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An English Gentleman

Australian legend Richie Benaud, the only man to lead a side to victory over Peter May when he was England captain, went so far as to say, after May’s death, that he was the only truly great batsman to have been produced by England since World War Two. Len Hutton and Denis Compton’s careers began in the 1930s, so Benaud was not placing May above them, but he did therefore rate him above the likes of Colin Cowdrey, Ted Dexter, Kenny Barrington, Tom Graveney and Geoffrey Boycott.

The statistics of May’s career do not necessarily look like those of a batsman as gifted as Benaud’s assessment suggests, but numbers never tell the whole story. May’s averages of exactly 51 in the First Class game and 46.77 in Tests are more suggestive of a man a step down from the greats, but those figures take no account of the conditions in which May batted. The batting conditions of the 1950s were nothing like those that had been encountered by batsmen a generation previously. In addition to that general trend much of May’s cricket was played at the Oval. Both before May’s time and since the old ground at Kennington has provided some of the best batsman’s wickets in the game, but in the 1950s, when Surrey won seven consecutive County Championships, they were prepared for the benefit of the likes of Jim Laker, Tony Lock and Alec Bedser. The job of May and the other batsmen was to make just enough runs to win, not to bat the opposition out of the game.

Born in Reading on the very last day of the 1920s May’s father ran a construction business in the town. May Senior was no cricketer but took a keen interest in his son’s exploits. He was coached by former Test player Robert Relf at Leighton Park School in Reading and later by George Geary at Charterhouse, the route to his qualification for Surrey. His batting was classically orthodox, but he believed in attacking the ball if possible. Those who saw him play, and there are all too few around now, talk in hushed and reverential tones about the quality of his on drive, but he had all the shots in the book. An ability to concentrate intensively on the task in hand made him an excellent player in difficult conditions and is an observation that crops up time and again on the subject of May’s batting.

National Service took May into the Navy where he was a writer. He made a low key First Class debut at 18 in 1948 before enjoying a much more productive season the following year with the Combined Services, then a strong side with a decent fixture list against the counties. 1950 saw him go up to Cambridge and he spent that and the next two summers playing for the University in the early season before joining Surrey for the summer vacations.

Not many men have been chosen for England whilst still undergraduates but such was May’s form in his second year at Cambridge that his first Test cap came against South Africa in the fourth Test at Headingley in 1951. He made a slightly nervous start, beaten more than once by off spinner Athol Rowan, but went on to bat for more than six hours in scoring 138, looking totally at ease with the game’s biggest stage. He was less successful against the disappointing Indian side who toured in 1952 and in Coronation Year was ruthlessly targeted by the Australians. He made four poor scores against them for Surrey and MCC and was a little unlucky to be dismissed cheaply again in his only innings in the first Test. After that he was dropped before coming back for the final Test. His innings of 39 and 37 were not spectacular, but in a low scoring match still important contributions to England regaining the Ashes for the first time in twenty years.

The first time May toured with England was to the Caribbean in 1953/54. In what became a difficult series for all sorts of reasons he enhanced his reputation by the consistency of his performances. He failed only once, and that in a match England won by nine wickets. In 1954 he was less productive, his record in a wet summer against the first ever Pakistani tourists suggesting, as two years previously, that motivating himself against what was perceived as weaker opposition was not always straightforward. His home and away records against Australia, West Indies and South Africa are all superior to those against India and Pakistan, both of whom he only played against in England.

The Ashes tour of 1954/55 turned out to be a fascinating contest. Hutton led England again and at 24 May was appointed vice-captain. There was a nightmare start for Hutton as, after he put Australia in at Brisbane, the first Test was lost an innings and 154 runs. In the next Test too disaster threatened. England surrendered a first innings lead of 74 and were 55-3 in response when May and Colin Cowdrey, then just 21, came together. After that however everything went right for England as the youngsters put together a famous partnership of 116, with May going on to 104 before Frank Tyson bowled England to victory. England won the next two Tests as well before the rain prevented a certain victory in the final match. May scored more runs than any other England batsman, both in the Tests and in all matches.

When, for the 1955 summer, Hutton announced he was unavailable the appointment of May as successor was a natural progression. The visitors were South Africa, and in a rather odd series England went 2-0 up, were then pegged back to 2-2, before taking the deciding Test in a low scoring match on a spiteful Oval wicket. May’s unbeaten 89 in the second innings was comfortably the highest individual score of the match. Despite a lack of captaincy experience May took to that job very well. In addition to the innings at the Oval there were two centuries for him in the series as well as innings of 83, 89 and 97 as he averaged more than 72. The selectors’ forward planning was not much assisted however. May and Denis Compton were only 32 short of making more runs than the rest of the side put together.

