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    a cricket game on a big treelined field

    Cricket Star David Sheppard’s Muscular Christianity

    A celebrity who put his Christian calling above his sports career faced prime ministers and media critics with the same aplomb as he faced the bowler.

    By Christopher Sandford

    April 1, 2022
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    • Roger Taylor

      Great article about a great man who used his gifts to build the Kingdom of Christ.

    • John McCormick

      As a cricket enthusiast I enjoyed your article about David Sheppard especially as I am old enough to remember his exploits on the field. However I was surprised the article didn’t mention perhaps his greatest achievement as Bishop. He combined with his opposite number, the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock, to address the many social problems of that great industrial city. This was continued by his successor, Bishop Jones, in the most outstanding example of ecumenical cooperation in England. There is a now a statue in Liverpool of Sheppard and Worlock standing together.

    It’s like facing a Major League Baseball pitcher from a distance of twenty-two yards instead of thirty, armed only with a three-foot long, paddle-shaped club and your own nerve. To enliven the proceedings, the pitcher interacts with you not from the traditional, essentially static crouch, but after a twenty- or thirty-yard headlong sprint from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound, at the climax of which he hurls a cherry-red leather ball in the general direction of your ankles. In most cases the ball will hit the turf, deviate sharply left or right, and rear up like a skipping rock somewhere toward your unprotected midriff.

    For good measure, the pitcher will periodically vary the routine by dropping the ball in shorter, with the result that it bounces off the grass and bears in on your head. At your discretion, you may previously have equipped yourself with a device much like a motorcyclist’s helmet for the event. Other than avoiding serious injury, your primary job is to score runs – the currency of the game – by striking the ball to the field boundary, or far enough from the eleven fielders to allow you, the batsman, to run to the other end of the infield before the ball can be returned. At least two bowlers, as they’re called, must take turns, from alternating ends; also, there are always two batsmen on the field, each to take a turn as required. When the entire batting team has been dismissed, either by committing one of various technical indiscretions or by being rendered hors de combat, the teams’ roles are reversed. After all the players required to bat on both sides have done so either once or twice, a ritual that can take from a few hours to as long as five days, the total number of runs accumulated determines the winner – unless time runs out first and the result is a draw.

    There, in a nutshell, is cricket, which despite or because of its fabled idiosyncrasies remains the world’s second most popular spectator sport, after soccer. It’s perhaps worth adding just two further things before we move on. First, if nothing else, cricket has been around a long time. The game’s exact origins are a matter of scholarly debate, but it’s generally agreed that in the England of the mid-sixteenth century the essential bat-ball combat at the heart of the proceedings had evolved far enough to be recognizable as the highly structured contest enjoyed in some eighty countries today. And second – if the preceding passage didn’t already make this clear – it is emphatically not a sport for the easily intimidated or the faint-hearted.

    One of the curiosities of the modern era is the way we treat our most unashamedly Christian professional athletes. The individual cases vary, of course, but taken as a whole those who refuse to compromise on their faith can expect a certain amount of disdain at the hands of the mainstream media. The Olympic gold medal–winning gymnast Simone Biles was ridiculed for being “so, so into Jesus,” as well as for the shocking revelation that she prayed on a daily basis. The New York Times saw fit to write about the Olympic hurdler and bobsledder Lolo Jones, in a piece published just before a major race, mocking her for being “whatever anyone wants her to be – vixen, virgin, victim.”

    And then of course there’s the NFL’s Tim Tebow, whose unembarrassed Christianity earned him press coverage such as the cover story in GQ magazine titled “Have You Accepted Tebow as Your QB and Sunday Savior?” splashed across a picture of the Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback altered to make him seem to be in a crucifixion pose. Even that shameless manipulation qualified as merely routine secular bigotry, unexceptional in today’s media, compared to the vitriol of the CBSChicago.com sportswriter Dan Bernstein, who called Tebow “little more than an affable simpleton,” and his followers “lunatic-fringe cultists” and “batspit crazy fanatics.”

