Shep, the favourite uncle, ambles gently towards the sunset
Sunday 03 July 2005
When David Shepherd departs the international stage next week cricket will lose a principal part of its extended family. Shep is everybody's favourite uncle, the genial cove with a gentle smile and a wise word who stands on one leg when the score reaches 111.
Otherwise known as Nelson (as in one arm, one eye, one leg, hence the reason for standing on one) this is a number feared by the game's English fraternity of a superstitious bent. Everybody knows that about Shep. It has helped to make him an institution.
What is also recognised is that he has been a great umpire. Respected by the players, cherished by the public over 92 Tests and what will be by next week 174 one-day internationals, more international matches than anybody else.
It is a measure of his true stature that the day he remembers above all in a lifetime in cricket was his worst: "It will stay with me forever." Talking about the last session of the Second Test between England and Pakistan in Manchester four years ago, his cheerfully bucolic cheeks seemed to glow a little ruddier.
Somehow, Shep missed a series of no-balls from the Pakistan spin bowler Saqlain Mushtaq, three of which resulted in wickets. England lost a match they should have drawn and drew a series they should have won. (It should also be pointed out that they batted like clowns.)
When the mistakes were pointed out to him, Shepherd was distraught. "I was ready to hand over the white coat for good." He was talked out of it by family, friends and strangers. Letters arrived from all over the world imploring him to stay, one from a chap with whom he had been at school 40 years before and had not seen since.
The International Cricket Council, reflecting the esteem and affection in which he is held, would have allowed Shep, 65 in December, to stand an extra year. When he declined, they offered to bend the regulations so he could umpire in the First Test of the Ashes series at Lord's.
"The game is for the players," he said. "There would have been a fuss over me and that would have deflected attention from what was important." So after yesterday's NatWest Series final he will umpire in one more inter-national, the NatWest Challenge at The Oval between England and Australia, and finish for good after the county season ends in September.
Shep still lives in the village where he was born, Instow, on the Devon coast. The sub-post office which has been in the family for 90 years has just been sold. The constant travelling from there as one of only eight umpires on the élite panel has worn him down a bit lately. "Only eight of us; I always say even the Good Lord needed 12."
He loves cricket, its camaraderie, the way it has of unearthing a man's character, but still there are occasional doubts and regrets. "Sometimes I wonder if it's all been a waste, having my life so tied up with something like cricket when there are so many other valuable things to do in the world..."
But he has adorned his game. His dad, who had only one eye, umpired in local matches ("See, I come from a line of one-eyed umpires"). He had 15 years with Gloucestershire, playing with the likes of Mike Procter and Zaheer Abbas, but a century on his first-class debut did not lead to an illustrious career.
After nearly 300 matches he finished with an average in the mid-twenties. Unfulfilled. Umpiring completed him. He took to it quickly because he recognised the game needed to be respected. He is in favour of technology to a deg-ree, but it is telling that he has the same counters - six small red barrels - that were given him by the old umpire John Langridge in his first season.
Shep has carried his super-stitions and his routine with him. They have been known to coincide. After close of play each day he will always say: "If I get run over by a bus the ball's in my bag so the game can continue." Each Friday the 13th he will tape a matchstick to a finger so he is touching wood all day.
On one such occasion he was umpiring at Lord's and at close of play removed his matchstick to take a shower. He immediately slipped, landing on his back and was briefly in some pain. His fellow umpire, Graham Burgess, put his head round the cubicle and said: "Where did you say the ball was?"
No question, Shep will be missed. And what of the Ashes now he is not to be part of it? "I haven't seen much of England lately because of the job, but I've seen a lot of Australia, and England will do magnificently if they win two," he said. And he was not being superstitious.
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