was the definitive paradox, amusing the fans with his Devonian contortions as much as anyone on the circuit yet happier walking the sand dunes with his dog. He was no great conversationalist, he did not dispense jokes. He had a rigid sense of what was proper – and of loyalty. Some sensed guilt that he had a better and more glamorous life than Bill, the more talented cricketer who after his spell at Lord’s stayed behind to look after the post office when their mother died.
Helping Shep write his autobiography was at first a joy and then hard work. He was in some ways an ideal co-author. There were no differences between us; he searched his memory, often in vain, for insightful moments. One would have liked to push him more on whether he felt let down by one or two fellow umpires who failed to get out their walkie-talkies and warn him about the infamous no-balls that brought Pakistan those Test wickets at Old Trafford in 2001. Privately he was saddened and surprised at what he probably saw as a lack of cooperation. But, because of his nature, he ran from controversy.
Maybe his affection for the game simply outweighed the irksome, plutocratic way it was inexorably heading. For all his honest, gentle, decent, even unworldly qualities, Shep was an intensely nervous, home-loving and – eventually perhaps – even lonely man. Above all he was a cricket man, a player and umpire we all loved.
David Robert Shepherd was born on December 27, 1940 and died on October 27, 2009, aged 68.