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Peter Burge, as Mike Atherton would have seen him

Queenslander Peter Burge played 42 Tests for Australia between 1955 and 1966, more than half of them against England. As a specialist batsman he was just short of the highest class, averaging 38.16 and getting to his century just four times (all against England). His name is not one that is well remembered in the second decade of the twenty first century, due in part no doubt because the era in which he played is not the most memorable in the game’s history. That said he is one of the few of whom it can be said that he played an innings which was pivotal to the winning of an Ashes series.

Burge was born in 1932 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane. A more archetypal Australian location is impossible to imagine for an Englishman. His father was a cricket fanatic, whose own relative lack of ability doubtless served only to fire his desire for his son to make the most of the talent he displayed from an early age. On one occasion Burge Junior scored a double century, surely one of the proudest moments a father can experience? Not this time though as the youngster, understandably exhausted in the heat, either retired out or threw his wicket away depending on which version you read. The rebuke he got from Dad for doing so was something he never forgot.

A well built and broad shouldered man Burge was known for his belligerent pulls and hooks against fast bowling, and he was also renowned for the power of his driving. He could however also be delicate and play with soft hands, so facing top class spinners, whilst that might not have been his preference, held no terrors for him. In Burge’s day Queensland were not particularly strong, but it was still an achievement to make his First Class debut at 21 in 1953. Despite some allegations of nepotism (his father was a state selector by then) Burge clearly deserved his place and, the 1954/55 Ashes already lost, he was called up two years later for his Test debut. Innings of 17 and 18* hinted at more to come although, his father having been appointed to manage the side, there were further suggestions that a place he did not merit was found for Burge in the side that toured West Indies a few weeks later.

Selected for the first Test in West Indies Burge came into bat with the Australian total 391-4, but he propped and copped for the best part of an hour for 14 before giving a return catch to the medium pace of Dennis Atkinson. He was replaced in the middle order for the second Test by a back up opener, Bill Watson, who enjoyed no success whatsoever in his three Tests but despite scoring a fine 177 against British Guiana Burge could not get back in the side. Given Watson’s usual role and the fact that he had done no better that Burge in his one previous Test it is unclear why the Australian writer Pat Landsberg described Burge’s dropping as expected, but be that as it may it was Burge rather than Watson who made the party picked to tour England in 1956.

At least Burge wasn’t part of Jim Laker’s 19-90 at Old Trafford in 1956. He had already lost his place by then after scoring just 84 runs in the first three Tests. So after five Tests Burge was averaging 19, with a high score of only 35. On the way home to Australia the tourists were due to stop off in Pakistan for an inaugural Test, before three more in India and home in November. Burge sat out the Pakistan game and watched Fazal Mahmood shoot his teammates out cheaply twice to record a famous victory. That brought Burge back into the side for India and at last he made some headway. Australia won the first and last Tests and had much the better of the drawn second match. Burge was unable to score really heavily, but he managed a couple of half centuries, didn’t fail once and averaged 49. The corner had, perhaps, been turned.

In fact it hadn’t. The following season Australia toured South Africa. As in the Caribbean a couple of years previously Burge was selected for the first Test. Again he failed, this time with scores of 0 and 14. Once more that cost him his place, and as with the West Indies series he was unable to force his way back into the side.

Lightning striking twice is pretty unlucky, three times and you have to wonder if you’re walking around with a conductor on your head. A much vaunted but ultimately heavily outgunned England side rocked up in Australia in 1958/59. Not for the first time Burge did enough to be selected for the first Test. The outcome? He scored just two and, as no batting vacancies opened up for the rest of the series, he was back in the wilderness yet again.

Australia were due to visit the sub-continent in 1959/60 and the Board invited Burge to join the team. In those days there was no living to be made from the game in Australia and to make the trip Burge would need, once again, the indulgence of his employers. He worked for an accountancy practice and had already had lengthy leaves of absence to tour the West Indies, England and South Africa as well as being allowed to make himself available for First Class matches in Australia. It was made clear to him that enough was enough, and that this time the likelihood was that if he went there would not be a job available on his return.

