An offer I couldn’t refuse

 

by Mic Rees

I recently received an invitation to attend the Footscray Edgewater Cricket Club’s 12th annual Chairman’s Luncheon. After some procrastination I foolhardily knocked back the generous offer. Fortunately my wife and a few work colleges told me that my original decision to decline was one of gross stupidity and I should reconsider. I did and fortunately for me the opportunity was still on offer when I contacted the club informing them of my change of heart.

My earlier reluctance to accept the offer to attend this event probably stems from an unfortunate “Evening with George Best” function I attended over 20 years ago. I don’t know what was sadder, the sight of the former Manchester United superstar looking less than a picture of health, wishing he was elsewhere (as I certainly did that night), or the money that was wasted on this sham of a dinner. Time to move on, how could I have said no?

The invitation listed the afternoon’s guest speakers, which included two names familiar with sports fans in this town. Former Footscray, Victoria, Canberra & Australian superstar Mervyn Gregory Hughes was charged with the responsibilities of hosting the function. Media personality and ex Test, Victorian and South Australian paceman Damian Fleming (Who I’m reliably informed took a hat-trick on his test debut) was to be the after dinner speaker. However it was the other name on the guest list that grabbed my attention, a name evoking some marvellous memories of back-to-back summers from the mid 1970’s.

Earlier this year I wrote of former West Indies, Kent & Gloucestershire all rounder John Shepherd’s phenomenal two seasons of district cricket https://footyalmanac.com.au/?p=18630 . His two term tenure included the Ryder Medal in his first season, third place in his second, over 900 runs (including two centuries) & 80 wickets at an average of a little over 12 runs per victim. After an absence of over 30 years Shep was returning to Melbourne.

Prior to making my way to the venue for the afternoons entertainment, Peninsula Central Pier at Docklands, I decided to take my own “John Shepherd Tour” which consisted of venturing down to his former home ground, the Western Oval (The footballing version of Bulldogs were being put through their pre-season paces) and taking a walk past the Palms Motel “An oasis at the end of the long journey” in Geelong Road. Shepherd and his family were domiciled at the Palms during his first season in District cricket. The bus journey to the city took me past the abandoned car yard that was once the home of Col Page Ford, the local car dealer who supplied the star import with a hire car whilst he was in Melbourne. With preparations complete I was ready for day’s activities. Still feeling a little dusty after the previous nights FA launch at the Clyde Hotel, I decided to pass on the pre lunch drinks. Merv welcomed the 350 “friends of Footscray”; club Chairman Geoff Collinson provided a short speech and the first course followed soon after. Then the moment I, and I’d assume most of the audience, came for.

The most recent memory I had of John Neil Shepherd was of a Saturday afternoon at the Western Oval in February 1978. He’d just taken 8 wickets in St Kilda’s second innings, the Saints skittled for an embarrassing 48 all out. Shepherd’s haul cost him 10 runs from an astonishing 11 overs of work. The previous weekend he’d destroyed the visitors first innings grabbing 7/27 off 14.5 overs, giving him match figures of 15/37. This was only the fourth time 15 or more wickets had been taken by a bowler since the inaugural district cricket season in 1906/07. The following weekend’s Saturday/Sunday fixture at Victoria Park would be Shepherd’s last for the Bulldogs. When he was granted a benefit year by his English county side Kent, any possibility of a return for 1978/79 dissipated, his energies focused on the preparations for the fund raising that was to follow in 1979.

Amongst those in the audience who warmly greeted Shepherd’s arrival to the podium were some of his former teammates who included fellow Ryder Medallist Barry Watson, former Australian Test opener Ken Eastwood, Peter Dredge, Tony Paone, and Shepherd’s captain during his two seasons of District cricket, Lindsay James – the only man to skipper the Dogs to a VCA pennant. Shepherd, who arrived in Melbourne on Monday, has been accompanied on this sojourn by his second wife Sue. Terry, John’s first wife who was with him during both of his district cricket campaigns with Footscray, passed away in July 1989 following a battle with cancer.

Shepherd, looking remarkably fit for a man who celebrated his 68th birthday a little more than a fortnight ago, was asked by Hughes what he remembered of his first game of VCA cricket. The Dogs were drawn to meet St Kilda at the Saints’ home venue, the Junction Oval. Shepherd said he remembered Lindsay James forewarning him to be prepared for a warm welcome to Melbourne from the fiery St Kilda all rounder Nigel Murch. Bowling first, the Dogs had knocked over the home side cheaply and were within sight of the 108 runs required for victory. Shepherd and Ray Bright were in the process of smashing the Saints attack to all parts of the picturesque Fitzroy Street venue when Murch came on. In Murch’s first over Shepherd quickly dispatched the veteran of a dozen seasons of Melbourne club cricket to the boundary. Pleasantries were exchanged between the two, and not long after the Dogs cruised to an easy victory. Shepherd said that the first player to greet him after the match with a beer and a sandwich was none other than S N C “Nigel” Murch.

