By Sandra Downes In London
Plans to enrol at Erdiston Teachers’ Training College and become a primary school teacher were abandoned when John Shepherd was invited to play county cricket for Kent. “All I ever wanted to do was play cricket,” he recalled.
So with bags packed and having just turned 21, he left Barbados and headed to England. But on arrival at Heathrow Airport, for a moment that invitation by Colin Cowdrey and Les Ames to see whether he “would like it” seemed very unattractive. “I was naïve at the time. When I landed it was so cold, that if I had known the way back to Heathrow from Canterbury, I would have returned to Barbados the next day,” he remembered.
What kept him grounded was that “at that time playing county cricket for Kent was an institution,” plus his best friend Keith Boyce had migrated to England to play for Essex the week before. They were the first two West Indians who went to England to play county cricket specifically. Shepherd explained that while clubs in the Lancashire League (where most West Indian players went) required only one professional player, county teams were made up of professionals. “So you had to play county cricket in order to play for England.”
Even more special to the young man from Belleplaine, St Andrew, was that he and Boyce had played together for Barbados’ Schoolboys and Maple Cricket Club, and were both now in the UK. Both players would go on to represent the West Indies, although one of Shepherd’s regrets was that “we never played a Test match together.”
Shepherd recalled the rule that existed then, where cricketers had to reside in the county for two years to be eligible to play six months of the year for the county team. He spent that time playing in the County’s Second X1 and working as an orderly at The Kent and Canterbury Hospital during the winter months. His debut First-Class match came in 1967. “I started as a number three batsman, but I was a fast bowler as well. I was an integral part of the team for the next 16 years. I wasn’t John Shepherd the black guy, I was John Shepherd the cricketer,” he explained, adding that he bowled an average of 1000 overs every season. Asked what type of bowler he was, the county legend laughingly responded: “Oh I was like lightning.”
Demographically, the absence of blacks in the 1960s was glaring. “When I first arrived I lived in Canterbury. If I saw a black person on the High Street I used to run up to them and ask them where they were from. You could count them on one hand and one of them would be me,” he joked. “The University of Kent opened that year too, so the few blacks would either be students or nurses at the nearby hospital.” In fact, a Trinidadian whom he met on the street took him to another hospital to meet some Barbadian nurses; some of whom remain his friends up until today.
Once his mandatory two years were up, Shepherd returned to Barbados during the winter months. In 1967, while working as a clerk in the Civil Court and paying a visit to his father who was a policeman at Central Police Station, he saw a young lady walking across the courtyard. She caught his eye; so he asked a colleague who she was and whether she was married. She wasn’t, so Shepherd went ahead and called Melnise ‘Terry’ Forde at her desk. They got engaged on her birthday in March before he headed back to Kent. In December 1968 they got married at St Andrew’s Parish Church and she joined him in England the following year. That marriage produced Caroline, Jacqueline and David. Terry died in 1989 and the single dad continued to raise their children on his own, teaching them to recognise there is a God, to be respectful and mindful of others, and that they couldn’t always be right.
He met his current wife Sue three years after Terry died. As head of Marketing at Brighton University, she came to seek his help in organising a cricket match for her workplace. “She is a very clever lady and she keeps me on my toes,” he shared.
By 1969 Shepherd wore his first West Indies cap as an allrounder. “I got five wickets on debut at Old Trafford and I played all three tests that year in England. In 1970 I played two Tests in Barbados and Trinidad, against India.”
But what puzzles him to this day is his non-selection in 1973; Shepherd still doesn’t know what went wrong. “I never disrespected my country, I never faced disciplinary action and nobody ever told me I had done something wrong. All I can tell you is that someone told me they overheard a conversation between two selectors and one of them said I would never play for the West Indies again.”
“Eventually I went to South Africa a few times on private tours; not rebel tours but I had a family to take care of and I needed to make a living. If I didn’t have a job come winter, I would have to go on the dole (benefits). I always said I couldn’t represent Barbados at the end of a dole queue.”
“What hurt me most was that I was more respected in South Africa and Australia than in the Caribbean. But it is what it is and I have no regrets about going to South Africa. I didn’t go to make a fistful of dollars -I just wanted to continue being a professional cricketer.”
Shepherd’s greatest cricketing achievement to date is being one of only three cricketers to score more than 10,000 runs and take over 1,000 first class wickets; the other two being Sir Garry Sobers and Malcolm Marshall. “So I can’t have been too bad a cricketer,” he chuckled. Shepherd, principally a bowling all-rounder, finished his first-class career with 1157 wickets in 423 matches at an average of 27.71 with 54 five-wicket hauls and two ten-wicket match hauls. To that he added 436 List A wickets in 326 matches. And for good measure he made 13,359 runs at an average of 26.34 with 10 centuries and 72 fifties. He also managed a further 4 337 runs in List A cricket with one century and 13 fifties.
Shepherd had high praise for the Barbados Cricket Association as well. “When we go back to Barbados, I must say that the BCA treats Sue and I very well. We get invited to everything that is going on, and it’s great just catching up with old friends.”
The eldest of five, Shepherd attended St. Andrew’s Boys School before moving on to The Alleyne School. As for the person who had the greatest impact on him? That honour went to his mother Kathleen Shepherd, although Sir Everton Weekes played a pivotal role as well. “My mother massively influenced my life. She is the greatest ever. She was the Mother Theresa of Belleplaine. A loving mom who set standards she made sure we followed. She is a genius of a woman,” he concluded. His only hope for her is that at age 98, she will make it to 100. “She deserves it,” he added.
Now 77, Shepherd relaxes by being with family. He especially enjoys spoiling his granddaughters Jasmine and Rosie, playing golf and of course watching cricket as much as he can. He lives by this philosophy: “When I leave this world and people can say ‘he was a good guy’, that would mean more to me than any record.”