John Shepherd by Colin Cowdrey October 1977 – John Shepherd is my idea of a cricketer. As long as he is putting bat to ball, or bowling, or indeed, swooping with great speed in the outfield and using that prodigious arm of his, he is the happiest man in the world.
He was born with the happy knack of being a chivalrous opponent, his infectious smile winning all hearts, friend and foe alike. He is a highly intelligent cricketer and a very sensitive one too. But this is John Shepherd the man — the man who cares deeply about pride in performance and is always ready to spare time for people.
Little wonder that he has become one of the most loved and respected cricketers of the day. He comes from the parish of St Andrew, lovely green countryside on the eastern side of the island of Barbados. His cricket was set on the right road at Alleyn’s School and his hero was Everton Weekes. Who better?
Along with Keith Boyce, he was the most promising young cricketer in Barbados when Leslie Ames and I first set eyes on him while we were touring West Indies with Rothmans Cavaliers in 1964. It was not in our mind to look for young recruits from overseas but we were so taken with his personality, as well as his cricket, that we invited him to come to England and play for the Kent 2nd XI.
We felt that he had nothing to lose by serving an apprenticeship under English conditions and we would have the fun of helping someone on his way to the top. It was an enormous step for him as a youngster but he settled in and adapted to English life from the start and within a couple of years, he established himself in the Kent XI.
Therefore, in 1967 he came the proud day when I awarded him his county cap. That year we won the Gillette Cup and John Shepherd, batting No. 3, played one of the best innings of his life at Canterbury in the semi-final against Sussex, making 77.
At that stage, I could see him being a Test match all-rounder of the highest class, more of a batsman than a bowler. The following winter he was back in West Indies early, in readiness to play his first full season for Barbados in the Shell Shield and perhaps to win a place in the West Indies team against MCC touring under my captaincy.
Tragedy struck. In the opening match of the tour he hooked a short-pitched ball from David Brown and it flew off the top edge of the bat into his face and broke his cheekbone. He was out of the game for much of the season and while he did play again it put paid to any chance of his first Test cap. As with anyone who takes a nasty knock in the face, it was to sap his confidence for a while.
In the 1968 English season, Kent finished runners-up in the County Championship for the second consecutive season and John Shepherd scored 1100 runs and took 96 wickets. The following year West Indies were our visitors under the captaincy of Sir Garfield Sobers and John Shepherd was an automatic selection, playing in all the Tests and heading their Test bowling averages.
For the West Indians that summer he took 8 for 40 against Gloucestershire at Bristol, the best bowling performance in his career. Gary Sobers came to lean heavily upon him. In his first Test at Old Trafford, he bowled 58 over’s in the first innings taking 5 for 104, a remarkable show of stamina. By the end of that short tour, he was worn out and had little left for Kent.
We missed him so much that after two good years we dropped to tenth in the table 1970 was Kent’s triumphant year, where John Shepherd played his full part: brilliant batting, bowling, and fielding, 700 runs, many of them scored in the chase to secure valuable bonus points and 84 wickets.
Now he had reached his peak. He was such an attractive cricketer that he was the first selection for anyone planning a tour. Unhappily, and this will be his one great sadness in life, West Indies never seemed quite to come to terms with his talents. He played two Test matches in West Indies against India but, to everyone’s astonishment, and Shepherd’s supreme disappointment, he was not selected to tour Australia, nor for the next tour of England.
Over the years he has had some remarkable experiences and has been one of cricket’s best ambassadors. He spent one full season playing in Rhodesia in the Currie Cup competition and has made five visits to South Africa. None will forget the reception he was given at the Wanderers’ Ground in neither Johannesburg nor the manner in which he played.
As a magnificent hitter of sixes, the memory of the stroke which deposited the ball clean out of the ‘Wanderers’ ground will make him chuckle in old age, but I wonder whether it was as dramatic a hit as his six onto the players’ balcony at Leicester, or indeed, the four thunderous blows for six in one over against Somerset at Canterbury.
Last winter he broke new ground and records too. He played for the Footscray club in Melbourne, finishing up with more runs and wickets than anyone else, winning three prizes and the Cricketer of the Year award in Victoria. Wherever he goes they want him to return — so it is this year.
Now the winter months will find him enjoying an Australian summer again with Footscray, and further triumphs, no doubt. In April Kent will be welcoming him back to his home in Canterbury. He has had a magnificent season for the county and will be close on 100 wickets by the end.
It was a glorious hundred of his at Canterbury against Middlesex in the Gillette Cup. He has scored nearly 10,000 runs and has 800 wickets under his belt, yet he has a lot of cricket left. I only hope he can preserve his fitness to take the big load that will be asked of him, for in 1979 he takes a benefit and no one will have deserved it more.