From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.45 :: Nov. 07, 2009
The recent death of David Shepherd, Test umpire and cricket character, reminds us just how much the old game has changed in the last few years.
Shep was not tall but he was close to 18st and, even in his playing days with Gloucestershire 40 years ago, he could not be described as the fittest player in the side. He still managed 14 first-class years, 282 games and 12 centuries and a reputation for “hitting the ball like a shell in a battlefield,” as one old team-mate put it.
Simon Taufel, the much younger and healthier international umpire from Australia, used to joke that, “I ran an extra lap during my training stint for Shep and he had an extra spoonful of ice cream for me.”
They don’t build them like Shep any more; what a pity!
His death caused MCC to fly their flag at half-mast in a rare tribute and Dickie Bird, England’s other great umpire, to be tearful. But then Dickie is prone to weeping.
Even when he was about to retire three years ago, all that weight, all those scoops of ice cream and all that indifference to exercise, never seemed to distress Shep, even on the longest, hottest, clammiest day on the sub-continent. He remained simply a great umpire.
He stayed cool when other men might have panicked in front of huge, passionate and noisy crowds, his decision making was immaculate and he knew the laws, the rules and the regulations so well that he was able to apply common sense to their application.
You cannot say that about every umpire on the circuit as the fiasco at the end of the most recent World Cup showed.
The lack of knowledge of basic rules was demonstrated most recently in football in the English Premiership. The winning goal was scored by Sunderland against Liverpool after the football struck a beach ball which had been thrown on to the pitch by some half-wit under the impression he was being amusing.
The laws of soccer say that if such an incident occurs the referee shall stop play, the offending ball shall be removed and the game restarted with a bounce up. Heaven forgive him the referee in charge of this important Premier League match allowed the goal after consulting all the other officials. The fact that all four officials got it wrong says a lot about the training or the thinking of referees.
You can bet your week’s wages that Shep never made such a mistake, even when he was indulging his wish to stand on one foot every time the score reached 111. “Just my bit of daftness,” he used to say.
He did indeed make half a dozen errors at the end of a South Africa win over England when the SA bowlers repeatedly no balled. Undetected by Shep. I happen to know that he immediately offered to quit Test cricket.
“I was deeply ashamed,” he told me later. “I had no right to be on an international field if I was missing no balls.” His offer was refused but he quietly left the Test arena soon afterwards, knowing that the cancer that killed him was already taking over his body and afraid that more mistakes might follow.
So one of the last links with the old days has gone.
In Shepherd’s era, Colin Cowdrey could make Test hundreds and lead Test teams even though he too carried too much weight to be a ballet dancer.
Colin Milburn, who was far too fat for his own comfort, opened the England innings and became their short leg of choice, and there were plenty of men around who, like Mike Gatting, might have profitably lost a pound or three. All of them had highly successful international careers, relying on the fitness of a policeman on foot patrol to carry them through, rather than being dependent on gym-honed bodies.
They were all also polite, socially adept and courteous men, steeped in the tradition that says cricketers should be rounded, adults although not always as rounded as Shep.
He was a particularly nice guy as I have reason to know.
I met him early in my cricket life. I had just made a move across from snooker and was feeling rather out of it when I introduced myself to him one sunny evening at Lord’s.
“Yes, I know the name,” he said. “Keep writing the way you are and you will make friends in our game.”
I wondered at the time if Shep was being completely sincere but once I joined a posher, more cricket orientated paper, Shep was quick to pick up on the change.
“Well done, mate,” he shouted to me across nets at Trent Bridge. “On the ‘Telegraph’ I see. That’s more your style.”
He liked my new life so much he rang to tell me of his attempt to resign and then we met at a dinner where I introduced him as the main speaker of the evening.
“Hey,” he greeted me. “What has happened to poor old Marcus Trescothick? You know what is going on. Is the lad all right?” Funnily enough I had driven to the dinner thinking Shep would tell me. I thought: “Shep comes from the West country. He’ll have an idea why Trescothick can’t tour any longer.”
We talked through the subject for an hour; and finished none the wiser.
Sadly it was the last time I saw him. And I guess that in an era when men deemed to be unfit cannot find a place in the game as a player or an umpire we won’t see his like again either.
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