Like all others given the opportunity Burge had given Test cricket his best shot, and he couldn’t complain about a lack of chances even if he had a legitimate gripe about having been jettisoned too quickly. He had seen the world but still not made a place in the side his own, and in addition his wife was pregnant, so the tour would cause him to miss the birth of his first child. Burge was on the brink of conceding defeat and agreeing to turn the invitation down when one of the partners in the practice made the not unreasonable observation that he didn’t think Burge was quite good enough anyway. Stung by the comment Burge said he would let them know and set out on the seemingly impossible task of finding a new job that would immediately permit him the leave he needed. In fact not only did he do so but he managed to get himself a pay rise as well!

Able now to accept the offer the tour seemed to be a familiar experience. Burge made the side for the first Test in Pakistan, but failed again, dismissed without scoring in his only innings. Naturally he was dropped for the second Test, but although this time he did get back for the third he only scored 12 then, so he started the Indian series on the sidelines once more. It was the fourth Test against the Indians before he got back in again. As on his previous visit Burge found a bit of form on the Indian wickets, although innings of 35 in that match and 60 in the last were not the big contributions he needed.

Logic would suggest that Burge was probably relieved to miss out on selection for the first Test against West Indies in the 1960/61 series, the famous tied Test. He missed the next two as well but an injury to his great friend Neil Harvey opened up a slot in middle order for the fourth Test and the selectors went for experience over youth and selected Burge. At Adelaide the West Indians came as close as it is possible to come to winning without actually doing so, last pair Lindsey Kline and ‘Slasher’ Mackay famously hanging on for almost two hours to claim a draw. There was no big innings for Burge, but with two fighting knocks of 45 and 49 he played a crucial role. In the deciding final Test the big score once again eluded him, but 68 and 53 in a big Australian win built on his performances in the previous match and made sure he got on his second England trip in 1961.

In 1961 Burge, for the first time, played throughout a series. He made a couple of important contributions to Australia’s victory in the second Test but was perhaps fortunate to be selected for the fifth Test after failing to record a half century in the previous four. This time, partly no doubt because of their restricted options, the selectors kept faith and finally, at the twenty first time of asking, he got the elusive century. Having done so he went on and on and had been batting for almost seven hours when he was finally dismissed for 181. The Test was drawn and the Ashes retained with a 2-0 series win.

Burge could have been forgiven after that innings for thinking that his place was secure. If so he was to be disappointed. After innings of 6, 47*, 23 and 14 he was dropped for the third Test of the 1962/63 Ashes series. He did get back for the fifth Test however, his 103 and 52*denying England a victory that would have reclaimed the urn.

A South African side visited Australia in 1963/64 and gave an excellent account of themselves in drawing the series 1-1. As in England in 1961 Burge was ever present through the five Tests, although he failed to add to his two centuries. Twice he passed fifty, once going on to 91, and he didn’t fail in any of his nine visits to the crease. But it was frustrating for him as, increasingly, a problem with his left foot hampered his cricket.

A final visit to England in 1964 beckoned for Burge. The balance of power, so long in Australia’s favour, looked like it might be about to change and despite Burge being 32, almost a veteran by Australian standards, the selectors were keen to pick him. The injury, initially thought to be a pinched nerve, turned out to be a neuroma, a benign growth about the size of a grape. It had to come out.

At the medical for the touring party Burge was on crutches, but medical opinion was that he would get fit in time, so he got the nod. The tourists were due to sail to India before flying on to England from there so he had some extra time. By the time the cricket began Burge was indeed able to play, but he was out of practice and lacking fitness. Never a small man forced inactivity meant Burge carried some extra timber as well. Despite a safe pair of hands he had never been the best in the field, and now had to be hidden at times.

Like most of the Australian batsmen Burge was not in great form before the first Test, a rain ruined affair at Trent Bridge. The Lord’s Test was much the same, although Burge at least managed a half century to boost his confidence. The Old Trafford and Oval wickets where the fourth and fifth Tests were to be played were expected to be flat and (as indeed proved to be the case) no definite result was expected. All eyes therefore turned to Headingley and the third Test.

