David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor

Published: 2019
Pages: 320
Author: Bradstock, Andrew
Publisher: SPCK
Rating: 4 stars

In some ways Andrew Bradstock has an open goal with this one. There can surely be no more than a handful of cricketers who can compare with David Sheppard in terms of a lifetime’s achievements in everything they set their mind to.

First of all Sheppard was of course a Test cricketer. A stylish batsman for Cambridge University and Sussex he was only 21 when the always conservative England selectors first gave him an opportunity at Test level although, a century against the 1952 Indian tourists apart, his early England appearances and in particular his trip to Australia and New Zealand in 1950/51 were not marked with conspicuous success.

There were some in the corridors of power who wanted Sheppard, rather than Len Hutton, to lead England in Australia in 1954/55.  In the end Hutton got the nod and Sheppard, already on the way in his vocational training, did not tour. From his ordination in 1955 onwards and his first position in the Church, a curacy in Islington, Sheppard’s First Class appearances became much more sporadic and after 1957, other than a brief comeback in 1962, no more than occasional.

The two highlights of Sheppard’s Test career both came in the Ashes. In 1956 he was selected for the fourth Test at Old Trafford and, distinctly short on cricket, scored a century which helped set up the opportunity for Jim Laker to take his place in the history books.

Six years later and with virtually no First Class cricket in half a decade those at the MCC who coveted Sheppard’s captaincy skills (not unreasonably given that he had almost led unfancied Sussex to the Championship in 1953) again backed their man to take England to Australia.

On this occasion the issue was whether Ted Dexter or Sheppard should lead England, but despite losing out again Sheppard made the trip this time. Opening the batting he scored a fine century in the second Test which anchored a successful England fourth innings pursuit of 234. England’s victory in the third Test in New Zealand, to which he contributed 42 and 31, was the last First Class match of Sheppard’s cricket career.

Rather than return from New Zealand immediately with the rest of the touring party Sheppard stopped off in Sydney to do some pastoral work for two months before returning to the East End to continue his calling. He next made the headlines five years later, and alienated a few of his friends in cricket in doing so. The subject was that of South Africa and the omission of Basil D’Oliveira from the 1968/69 touring party. It was Sheppard who took the MCC to task over D’Oliveira’s non-selection on racial grounds, and to the surprise of no one two years later Sheppard was a leading figure in the successful campaign to stop the 1970 South Africans visiting England.

Between those two episodes, in 1969, Sheppard was appointed Bishop of Woolwich. He could, as most of his predecessors did, have chosen to live in leafy Surrey, but man of the people Sheppard chose to live in Peckham. His reputation continued to grow and in 1974 he published a book, Built as a City, dealing with the church’s role in urban settings. Two of his more controversial ideas were to take steps to bring all development land under state control, and to bring the public schools into the state system.

Despite the significance of his work with the under privileged in London Sheppard’s most important work was done after 1975, following his appointment as Bishop of Liverpool, then a fallen giant of a city riddled with poverty and unemployment. He worked tirelessly until his retirement in 1997 to improve the lives of his congregation. In a city that was no stranger to sectarian problems he formed a partnership with his Roman Catholic counterpart, Derek Worlock. Only a tiny percentage of those the pair set out to help ever went near a church, but the two Bishops did an enormous amount to improve the lives of ordinary Liverpudlians.

In the corridors of power Sheppard made few friends for taking Margaret Thatcher to task over many of her policies, but amongst anyone with a humane and unselfish outlook he was a man who commanded huge respect. There were a number of occasions when the Iron Lady tore into Sheppard but he didn’t mind. After all whenever they clashed he could do so safe in the knowledge he was always right.

Almost as soon as Sheppard retired from the church Tony Blair made him a life peer as Lord Sheppard of Liverpool. In the Lords Bishops are traditionally neutral, but Sheppard took the Labour whip and continued to fight for the causes he believed in whenever the opportunity arose. He may not have been quite a good enough cricketer to achieve greatness, but as a man he most certainly did.

To make Bradstock’s target even easier he already had two autobiographies from Sheppard to work with, not to mention another seven books on non-cricketing subjects that Sheppard either wrote or co wrote, and three from Sheppard’s wife. Bradstock could therefore have written a decent book without leaving the comfort of his favourite armchair.

Despite therefore needing just a tap in I am delighted to be able to say that in fact Bradstock steadied himself, took aim for the top corner and slotted the ball clinically home. In order to write the book he carried out 103 interviews, notable amongst the names of those he spoke to being Sheppard’s former teammates Jim Parks, Rupert Webb and Hubert Doggart. Even more gave their contributions via telephone and other correspondence, and those include the likes of British politicians Neil Kinnock and Norman Tebbitt, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who provides a foreword.

Perhaps most important of all in terms of the material available to him is that Bradstock had available to him more than sixty boxes of papers representing Sheppard’s personal archive, so in a sense the great man made a very real contribution to the book. David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor is a fitting and timely tribute to a fine cricketer, albeit one who reserved his greatest achievements for life beyond the pages of Wisden.

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