    Which brings us to the life story of the English-born David Sheppard (1929–2005), who enriched the international cricket world of the 1950s and early ’60s. Sheppard was the only son of a lawyer father and a homemaking mother, and related through them respectively to the Reverend Thomas “Tubby” Clayton, founder of the Toc H global Christian movement, and to the Victorian illustrator William James Affleck Shepherd. Broadly speaking, one side of the family had artistic leanings, while the other was noted for its entrepreneurial flair and spiritual piety. The young David was gifted at sports, and was remembered both for his striking appearance, with crisp, center-parted dark hair and a smile like that of a young model in a toothpaste advertisement, and for his academic prowess. Boarding school was followed by two years of mandatory army service, and then, belatedly, by Cambridge University.

    Sheppard quickly began breaking existing batting records on the university cricket field. In August 1950, the mysterious national selection panel, as arcane in its way as a papal conclave, invited him to represent England in an international, or “Test,” match against a visiting team from the West Indies. Readers familiar with baseball’s annual All-Star Game need only think of a barely twenty-one-year-old rookie being invited to participate, and then in short order to become its star performer, to get some of the flavor.

    A cricket player swings a bat while young boys look on

    Reverend David Sheppard, England cricketer and ordained priest © Mirrorpix

    It’s not necessary to dwell at any length on David Sheppard’s subsequent career as a professional cricket player. But it touched the heights of the sport. In 1952 it was the turn of the Indian team to tour Great Britain. At that level, a batsman (one makes an imaginative leap here from baseball) scoring 40 or even 50 individual runs is considered eminently respectable, even distinguished. If you’re lucky you might even reach 70 or 80. Sheppard went out to bat for his country against India in a game played at The Oval ground in London and scored 119. One venerable critic exclaimed when watching him bat: “Poetry!” An England teammate named Godfrey Evans said simply: “I always regarded David as the most graceful player that’s ever lived.”

    Indeed, it seems the only flaws anyone could identify in Sheppard’s performance were the enigmatic periods when, having apparently solved all the problems presented by the bowling, he could lapse into inactivity. Some critics felt that it all came too easily to him, that he lacked the killer instinct. Once or twice, when the needs of his team were met, Sheppard discreetly let himself be dismissed by the opposition bowler. But anyone who underestimated him as a competitive sportsman made a serious mistake. In 1953, at the early age of twenty-three, Sheppard was appointed captain of his professional club side, and the following year he achieved the sport’s ultimate accolade by being asked to lead England. It was both a popular and yet not uncontroversial decision by the team’s selectors. The leading alternative candidate, Len Hutton, was widely regarded as a superbly efficient but somewhat dour artisan, while Sheppard’s image was more that of the merry swashbuckler. At that time in English society there was still a lingering preference for leaders drawn from the ancient universities. It seems almost satirically quaint now, but the received wisdom was that the needs of the England captaincy of the 1950s were better met by a dapper, Cambridge-bred swell than by an honest yeoman.

    In the event, Sheppard resolved the selectors’ dilemma by soon announcing his decision to return to his old university to study theology, with a view to taking holy orders. Although he continued to intermittently play cricket until 1963, the sport now took second place to his clerical duties. In September 1955, Sheppard was ordained by the Anglican bishop of London in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and served his first curacy in Islingon, north London, at a time when the area was still a byword for urban decay rather than the spiritual home of Britain’s left-wing intelligentsia. He promptly built a youth center, offered addiction and counseling services long before these became popular, and instinctively sided with the underdog against most forms of authority. When in 1960 the cricket selectors asked Sheppard to return to play for England against the touring South Africans, he declined the honor in order to protest the system of racial segregation known as apartheid – a scandalous decision to many cricket traditionalists, and one that led to an angry summons by the selectors. On his way to the meeting, Sheppard stopped his car at a traffic light and, as was his habit, picked up the Bible he kept on the passenger seat in order to read a few verses. The book fell open at Isaiah 58.1: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” Thirty minutes later, Sheppard politely informed his hosts in the committee room that he would never again dignify the all-white South African team by playing cricket against them.