1956 was a wet summer, famous for Jim Laker’s 19-90 at Old Trafford and a 2-1 Ashes success for England. May was comfortably the leading batsman on either side averaging more than 90. Without his runs it would almost certainly have been the case that despite Laker’s heroics the series would have been lost. The following season saw him average more than 97 against the West Indies. The visitors proved to be but a shadow of the side that dominated the 1950 series but that was largely down to May. They started well enough in the first Test, taking a first innings lead of 288 thanks to 7-49 from Sonny Ramadhin leading to expectations that the Trinidadian mystery spinner would, as he had been seven years previously, one of the stars of the show. In the second innings however May and Cowdrey blunted the threat as they added 411, May going on to an unbeaten 285 and using his pads as a second line of defence to Ramadhin, leaving him with figures of 98-35-179-2

A weak New Zealand team was brushed aside in 1958 so attention switched to off field events. English cricket had problems with two of its leading spin bowlers, Jim Laker and Johnny Wardle. That of Wardle and his sacking from Yorkshire and subsequent removal from that winter’s Ashes party was public knowledge and fought out in the media. It was to be some time before much of the detail of Laker’s spat with May found its way into the public domain.

Laker had been overlooked for the two previous trips to Australia, in 1950/51 and 1954/55. There was a perception amongst the selectors that his style of off spin was not suited to Australian wickets, although after his exploits in 1956 his claims to a place were irresistible. He was looking forward to at last having the chance to pit his skills against the old enemy on their turf, and the Australians were as keen to avenge the indignities heaped upon them two years earlier.

The problem arose after a match at Blackheath in July. Surrey were bowled out 29 runs short in a run chase by Kent. Laker had failed to take a wicket in the Kent second innings and had then been dismissed tamely in the Surrey chase when he holed out after scoring just 3. Soon after the defeat May said to Laker words to the effect that he didn’t believe Laker was trying to bowl the Kent batsmen out.

The pair had never been close friends, but there had always been a mutual respect between them and in the immediate aftermath of a defeat it might have been expected that after saying his piece Laker might have forgiven his skipper a clumsily worded comment. Having bowled the greater part of 200 overs in the previous eight days however Laker viewed his captain’s remark as bordering on the slanderous. He reasoned that he could not play that winter under a captain who thought so little of him and pulled out of the tour. It did not help that initially the situation was allowed to fester and Laker’s decision taken at face value. When others, notably Denis Compton, did set about trying to bang heads together positions had become entrenched. In keeping with their characters neither May nor Laker were prepared to back down, although eventually enough common ground was established to persuade Laker to change his mind.

England lost in Australia 4-0 despite, in the eyes of most of the English press and public, starting as clear favourites to win their third successive Ashes series. For May as captain it was a difficult tour. His problems began almost immediately when Laker, with whom relations were still uneasy after the recent dispute, chose to announce at the start of the voyage out that he would be retiring at the end of the trip. May, understandably, saw this as a public admission that Laker was past his best. It did not help that Laker chose to give one newspaper the story in isolation, and doubtless collected a reasonable fee for doing so.

There were other problems for May on top of the poor performances from some of his players, although he himself was the leading run scorer and averaged more than 40. At least Laker performed well, taking more wickets than any other member of the party and at a lower cost. Another major difficulty for May was the tact and diplomacy required in view of the questionable actions of as many as four Australian bowlers, and he had his own problems with the press.

During the tour photographs appeared in the English newspapers of May and his fiancée relaxing together. This was long before the days when wives and girlfriends routinely accompanied players on tour and the clear implication of the related stories was that May was not concentrating on the cricket. One newspaper even stated, quite falsely, that the couple had secretly married. No one reported that the future Mrs May was only in Australia because she had been invited on a family holiday by her uncle, former England skipper Arthur Gilligan. May was not a man to readily lose his temper and indeed long time teammate Trevor Bailey only ever saw him do so twice, but he was scathing about the behaviour of the journalists, which he said was disgraceful and made me very angry.

In 1959 May led England against a very weak Indian side that was beaten 5-0. May played in the first three Tests before pulling out of the fourth with what was, a few days later, diagnosed as an ischiorectal abscess. Surgery was required and May missed the rest of the season. He felt fit after the operation and led England to the West Indies that winter. England had never triumphed in the Caribbean before but this time they succeeded in doing so, winning the second Test and, not without attracting considerable criticism for slowing the games down, drawing the other four. For May there was a great deal of discomfort, the scar from his surgery re-opening after the first Test. He played through the pain in the next two but was then forced home when further surgery was needed. He missed the whole of the 1960 season.

In 1961 May was still only 31 and was back in the England side for the Ashes. He made a decent enough start to the season but missed the first Test with a groin injury. He was back for the second, lost under Cowdrey’s captaincy before, as had always been the plan, he was restored to the skipper’s role in the third Test. The match was won by England but despite a fine 95 from May at Old Trafford in the fourth Test that match and, consequently, the Ashes were surrendered in Manchester. Before the final drawn Test at the Oval May announced his retirement from Test cricket. He signed off with innings of 71 and 33.

