Peter May, born on December 31, 1929, was a hero of the post-War period when England dominated world cricket. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the classical batsman and charismatic captain on his 83rd birthday.
Tall and handsome, with a classical batting style, Peter May was the hero to a generation of schoolboys. For much of the 1950s, an era that saw England dominate the post-War cricketing scene, he was the personification of ideal cricketer. English batting passed its legacy down from the majesty of Wally Hammond, to the perfection of Len Hutton and smoothly into the grandeur of May.
Born on this day 83 years ago, May did not come from a cricketing family, but showed an instinctive knack for the game that marked him in sure strokes for future greatness. Indeed, in his school, Charterhouse, few of his contemporaries had any doubt that the initials PBH would become a regular and revered feature of the English scorecards. As a 14-year old, he made 108 against Harrow. And by the time he left school, in 1947, he was the best schoolboy batsman in the country, having scored an unbeaten 183 against Eton, followed by 148 and 146 in the representative matches at Lord’s. It was as if the ideal cricketer from the schoolboy stories so popular in those days had stepped out of the pages.
He spent a couple of years with the Royal Navy, but found enough time to finish just behind Hutton and Joe Hardstaff in the national averages of 1949. And soon for Cambridge University, he hammered an unbeaten 227 against Hampshire, smoothly working his way to the county cap for Surrey.
There were a sprinkling of doubters in the early days, but it did not take May too long to win them over. Gubby Allen saw him throw away his wicket to a casual stroke at Fenner’s and muttered “That was the most unconscious stroke I have ever seen.” Yet, May’s Test debut followed soon, and he rose to the occasion, scoring 138 against South Africa at Headingley. After this innings, Allen sent May a telegram: “Charge of unconsciousness unconditionally withdrawn“.
The debut was followed by a mixed run, some robust scores punctuated by rather unimpressive failures in the next few Tests against India and Australia. But, after being dropped for three Ashes Tests of 1953, May returned to score gritty 39 and 37 in a tense, low-scoring win in the fifth Test at The Oval.
Picked for the subsequent West Indies tour, May made his second Test century, a gutsy 135 on a matting wicket at Port-of-Spain to secure a draw. This was garnished with a spate of high quality half centuries on the trip, and the 414 runs he managed established him as a critical member of England.
Rise to the hot seat
During 1952 and 1958, Surrey won every County championship, and England did not lose a single series.
May got used to winning, and this was the mental makeup he inherited as he moved into the positions of leadership.
May became the captain of England in 1955, when Hutton became ill. He continued to lead England in a record 41 Tests, unquestioned and unchallenged as the supreme authority of English cricket on the field.
Under his leadership, aided by his able Surrey hands Jim Laker and Tony Lock, England won 20 Tests and lost only ten.
The triumph over Australia in the summer of 1956 was a combined triumph of Laker’s magic assisted by commanding captaincy and a very strong team.
May’s batsmanship also reached its peak as he rose from strength to strength as captain. The very same pitches on which Laker and Lock reigned supreme and the oppositions had very little respite saw him pile on runs.
Perhaps the pinnacle of his powers was witnessed when at Edgbaston in 1957, against Sonny Ramadhin on rampage, he used his pads to frustrate the mystery spinner into submission. The chance of a recurrence of the rout seven years earlier was eliminated and the trend was set for the entire series. May scored 285, his greatest innings, and added 411 with the other great middle-order master of the 1950s, Colin Cowdrey. The match, the first one which was aired through ball by ball broadcast, was saved from a precarious position and England went on to win the series 3-0.
The next season, 1958, witnessed the most miserable conditions for batting during the wet summer. May averaged almost 64 in the county championships, 17 more than any other batsman.
Descent from the summit
May enjoyed his last series at the peak that very summer, when New Zealand visited the country to be trounced 4-0. May managed 337 runs averaging in the high sixties. However, when England visited Australia in 1958-59, they lost by an equal margin.
It was not a happy tour for May. There were controversies about the action of several of the Australian bowlers. He also ran into several tiffs with Jim Laker, who later denounced his captaincy on that tour in his autobiography published in 1961. The captain was also hounded by the media because of the presence of his fiancée, Virginia Gilligan, daughter of former England captain Harold Gilligan. One report also suggested that they had been secretly married.
May actually married Virginia the following April, and reputedly lost his enthusiasm for the game after that. A painful abscess saw him miss much of the 1959 season – including a premature return from the West Indian tour.
It was in 1961 that he returned to regular cricket and led the English team to a win at Leeds in the Ashes series to bring parity to the series.
However, in the following Test at Old Trafford, he was bowled by Richie Benaud round the legs off the second ball he faced. In a nail biting finish, this triggered the English collapse from 150 for two to 201 all out, and sealed the Ashes for Australia. It also virtually ended May’s career. He had scored 95 in the first innings, but it was the dismissal that that remained fresh in mind, and May did not really get over it. He scored 71 and 33 in the stalemate of the final Test at Oval, and decided to call it a day.
He retired from First-class cricket in 1962, but Wisden, alongwith the rest of the country, hoped for a comeback published a final tribute only in 1971.
After his playing days, May worked as an insurance broker and an underwriter at Lloyd’s. In the 1980s became a high profile, and unsuccessful, chairman of selectors for England, and his reign ended in disarray in 1988 with the summer of four captains.
His collection of 4537 Test runs at 46.77 with 13 centuries from 66 Tests marks him as one of the greatest post-War batsmen of England, the last in the line of great amateurs.
His runs assume even more weight when we consider that the period when he played witnessed some of the most bowler friendly conditions since the First World War and is acknowledged to be the most difficult era for batsmen.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix
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