    Sheppard nonetheless held his own amid the horseplay and banter, not all of it elevated, of the typical male sports locker room of the day. He wasn’t just a great cricket player. He was a character. Among other eccentricities, he sometimes liked to act as his own announcer while on the field. Having swung at and missed a ball, he’d be heard to remark: “In the match yesterday Sheppard was below form; his footwork was slow and his strokes were slovenly.” Or, conversely, when smiting the ball out of the ground for cricket’s equivalent of a home run (and this necessarily later in the 1950s): “Elvis has left the building.” Other than his technical brilliance with the bat, he was known for his bravery, keenness, and a gentle satirical humor. Sheppard once remarked of a flamboyant cricket teammate that “one always expects a chorus of naked ladies to suddenly appear and start dancing around behind him.” He reacted to a churlish critic who had called his batting “a joke” by remarking: “At least it’s a practical joke, as you’ll see if you glance at my recent scores.” He never took offence at the inevitable ribbing about his other chosen profession in life, and to the best of anyone’s recollection only once objected to an exasperated teammate’s choice of language. “Perhaps best to restrict that particular name to one’s prayer,” Sheppard remarked mildly at the blasphemous outburst. His England colleague Godfrey Evans said of him: “Every teammate liked David, and every opponent respected him.” Who could ask for a better epitaph than that?

    Sheppard played his last professional cricket match in 1963. He became the Anglican bishop of Woolwich in 1969, and bishop of Liverpool six years later. Then aged forty-five, he was the youngest diocesan bishop in England. He remained an active social campaigner both at home and abroad, and continued to vocally oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the early 1980s, he personally lobbied the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, for increased government funding for a wide range of social programs, and would later remember a sticky meeting at 10 Downing Street when he was on the receiving end of Thatcher’s tart comments and frequent interruptions. “My mouth went dry as I remembered it doing once or twice when facing a quick bowler in the cricket field,” he wrote. “But I kept going.”

    Sheppard’s name was on the short list for the archbishopric of Canterbury when the post fell vacant in 1991. By then Thatcher had been replaced by the cricket fanatic John Major, and several of the British tabloid newspapers got behind “Reverend Dave” for the top job. But he wasn’t chosen, and retired in 1997.

    Perhaps Sheppard could have risen higher than he did in the church or in sport. As a critic once remarked of him, he lacked the ruthlessness of the true careerist. Nonetheless, he played the game he most loved at the highest level. He gave and received unbounded affection, and he lived by the belief that only personal friendship, “doing ordinary things together,” rather than lofty abstract principles, could truly communicate the gospel. Elevated to the House of Lords, he continued to speak forcefully on issues such as immigration, urban decay, and cuts in public services. He also argued against “American-style evangelists” having their own British television shows, and urged that “as God in the person of Jesus Christ entered into the thick of life,” so the nation should support “broadcasting, not narrow-casting.” In every sense of the phrase, Sheppard was a robustly muscular Christian who brought distinction on the church and himself, and in the end you can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t success enough.

    David Sheppard died in 2005, at the age of seventy-five. The Guardian wrote of him in its obituary: “His life-long practice at facing challenge, forming teams, and inspiring through hopeful leadership attracted many; it was a new model for the church in the twenty-first century.” To that I would add only that Sheppard was one of those rare, unswervingly brave men of God, who used his fame not for proselytizing but to sound an urgent call to restore what is now so nearly lost to us – the dignity of every person.

    Contributed By

    Christopher Sandford was born and raised in England, but has for many years made his home in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of numerous books, including biographies of music, film, and sports stars, as well as Union Jack, a best-selling account of John F. Kennedy's special relationship with Great Britain. His history of the English summer of 1939, with special emphasis on the country's cricket and cricketers on the brink of war, was joint winner of a major British sports book award.

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