For 1962 Surrey were looking forward to having their captain available for the whole season, but before the campaign started in earnest an article appeared in the London Evening News alleging a schism between May and the club as a result of May informing them that in fact he would only be available for around half of the club’s home matches and none of the away games. The article was deeply critical of May and concluded; It is clear that May should either change his mind and play regularly or resign the captaincy. The piece was written by the paper’s cricket correspondent, Lyn Wellings, well known for his trenchant views. In the words of a fellow scribe he generally wrote with a pen dipped in vitriol. By the end of the season May, who had had a few injuries along the way, had played in 17 of Surrey’s 28 Championship matches. He averaged more than 53 without ever looking the dominant figure of old.

One suspects that Wellings had antagonised May before, but this time May was so incensed that he decided to go to law, so becoming the first cricketer to actually sue for libel. Like so many libel cases the matter never came to trial, but was settled early in the 1963 season with Associated Newspapers apologizing, acknowledging the story came from a rogue source and paying compensation and costs. On the cricket field May, 33, played just three times for Surrey and that was that. He moved full time into the world of insurance broking and underwriting. It was a successful business career, which was just as well. May had four daughters, all of them successful horsewomen and at least two of whom competed on the international stage – a more expensive sporting endeavour it is difficult to imagine.

In 1965, at a time when many hoped he might at some point return to the First Class game May accepted an invitation to become an England selector under the Chairmanship of Doug Insole. As part of the group who first did not select, and then did choose Basil D’Oliveira for the proposed tour of South Africa in 1968/69 he must have been as aware as anyone of the slings and arrows that that position brought with it. For an inherently private and undemonstrative man it was therefore perhaps surprising that fourteen years later, in 1982, he took on the role of Chairman.

In 1985 May published an autobiography. He called the book A Game Enjoyed. Had he written a second edition four years later he might have given it a different title. As it was things went downhill for May’s panel after David Gower’s side won back the Ashes in 1985. It began with the second ‘blackwash’ in 1985/86. By the time the side returned it was felt that Gower’s laid back style was a hindrance, and May chose to give Gower a dressing down. Gower was unimpressed, feeling May had done no more than regurgitate the views of the tabloid press rather than actually say anything constructive.

Predictably Gower did not pander to May, and after the 1986 ODI series against India and the first Test at Lord’s had been lost he was sacked. May received some justified criticism for the way that was done. Gower was, as captain, giving a post match interview after the Test to the BBC at the very moment May was in the dressing room giving his job to Mike Gatting. May didn’t help the situation by declining to make any comment to the press over and above a couple of old clichés, it was a difficult decision, and time for a change.

Gatting went on to lose 2-0 to India and 1-0 to New Zealand before giving the embattled selectors some comfort by, contrary to all expectations, not only retaining the Ashes in 1986/87 but beating Australia rather more comfortably than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. It was however only a brief respite as Pakistan won a series in England for the first time in 1987, followed by the infamous return series in which Gatting had his notorious spat with Shakoor Rana. Probably on borrowed time already a dalliance with a barmaid during the first Test of the 1988 series against West Indies cost Gatting both his job and his place in the team. At least he stopped the run of defeats, England drawing the match without too much difficulty.

The rest of the series was a selectorial nightmare however. First in the hot seat was John Emburey. Led by the Middlesex off spinner England were soundly beaten twice. After that came the most bizarre appointment of all. May and his panel decided that the style of leadership required was that of Chris Cowdrey, May’s godson but, with the greatest of respect, without enough cricketing talent to justify a place in the side. Another heavy defeat followed, Cowdrey scoring 0 and 5 and bowling five and a half innocuous and wicketless overs. He also picked up an injury thus necessitating another change. This time the poisoned chalice was picked up by Graham Gooch. The Essex man could not prevent another easy win for the visitors, but being last out for 84 in England’s second innings at least demonstrated he was the best player in the side.

After such instability it was hardly surprising when Gooch was reappointed for England’s winter tour to India. Some felt able to blame May when the tour was called off, Gooch’s South African connections proving unacceptable to the Indian government. To be fair to May, as he pointed out at the time, selecting on purely cricketing criteria was one thing. Doing so with political considerations in mind was an entirely different matter and if the TCCB had wanted such matters taking into account it was for them to tell the selectors so.

In December 1988 May retired. He was very careful to make it clear it was not a resignation. His replacement as England supremo, but this time paid to do the job, was Ted Dexter. Lord Ted’s first action was to reappoint Gower as captain for the 1989 Ashes. It must be likely that on hearing that news May shook his head and rolled his eyes. He would have taken no pleasure from the hammering that Allan Border’s men proceeded to administer, but must have been relieved to have been out of the public eye and for someone else to be taking the flak.

It was as well that May retired when he did as it at least permitted some relaxation away from the pressures of business and cricket. Sadly though his was not be a long innings and he died after a short battle with a brain tumour in December 1994, a few days before his 65th birthday.

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