It wasn’t the first time Shepherd had clashed verbally with an agro antipodean. In August 1968, Kent faced the touring Australian team in a match at Canterbury. After being dismissed for 84 Shepherd was provided with some sage advice from the man who took the catch to dismiss him, Ian Chappell. Ironically it would be on a tour of South Africa with an International Wanderers team that Chappell and Shepherd would not only establish a firm friendship, but it would sew the seeds for Shepherd’s superb two season stint with the Footscray Cricket Club.

Another teammate of Shepherd’s during that Wanderers tour was Alan Hurst, a man he described as one of the fastest bowlers he’d faced over the course of his long and distinguished career. Chappell and Hurst suggested Shepherd consider the option of playing grade cricket in Melbourne that English winter (76/77) rather than returning to Rhodesia as he had the previous off season. Chappell, who’d retired from first class cricket at the completion of the 1975/76 international season, spent the 1976/77 season playing for North Melbourne. Upon accepting an offer to play for Footscray the 32 year old Shepherd believed one of the benefits of choosing to join the previous seasons VCA runners-up was that he wouldn’t have to face Hurst in a competitive game. Unfortunately no one had informed him he’d be expected to face Hurst on just about every one of the Dogs’ Tuesday and Thursday night net sessions at the Western Oval.

Hughes asked Shepherd about his decision to play in South Africa and Rhodesia during the first half of the 1970’s, a time when South African had been expelled from international cricket and whether or not he felt that was the reason he was unable to add to the five test appearances he made for the West Indies earlier that decade. Shepherd’s first tour of South Africa was in 1973 as part of the Derek Robbins Touring Team. When news broke regarding his inclusion it’s believed Rohan Kanhai, the current captain of the West Indies, responded to the news of Shepherd’s selection in the Robbins tour by saying “They should ban that “black b*^#tard”. Kanhai would play in South Africa less than a year after making the alleged comments. Shepherd, despite establishing himself as one of the premier all rounders in county cricket, was continually overlooked for International duty. He said the process of selecting a team to represent the West Indies has always been political “There’s a lot of water between the islands”. When the opportunity to be part of the Robbins tour presented itself, he took it. “I had a family and a mortgage”. His attitude was and remains – Have bat, will travel. Whilst he’d never been officially banned by the West Indies for playing in South Africa Shepherd said it hadn’t “enhanced his chances of playing international cricket”.

It was during his time with the Dogs that Shepherd’s animosity toward Kanhai boiled over. Kanhai played parts of three seasons for North Melbourne in the mid 70’s. One afternoon Shepherd let fly with one that wasn’t quite legal. “From 22 yards I could let one rip, but I was a lot quicker bowling off 19 yards” He suggested that it was fortunate for him that there wasn’t the scrutiny regarding spot fixing and deliberate no-balls in the 70’s that exists today regarding the incident.

Despite having a superb International & County career, did he have any regrets? Shepherd said he would’ve loved the opportunity to play 20/20 cricket, hardly surprising when you consider his amazing limited over performances than saw him make 4,200 runs and take more than 430 wickets for Kent & Gloucestershire during his two decade county cricket career. Whilst he believed the standard of batting in the shortest version of the game left a bit to be desired on occasions, he felt that some of the criticism directed at T20 cricket was unwarranted. However Shepherd, who served Kent as its president in the recently completed 2011 County season, was adamant “Test cricket remains the pinnacle of the game and we can’t afford to kill the goose that laid the golden egg”. Before departing the stage Hughes asked John Shepherd, born in Bellplaine Barbados on November 9, 1963 and resident of County Kent for the best part of the last 45 years, who he supported when England took on the West Indies in Test Cricket. “Sue and my three children all follow England. As for me I support whoever is winning”.

Friday afternoon provided me a chance to reminisce about an incredibly special time to follow a team playing out of the Western Oval. Whilst the Footscray football teams of the mid 70’s were an honest outfit and managed to get to the pointy end of the season on a couple of occasions, it was a continual struggle for the ‘Scray. Most of the clubs better players such as Thorpe, Dempsey, Quinlan and Round eventually left for pastures greener, and Kelvin Templeton had yet to materialize into the bona fide star he was by the turn of the decade. Whenever the Dogs took to the field it was always the other team who had the “gun” player – the unpredictability of Blight, the power of Matthews or the flair of Jesaulenko. Things were a little different during the 1976/77 & 1977/78 district cricket seasons.