Ted Dexter won the toss and batted. England made a splendid start and lunched at 112-2, but then endured two disappointing sessions as they were bowled on the stroke of time for 268. The second day looked like being a repeat of the first. At one stage Australia were 124-1, but then began to struggle, caught in a straitjacket created by the England spin pair of Fred Titmus and Norman Gifford. Shortly after tea, when Garth McKenzie was bowled whilst essaying an undignified slog at Titmus, Australia were 178/7. They were all but down and out. Burge was still there but, capable player of spin that he was, he was completely under the cosh. He had taken twenty nervous minutes to get off the mark and had struggled into the thirties. Left to come were Neil Hawke, Wally Grout and Grahame Corling. The latter was a rabbit on any definition, and whilst Hawkeye and Griz were better than that neither managed a career average above 16.

To illustrate the difficulty the batsmen faced all but four of Titmus’ first eighteen overs were maidens. Before tea Gifford had bowled eleven overs for just sixteen runs. The decisive moment in the match came soon after Hawke’s arrival. Dexter took off his spinners and took the new ball, relying on Fred Trueman, now a veteran but still quick when he had his tail up, and nothing got Trueman fired up quite like a new ball and a few Australian tailenders to bowl at on his home patch.

To add to Australia’s woes Hawke was not too fond of anything fast and short and Trueman, having dismissed Burge on a number of previous occasions, fancied himself to get him out as well. He knew of course that Burge could hook and pull with the best of them, it was just that he believed that with the new cherry he was going to be too much for the Queenslander. There was no shortage of aggression in his new ball partner either, Worcestershire veteran Jack Flavell. The problem was however that both bowled too short, and not to the field Dexter gave them. Not only did Australia start to climb out of that hole they did so at a decent rate too. By the time Dexter brought his spinners back the stranglehold had gone and Australia began the last over of the day on 278, ten in front, with Burge on 95.

Trueman walked back to his mark. As he did so Burge, as the laws in those days permitted, appealed against the light. There was a delay as the umpires conferred before deciding the over should proceed. Burge was clearly happy to wait until tomorrow, but then Trueman’s second delivery was short and pitched outside off stump. It was duly cut for four. It was then that Burge forgot himself. From the penultimate delivery he called Hawke for a single that was only just there. Burge was, not unnaturally, delighted but his celebrations were tempered by the realisation he should not have exposed Hawke to that last delivery. There is a photograph of Burge walking back to the pavilion a few seconds later looking utterly dejected. Trueman had at last produced a beauty, and Peter Parfitt took a comfortable slip catch. The pair had put on 105, Hawke’s share being 37.

Next morning Grout too made 37, as he and Burge added another 89 in good time. When Grout went Burge knew the end was in sight and accelerated. His own downfall came 17 runs later although in some ways he was a little unlucky. It was another Trueman long hop that led to the dismissal. Burge pulled the ball hard and high towards mid wicket. The only question that occurred to those in the ground was whether the shot would earn Burge four or six. That was because no one knew very much about England’s young substitute fielder, Alan Rees of Glamorgan, who sprinted round the boundary and took a catch that would have impressed even today. In 1964 it was stunning.

Burge’s great innings of 160 turned the game on its head. From a position where defeat looked highly likely the wind was taken out of England’s sails completely. Ken Barrington, as he always did, fought hard but his 85 was the only major contribution to England’s second innings. Australia’s victory target was 109, one which they passed with just three wickets down, although England certainly made them work hard – it took Australia 57 overs to get over the line in what, unsurprisingly, became known as ‘Burge’s match’.

As in 1956 the 1964 Australians went home via India and Pakistan and played four Tests, three in India and one in Pakistan. The Indian series was drawn 1-1, and the Pakistan Test drawn. Burge played in all four, and added three half centuries to his record. Back home in Australia he had finally completed his examinations and qualified as an accountant and, no doubt with an eye to a future outside the game he made himself unavailable for the 1964/65 trip to the Caribbean.

