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Peter Burge: Ashes hero of 1960s and a respected match referee

Peter Burge © Getty Images
Peter Burge © Getty Images

Born May 17, 1932, Peter Burge was an aggressive yet diligent middle-order batsman whose Test appearances were, alas, sporadic. Despite that, his presence at the middle-order ensured Australia clung on to the Ashes throughout the 1960s. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the cricketer who went on to become a renowned match-referee.

Wisden had called Peter John Parnell Burge “large”, “strong-armed”, “fearless”, and “a master of middle-order pugnacity”. A strongly built man, Burge was an excellent stroke-player, especially of the back-foot. He cut and pulled Fred Trueman and Brian Statham with abandon. In fact, he played a crucial role in Australia’s retention of The Ashes throughout the 1960s.

Blessed with the ability to make big scores, Burge proved to be a permanent thorn in English flesh, especially in crucial matches. In fact, he scored a hundred in each of the Ashes series he played in the 1960s. Despite that, Burge played in only 42 Tests over a career spanning more than a decade and across 16 series. Of these, 22 were parts of Ashes encounters.

Burge’s finest attributes were perhaps his humility and willingness to learn, and he found that his teammates were only too happy to oblige. He was helped generously by Keith Miller on the 1956 Ashes tour and by Benaud and Harvey in 1961.

From 233 First-Class matches, mostly for Queensland, Burge had scored 14,640 runs at 47.53 with 38 hundreds. Of the top nine scores by Queensland batsmen, three are Burge’s. His Test numbers, 2,290 runs at 38.16 with four hundreds, were slightly inferior. He was also a fine fielder, and was a handy wicketkeeper at the start of his career.

The child prodigy

Peter was the great-great-grandson of John Robert Burge, who had played for Darling Downs against Australians in 1877-78. He was also the son of Thomas John “Jack” Burge, a former manager of the Australian Test side. Jack Burge was also a salesman who went on to become the departmental manager of D & W Murray [a retail outlet]. He also became a state representative for Nile Industries (a textile firm).

Jack also played Grade Cricket in Brisbane and served as an Executive of Queensland Cricket Association (QCA) from 1945 till his death in 1957; represented Queensland on the Australian Board of Control from 1952 to 1957; and was a selector for QCA from 1944 to 1949. “My dad [Jack Burge] was the best frustrated Test cricketer I ever knew. He always wanted to play, was involved in it for as long as I could remember,” Peter admitted later. Jack Burge wanted his son to make it big in the sport.

Born at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Peter Burge got a rattle from his father that was shaped like a bat and a ball. Burge was introduced to a bat at three; his father ensured there was a ball tied in a rope; Peter went on hitting the ball for hours. Burge sr was a devoted coach, and by the time he went to Buranda Boys’ State School at five he was easily the best cricketer among his peers.

He scored his first hundred at nine, and soon scored a humongous 223 for Buranda before retiring out due to the excruciating heat. Instead of an appreciation, Peter got a verbal thrashing from his father for throwing away his wicket. As Gideon Haigh has mentioned, Peter later confessed: “It was good advice. I never did it again.”

At 12, Burge scored a double-hundred, eight more hundreds, and 97 in ten of 11 innings. As if that was not impressive enough, he was also the wicket-keeper of the side. He got admitted to Anglican Church Grammar School and played for the Queensland Schoolboys.

When Peter was on the verge of being selected (in 1949) his father had to stand down as selector. There was still no doubt regarding Burge’s inclusion, and he was included in the Queensland Under-23 side.

Giving up the big gloves, and a quiet start

Getting into the Queensland Sheffield Shield side was not an issue for Burge, but a different problem lay ahead of him: with Don Tallon as the main wicketkeeper and Wally Grout as his deputy, it was almost impossible to break through as a gloveman. Burge took the sensible decision to give up wicketkeeping and improve on his role as a batsman.

He had an excellent start against South Australia at The Gabba, scoring 54 and 46. In the next match, against New South Wales (NSW) at the same ground, Burge scored 103. He had arrived. He did a decent job (albeit without doing anything outstanding), so it came as a surprise when he was suddenly picked for the Ashes Test of 1954-55 at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) with Australia down 1-2 in the series, the batsmen looking helpless against Frank Tyson and Statham.

Burge made an entry in the scorecard early, catching Len Hutton (on the second attempt) in the fourth ball of the Test, but England managed to put up 371 for seven. Batting at six, Burge scored 17 as England acquired a 150-run lead; following on, Australia finished on 118 for six with Burge remaining unbeaten on 18. He was retained for the tour of West Indies that followed.

