Book Review: David Sheppard, Batting for the Poor by Andrew Bradstock

Book Review: David Sheppard, Batting for the Poor by Andrew Bradstock

If you are looking for a challenging yet fascinating book to read over the Christmas season, this may be it.

Picture courtesy of SPCK Publishing, with thanks

Terry Wright

Batting for the Poor tells the story of a cricketer who played for England whilst a Church of England parson. He scored a match-winning hundred against Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Later, he became a bishop then, at the end of his life, sat as a Labour life peer in the House of Lords.

No, this is not a work of fiction with a somewhat unlikely plot. Rather, it is the true story of a remarkable man who lived at a different time when such diverse multi-tasking was possible. To quote L. P. Hartley, the past is a foreign country.

Professor Andrew Bradstock has written this comprehensive and thoroughly researched biography of David Sheppard’s life. Unlike some academics, he has a clear, readable style. His obvious admiration for Sheppard the cricketer, and the man of the church, never descends into hagiography.

Professor Bradstock describes the young Sheppard’s record-breaking batting performances at his public school followed by an outstanding Cambridge university career that led to an early, though largely unsuccessful, tour of Australia.

Sheppard captained Sussex for just one season before starting his studies toward ordination; but so impressive was his leadership that the county leapt from thirteenth to second in the Championship table.

He also sufficiently impressed Sussex wicket keeper Rupert Webb that, years later, Webb observed that if he “could have been anybody in this life” he would “have liked to have been David Sheppard.” And this from a man who himself led a far from ordinary life that involved appearing in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and marrying a lady who had previously been proposed to by Elvis Presley!

Whilst engaged in his religious studies, Sheppard was unexpectedly called on (briefly) to captain England. Bradstock recounts how the MCC establishment agonised over whether to allow Len Hutton, England’s first professional captain, to take a team to Australia or to revert to the “safer” option of the amateur Sheppard. In the end, Hutton’s cause won and he led a triumphant tour.

Later, Sheppard scored two hundreds for England, one at Old Trafford during what came to be known as Laker’s match and the other, that century at Melbourne where he was run out going for the winning run. Bradstock recounts that, just before Sheppard reached three figures, his infant daughter became unsettled so that his wife Grace missed the magic moment.

The second half of this book covers Sheppard’s life in holy orders ministering to the needs of the poor in the East End of London and, later, in Liverpool. Cricket lovers who simply want to read the story of a sporting career should not be deterred by this. Instead, they should maybe heed the oft quoted words of that distinguished West Indian cricket writer, C.L.R. James who asked the rhetorical question: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”

Encouraged by this, they may read and enjoy the rest of the book as a social history of the latter half of the twentieth century, and also as an example of how someone born into privilege chose to devote his life to the needs of others less fortunate; those left behind.

Bradstock’s book was launched in the August surroundings of the House of Lords. Those of us lucky enough to be present (yes, writing for Deep Extra Cover does have the occasional perk) heard ex-England captain Mike Brearley quote blues singer Bessie Smith’s most famous song – “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” His point was that Sheppard and those who worked with him were the shining exceptions to that truism.

Brearley is well qualified to speak about David Sheppard. The two of them combined together at the time of the D’Oliveira affair. They both strongly took the view that it was wrong to play cricket against a country where the apartheid policy dominated day to day life and where only white cricketers could play first-class cricket or be selected for the national side.

In taking this stance, they took on the majority of the English cricketing establishment who held firmly to the opinion, which seems naive now, that sporting contact would encourage political change.

In his foreword to the book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu pays tribute to the fact that Sheppard’s “call to boycott apartheid was a major factor in its removal.” Nevertheless, at the time, friendships were broken. Fellow Cambridge man and England captain Peter May never reconciled with Sheppard. Others, such as Ted Dexter, who also attended the book launch, later re-built the bridges of friendship.

Those interested in the Christian religion – or more broadly in the human condition – will find fascination in following Sheppard’s private and public journey of faith, made in the company of Grace who gave stalwart support despite having to battle both mental and physical health problems. His close relationship with Derek Worlock, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, was remarkable in its time. Appropriately, visitors to Hope Street in Liverpool today can see, halfway between the city’s two cathedrals, statues of the two bishops standing side by side.

Sheppard’s dedicated work with the poor and underprivileged brought him into contact with most of the leading political figures of the day. Inevitably, he clashed with Margaret Thatcher. Bradstock quotes Sheppard’s own account of trying to justify his beliefs to the Iron Lady and finding himself, in effect, heckled by her. “My mouth went dry as I remembered it doing once when facing Lindwall and Miller. But I kept going.”

The picture that emerges in this book is of a man who was far ahead of his time, not just in his views on how to oppose apartheid. To take just one other example, he floated the idea of a universal basic income, currently being flagged by the Labour Party as an option they would wish to pilot.

Professor Bradstock details both the inner battles that Sheppard fought in making key decisions in his life (aided by “walks with God” and, more mundanely, by applying the Appreciation of the Situation technique learnt during National Service) and the outer struggles to make an impact on the massive problems of poverty and neglect in both the East End and Liverpool.

The responses of both Sheppard and Worlock to the Liverpool footballing tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough are particularly revealing of the capacity of the two clerics to empathise with the pain of their respective flocks.

Criticisms? Well, amongst many excellent illustrations, it would have been good to have seen a picture of those Sheppard/Worlock statues.

And as Bradstock details yet one more working party or group set up or joined by Sheppard, with its accompanying acronym, it is difficult not to be reminded of Hugo Dyson, a (Christian) Oxford academic who belonged to the Inklings, the literary group that included C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien. As Tolkien gave one of his readings from Lord of the Rings, Dyson was heard to exclaim: “Oh, no, not another ****ing elf!”

Never mind! Those groups, like Tolkien’s elves, have their place in the story.

Overall, this book is a suitable memorial to a life well lived. Everyone reading it with any degree of self awareness is certain to be given cause to reflect on their own beliefs and behaviours. As Professor Bradstock says, David Sheppard’s life story may “continue to inspire others more earnestly to pursue righteousness, integrity and virtue in whatever their calling.”

David Sheppard: Batting for the Poor: The authorized biography of the celebrated cricketer and bishop
Author: Andrew Bradstock
Published: 2019, SPCK Publishing
Price: £15.99

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