There was however one last Ashes series for the veteran Burge, the seventh in which he had appeared. Australia hung on to the urn again in 1965/66 courtesy of a 1-1 draw. It was a bad start for Burge who didn’t trouble the scorers in the first Test, and he only scored five in the first innings of the second Test. Australia conceded a first innings lead of 200 before Burge’s last Test century, 120, most of them coming in a partnership of 198 with Doug Walters, made sure the game would result in a draw.  He failed twice in England’s victory at Sydney and then made a modest 27 in Australia’s victory in the fourth Test. He announced his retirement from Test cricket after that game and, in their usual hard nosed manner the selectors then decided to make him twelfth man for the final Test. Perhaps they would have done so anyway, but some would say that for Headingley ’64 alone he deserved to bow out at a time of his own choosing.

For Queensland Burge continued for two more seasons. He averaged north of 60 in 1966/67. Less successful in his final summer he still managed a century in his final First Class appearance against Western Australia. Burge remained involved with Queensland for the rest of his days. He also spent some time in the commentary box, but he seems not to have been too successful at that. His sporting interests in retirement were primarily golf, and he also followed equestrian sports, particularly harness racing.

In 1991 the ICC decided that in the following southern hemisphere summer all international matches would have a referee. The first three to be appointed were two former England captains, Peter May and MJK Smith, and Burge, whose first assignment was to preside over England’s three Tests in New Zealand. The series was uneventful, but back in the Shaky Isles a year later Burge, not a man to shrink from a difficult decision, became the first referee to use his powers to suspend a player. In an ODI the excitable young Pakistani pace bowler Aaqib Javed took umbrage at an umpire adjudging one of his short pitched deliveries a no ball and called him a ‘f***ing cheat’. Aaqib had little choice but to admit that he had used the words and Burge, unimpressed by the explanation that Aaqib had been talking to himself, suspended him for one match.

A much better known episode from Burge’s time as a referee came at Lord’s in 1994. Ball tampering was a huge issue in the game at that time and Burge had to deal with the ‘Dirt in Pocket’ affair. Television pictures showed England skipper Michael Atherton apparently putting something from his pocket on the ball whilst in the field. Burge was given an explanation by Atherton that he accepted, and he took no action. The problem was that it soon became clear that Atherton had not been entirely truthful with him. His story was simply that he had been drying his hands, and he failed to mention what was in his pocket. Atherton always struck me as being as tough as old boots, and his stated explanation for being less than candid with Burge speaks volumes about the latter’s reputation. In his autobiography Atherton wrote;

I had never met Peter Burge before. His reputation had been as a ferocious hitter of the cricket ball and he looked fearsome, stern and headmasterly in his office that evening. In short, I panicked. I sensed that he felt I was guilty and I was not about to incriminate myself. So I convinced myself that dust was not an illegal or artificial substance and told him as much.

Understandably furious Burge told Atherton that had he told the truth he would have suspended him for two matches. A greater problem was avoided by a combination of an apology from Atherton and a fine from the England management (to two of whom, Keith Fletcher and Ray Illingworth, Atherton had come clean before his meeting with Burge) for his original transgression as well as the separate matter of lying to Burge.

Later in the series there was a further brush between Burge and Atherton in which it is probably fair to say Burge set out to get his own back. Prior to the wonderful spell of bowling from Devon Malcolm for which the match is remembered Atherton got an lbw decision he did not relish. As he walked off he gently shook his head and, in the time honoured manner that so many batsmen adopted in those pre DRS days, dolefully looked down at the inside edge of his bat. In truth it was much more an expression of disappointment more than a demonstration of dissent, and indeed the umpire who gave the decision made no complaint. Burge was satisfied nonetheless from what he himself had seen that there was dissent and fined Atherton half his match fee. The suggestion that there was a degree of pre-meditated retribution comes from the fact that no action had been taken against other batsmen earlier in the series whose negative reactions to adverse decisions were rather stronger than Atherton’s.

Over the final decade of his life Burge refereed 63 ODIs and 25 Tests, his final series being the five ODIs between New Zealand and Sri Lanka in early 2001. In October of that year whilst on holiday on the Gold Coast he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 69. Much of course was written about Burge after his death, but the tribute that he would have taken most pleasure from had come 37 years before from the veteran English journalist Denzil Batchelor. When reflecting on the first 100 of his innings at Headingley in 1964 Batchelor had written; As for Burge, he was Australia.

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