Burge scored 29 and 69 in the tour match against Jamaica and was selected for the fifth Test at Sabina Park. Though Australia won the Test by nine wickets Burge scored a mere 14, and was dropped for the rest of the series. His only remarkable performance of the series remained his 177 against British Guiana at Bourda, but he was selected for the 1956 Ashes nevertheless.

Burge played the first three Tests of the ill-fated Ashes. He “escaped” both ten-wicket hauls of Jim Laker, but that was about it. He failed in all three Tests, and scored 780 runs at a mere 35.45 on the tour, his only hundred being the 131 against Nottinghamshire at Trent Bridge. Despite his show he was retained for the tour of India.

Some runs, finally

The India tour that winter established Burge as a batsman. Australia won the series 2-0, and though Burge did not score a lot of runs, he demonstrated excellent application against the Indian spin attack consisting of Subhash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad, Ghulam Ahmed, and Jasu Patel. He finished with 35 at Chepauk, 83 at Brabourne Stadium, and 58 and 22 at Eden Gardens.

The floodgates opened once he returned: he started with 135 against Western Australia (WA) at home and Victoria at Melbourne in back-to-back innings, and rounded off the season with 210 against Victoria at home. Queensland came to within a point of winning the Sheffield Shield that season; Burge finished third on the averages chart. Not content, he followed his 210 with 105 in his next match, against Canterbury at Lancaster Park.

Against NSW at SCG in 1958-59 Burge “achieved” something curious. Wisden wrote: “The ball hit a pad and went up in the air. Without thinking he [Burge] put up a hand and to his and everyone else’s surprise, he found he had caught it.”

Burge had decent outings at India and Pakistan, and once back home, amassed 240 against South Australia at Adelaide Oval 103 and 55 against Western Australia at WACA in consecutive innings. His career meandered along for the next few season somewhat aimlessly.

He had a few runs here and there, of which none were as crucial as the ones at MCG in the historical series against West Indies in 1960-61. Once West Indies set up 291, Burge gritted his way to a 194-ball 68. Then, chasing 258, Burge walked out at 154 for three, but saw wickets falling at regular intervals at the other end.

With the spinners taking out Norman O’Neill, Harvey, and Alan Davidson, Burge displayed another exemplary display of temperament, scoring 53 in 195 balls, before Alf Valentine ran through his defence. Australia won the match by two wickets, and clinched the rubber with it.

Retaining the Ashes

Maybe Burge’s earlier tryst with English conditions had helped him: he started the tour with five consecutive unbeaten innings of three, 46, 101 (against Lancashire at Old Trafford), 12, and 40 before having a batting average in the sixth. He played Trueman and Statham with ease at Lord’s in Harvey’s only Test as captain, scoring 46 in the first innings as Australia secured a 34-run lead.

The tourists were set a mere 71 to win the match, but Trueman and Statham were not the likes to give it up so easily. Following a burst of hostile bowling the Australians lost Bill Lawry, Colin McDonald, Harvey, and O’Neill with 19 on the board. As Burge walked out, Harvey instructed him to “beat the hell out of them”; and Burge obliged.

He lost Bobby Simpson later, but it was too late: Trueman and Statham bowled unchanged as Australia chased down the target, Burge remaining unbeaten on a gallant 37. A see-saw of fortunes saw England win at Headingley and lose the epic encounter at Old Trafford, but it was the fifth Test at The Oval that Burge finally made it big.

After England were bowled out for 256, Australia lost Lawry, Simpson, and Harvey with 88 on the board. It could have been a riveting contest, but Burge, in the company of O’Neill (117) put the match out of England’s reach. He had dropped anchor (scoring 13 from the first 90 balls he had faced), while O’Neill dazzled with excellent stroke-play, but once the partnership was broken Burge launched a furious onslaught.

Wisden mentioned that Burge “excelled with the hook and sweep and was particularly severe on [David] Allen”. He added 123 with O’Neill and 185 more with Brian Booth, and was eventually ninth out for a 411-minute 181. It would remain his best Test score. England batted out time, and the Test ended in a draw.

He also scored 158 against Sussex at Hove and 137 against Leicestershire at Grace Road, and finished the tour with 1,376 runs at 55.04. He had finally put the ghosts of 1956 to rest.

Burge’s surge

Burge scored three hundreds in each of the next three domestic seasons, including 103 and 52 not out in the Ashes encounter at SCG that Australia drew to retain the Ashes. The magnum opus came against NSW at home in 1963-64. Taking on an attack consisting of Gordon Rorke, Frank Misson, and Benaud, Burge scored a huge 283 before being run out.