The walk to the Western Oval during the football season often felt a lot longer than the half hour or so it took to complete the journey. The same trip up Barkly Street didn’t seem to take as long to negotiate during the two summers discussed above. When John Shepherd took the field it was Footscray who had the undisputed best player on the field. Despite playing a different game to the one played by those champions of the indigenous game, Shepherd possessed the same aforementioned attributes of power, flair and unpredictability. It was a great time to follow the Red, White and Blue.

Thanks Shep, you’ve provided some great memories that have stayed with me all these years. Just don’t take as long to grace us with your presence next time – come back soon.

 

Two more points – I would like to express my gratitude to Geoff Collinson and the Footscray Edgewater Cricket Club for the opportunity to attend Friday’s function. I had a wonderful afternoon, thanks so much. Finally I have referred to Paddy Briggs’ magnificent biography of John Shepherd The Loyal Cavalier to verify some dates and statistics for this piece. Anyone interested in taking a closer look into the brilliant career of Shepherd should consider checking out this fine publication.

Comments

  1. Great piece, Mic. Thanks.

    My small claim to fame (other having gone to school with the Dodemaides) was that I played for an Under-23 rep side for the Sunshine Cricket Association against the Footscray Under-23s in the early 80s at Western Oval. The Footscray side was a bit short of players in the age group so Ken Eastwood trotted out to play.

    I remember getting hit around a bit on a very flat track but my one wicket that day was Eastwood’s.

    So I can say truthfully that I’ve dismissed an Australian Test opener!

  2. Great piece of writing Mic.

    The great man was undoubtedly a star then and would be a even bigger star today – certainly better than half the rubbish that laughingly uses the term “international cricketer” these days.

  3. Mic
    It was a fantastic lunch. Damien Fleming was brilliant.
    John Shepherd was warm, humble, and gracious.
    Quite obviously, just a wonderful man.
    It was good to see you there.
    Cheers
    Smokie.

  4. Gigs – That’s a ripper story, one you can dine out on. Would’ve been the first time Easty played in an under 23 team for many years. Just getting an opportunity to play on the Western Oval makes me envious.

    Nice to see both Dodemaides in attendance on Friday.

    Shano – It’s all about timing – Trimble (snr), Ian Brayshaw, Jamie Siddons are a couple of other players in the wrong place, wrong time.

    Smokie – You’d pulled up a lot better than I. Agree wholeheartedly regarding Damien Fleming’s effort after the main course. Did you get to chat to Sharpy?

    MCR

  5. Thanks Mic. A golden era down Barkly St. Love the ref to “The Palms”…looking a bit shabby but needs to be Heritage listed.

  6. Another well put together article Michael. That brief test career of John Shepherds coincided with a poor period in West Indian cricket history, though in light of the last 15 years it could be seen as a good time ! The 2-0 loss in England in 1969, the 1-0 loss at home to india in 1970-71, not great results. Though players like Kanhai, and Sobers still could turn it on, others like Butcher were fading away, and new arrivals like Dowe and Shilingford never really came on. No, Johns brief career never delivered the rewards it could have. The Palms Motel, that’s another story. It was a Bodgie place. Ohh, if its walls had ears, thestories it would tell. Again Mick, a top article. Please keep them coming.

  7. Crio – Thank you very much. I think the old “Palms” needs more than a paint job.

    Glen – Thank you. The WI decline may have commenced a year earlier in Australia with the 1-3 loss in the test series. Was it the last series for Hall & Griffith?

    MCR

  8. Mic,

    I did indeed have a chat with the great J Sharp. He was in good form.
    There were plenty of old faces in the room.

    It was great for a relatively low-key district club to put on such a great function.

  9. Yes Michael the Windies lost to us in 1968-69. They then toured New Zealand. The first test, in Auckland, which they won, was Halls farewell. Bruce Taylor made a very fast ton for the Kiwis. They lost the second, and drew the third. That match, in Christchurch, saw the departure of Griffiths, and Seymour Nurse, who finished in style with 258. Off to England, and they lost the series 2-0. Were in a winning position in the third test , and blew it. Basil Butcher made 55 in his final knock, but after he was out they fell apart. In came Sir Garfield Sobers who made 91 in the first innings,golden duck in the second innings . John Shepherds contribution was minimal. 3 wickets in the first innings, then suffered an injury,so didn’t bowl again, did not bat in the Windies first dig, and a duck in their second as they fell narrowly short of their target.

    Palms motel had a name at the time. Not sure if you can remember a chap who used to loiter around at Footscray cricket games, i think he was called Chops. I recall he was involved in a an unsavoury incident at the Palms. Over to you.

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