David Shepherd, who has died at the age of 68, will be remembered as an outstanding cricket umpire, a perpetually cheery figure under a white flat cap – and as the official who hopped and skipped on the spot in an attempt to ward off the bad luck associated with cricket's bogey number of 111. The sight of a large, white-coated man lifting his leg off the ground entertained crowds every bit as much as a cover driven boundary or a hit for six.
Shepherd was a good enough cricketer to represent England Schools at Under-19 level and to score 12 hundreds while playing for Gloucestershire during a career which began in 1965 and ended 14 years later. But it was as an umpire, officiating at the highest level of the game, that he excelled and earned the respect and friendship of players across the world.
Born in Bideford, Devon on 27 December 1940, David Robert Shepherd had cricket in his blood. His father, Herbert, who lost an eye during the First World War, umpired for North Devon Cricket Club (prompting his youngest son to joke, in later life, that he came from a line of one-eyed umpires) and his brother, Billy, captained the team that played its home games at the picturesque seaside ground at Instow.
From primary school in Instow, Shepherd moved on to Barnstaple Grammar School – and lost his first (and unlikely) nickname: "Titch". "I don't suppose I did so badly, considering that my mind was constantly on cricket," he recalled when writing his autobiography, Shep, in 2001. "I was in the A stream and got eight O Levels. But my academic studies went rather off the track after that."
He had made it into the school's cricket first XI during his second year at Barnstaple, no mean feat for a 12-year-old who was considerably smaller than most of his team-mates and opponents. Rugby also took up plenty of his time but he shone more brightly at the summer sport, representing Devon Colts and then – in his last year at Barnstaple Grammar – being selected for England Schools. A match at Lord's saw the Shepherd brothers in direct competition, with Billy captaining the MCC Young Professionals.
Shepherd had also earned selection for Devon's Minor Counties side and he was to be given a trial by Kent. But his father made sure that his studies at St Luke's College, Exeter, were not ignored, imploring the cricket-mad youngster to "get your head down, son, you could turn into a decent teacher." Shepherd was not convinced.
"I probably wasn't the brightest student at St Luke's," he recalled. "The cricket came easier to me [than geography]. One Whit Monday we played a 20-over game against ex-students on the college ground. It was one we badly wanted to win as there was pride at stake. I hardly paused for breath and hammered my way to 100 off ten overs. It became quite a talking point. The local Express and Echo got quite lyrical over it and suggested, with maybe a bit of journalistic licence, that I'd smashed two windows in the process."
He did become a teacher, spending three years in the classroom and on the games field, at schools in Bideford and Ilfracombe. But a career in cricket was never far from his thoughts and his chance came when, in 1964, he was invited to play in several Club and Ground games for Gloucestershire.
Shepherd did well enough, scoring a century playing for the county's second XI against Hampshire, before, in 1965, making his first team debut. "Now that adventure which for so long I had feared was no more than a fat Devon boy's dream was beginning for real," he wrote nearly 40 years later.
Throughout a decade and a half with Gloucestershire, Shepherd averaged in the mid-20s, by no means startlingly successful, even given the fact that batting on uncovered pitches for much of that time was a far from straightforward occupation. But contemporaries recall that his best innings were played when his team was in trouble – he was able to rescue them on many occasions.
Even so, it was a career without too many headlines and, having turned down the chance of a coaching job with Gloucestershire, Shepherd may well have assumed he would enjoy a relatively quiet life on the circuit when he decided to qualify as an umpire. He knew the game had changed a bit, though, writing in a local newspaper shortly before the end of his playing days: "In my early days as a player, the umpire's job was probably the easiest in the world. All he had to do was count up to six and call 'over'. If a batsman thought he was out he left the crease and often the umpire would not be called on to make a decision. How frequently does this happen now?!"
Despite that, Shepherd decided to take up the white coat and he became a first-class umpire in 1981. County matches turned into Test matches, World Cup finals followed and the "fat Devon boy" became a larger-than-life figure on the international circuit, widely respected by players and fellow officials and instantly recognisable under his flat white cap even before he began hopping on one leg to try to ward off bad luck associated with the score of 111, 222 and the like.
"Some see it as an amusing eccentricity," said Shepherd when asked about his antics associated with certain cricket scores. "Others, I suspect, think I'm just a show off conscious of the camera. To the latter, I plead not guilty – even though, if I'm honest, I do play on it just a fraction. My hops and jumps, all done with a straight face and genuinely based on my superstitious nature, have become a light-hearted talking point. I can live with that."
While the hopping and skipping of a large man attracted a fair bit of attention, it was Shepherd's skill as an umpire – both in terms of decision-making and man management – that earned praise around the cricket world. He made his international debut at the 1983 World Cup, in England, and stood in 92 Tests as well as 172 one-day internationals before retiring in 2005. He was in the middle for three consecutive World Cup finals – in 1996, 1999 and 2003 – and at the end of his final Test, between the West Indies and Pakistan in Jamaica, he was presented with a cricket bat by the home captain, Brian Lara. On the bat was a message which earned approval throughout the game: 'Thank you for the service, the memories and the professionalism'.
Umpiring was not all a bed of roses for Shepherd, who almost quit the game in 2001 after a Test match between England and Pakistan. He failed to spot that the Pakistan spinner Saqlain Mushtaq overstepped the crease, and should have been no-balled, when taking three of his wickets. "My mind is virtually made up. At my age I can do without this hassle," he wrote. But he changed his mind when players, past and present, urged him to continue.
When the end of his career came four years later, there was only one place to go: back to North Devon and the village post office run by his brother Bill.
Shepherd is survived by Jenny, his partner since 1973, whom he married last year.
David Shepherd, cricket umpire and player: born Bideford, Devon 27 December 1940; married 2008 Jenny; died Devon 27 October 2009.