It remained the highest score by a Queenslander (it still remains the second-highest) till Martin Love scored 300 not out in 2003-04. It also remains the best by a Queensland number four. Not in any mood to give up scoring runs, Burge followed it with a 271-ball 205 not out in the next match against WA at home: the attack had consisted of Graham McKenzie and Peter Loader. Burge easily topped the batting charts that season with 685 runs at 171.25.

The next innings saw Burge scoring 129 against the touring South Africans — thereby making it 617 runs in three innings being dismissed twice. Despite his form he was not fully fit during the home series against the Proteans, with his only good show coming at Adelaide Oval, where he top-scored with 91 in the first innings. After the series he required a surgery on a blood vessel on his left foot.

“Burge’s Match”

An obvious choice for the 1964 tour of England, Burge played a crucial role at Headingley, the only Test that met with a result. England scored 268 before having the tourists on the mat at 178 for seven when Burge was joined by Neil Hawke. What followed has been considered by the witnesses as one of the finest post-War innings on English soil. Trueman and Jack Flavell bounced at him, Fred Titmus and Norman Gifford used their entire repertoire, but Burge was simply outstanding that day.

Wisden went on to call the Test “Burge’s Match” and compared the innings to Stan McCabe’s famous 232 at Trent Bridge in 1938. He treated Trueman with utter disdain, hooking whenever he tried to unleash a bouncer. He added 105 with Hawke in 99 minutes and 89 more with Grout in 97 minutes before being last out for a 314-minute 160. Australia led by 121, and polished off the 109 needed to win with seven wickets in hand.

Barring that hundred he did not do anything of note if one discounted the unbeaten hundred against Warwickshire at Edgbaston where nobody else reached fifty. He finished with 1,114 runs at a rather run-of-the-mill 37.13, but that hundred at Headingley was so special that he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.

Peter Burge (batting in picture) collected 2,290 in 42 Tests at 38.16 for Australia © Getty Images
Peter Burge (batting in picture) collected 2,290 in 42 Tests at 38.16 for Australia © Getty Images

An abrupt retirement

Burge toured India and Pakistan again, and elevated to the captain of Queensland, scored 242 not out after his side trailed by 212 in the first innings at SCG. Queensland almost won the match, having NSW nine wickets down in the fourth innings. He played his last Test series the next season.

The customary Ashes hundred came at Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG): England obtained a 200-run lead and had Australia under pressure of some sort at 176 for four when Booth joined Burge. They added 198 with Burge scoring a quickfire 193-ball 120 and Booth a patient 296-ball 115. Australia managed to reach 426 and the Test was drawn. The series eventually ended in a 1-1 draw, and Australia retained the Ashes again.

After two ordinary displays at SCG and Adelaide Oval he was replaced in the fifth Test at MCG by Bob Cowper. He never played another Test. He played domestic cricket for two more seasons, scoring 100 and four in his last outing against Western Australia at home. One might have felt he had a couple of years of cricket left him, but the decision was firm.

Dirty days

A qualified accountant, Burge worked at Collection House Pvt Ltd and went on to emulate his father as a selector for QCA. In 1992 he was appointed a match referee by the International Cricket Council (ICC). The next year he suspended Aaqib Javed for abusing the umpire, thus becoming the first match-referee to do so. A strict and respected character, Burge officiated in 25 Tests and 63 ODIs over a period of eight years.

Perhaps the most controversial moment of Burge’s career as an official came at Lord’s in 1994 the Test against South Africa. The videos clearly showed that Michael Atherton was guilty of taking dirt out of his pocket and rubbing it on the ball. However, Atherton got away with a £2,000 fine imposed by Ray Illingworth, then the England Chairman of Selectors. Wisden wrote that Burge possibly felt that “matters have been snatched from his hands”.

Final days

Burge had married to Joan in 1958, and had two sons — John (born 1960) and Hugh (born 1963). Starting 1990-91 QCA had started the Peter Burge Medal, which was awarded to the “best and fairest” First-Grade cricketer. Burge was also made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1997 for his “service to cricket as a player, administrator, and international referee, and to harness racing.” Indeed, his affinity to horse-racing has been well-documented.

He passed away of a sudden heart-attack on October 5, 2001 — eight months after his final match as a referee. He was survived by Joan, his sons, his brother, and two grandchildren.

Peter Burge was inducted into Queensland Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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