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Michael Barton had never led a side until Surrey asked him to in 1948
September 24, 2003
Michael Barton had never led a side until Surrey asked him to. Two years later they were champions
"I think Nigel Bennett made a great mistake accepting the Surrey captaincy," Michael Barton says. "I think I made a great mistake, too, but it turned out all right."
In the aftermath of the Second World War the counties struggled to find available amateurs to captain them. In 1946 Surrey appointed Major Nigel Bennett; he had never played first-class cricket and was not remotely good enough. Alf Gover always swore that they had meant to appoint the better-known Leo Bennett, also a Major, and had got confused when Nigel arrived to renew his membership. The county's 11th place that summer was as low as they had ever sunk. In 1947 they turned back to a pre-war captain, the 41-year-old Errol Holmes - but only after they had found a benefactor who could pay him to play as an amateur.
In 1948 Holmes retained the captaincy, though he was available for only a few matches, and he recruited Michael Barton, who had not played first-class cricket since Oxford in 1937 and who had a career with Dunlop. "It's extraordinary really," Barton says. "I was only playing occasional club cricket and I'd never captained a side in my life."
The professionals were easily won round by his quiet charm and his three centuries in May, but the crowd took longer to settle - "One chap, whenever I misfielded, used to shout out `What a captain!' but he gave up after a year or so" - and the irascible secretary Brian Castor never did stop bombarding him with letters of criticism. "When I responded, he'd say, `What letter? ... Oh, don't worry about that any more. There's something else I want to raise'."
Surrey, for all the greatness of their inter-war batting, had not won the Championship since 1914, but they almost won it in that summer of 1948. One more victory would have taken them above Glamorgan, and at the end of the season they looked back with anguish on the wet third day at Cheltenham when they had only the wicket of the inept Sam Cook left to take, and also on the return catch that Jim Laker dropped at The Oval. Middlesex's Jim Sims was at the wicket, with ten to make and the last man in, and he went on to hit the winning runs.
"On the surface Jim Laker was a dour Yorkshireman but he was quite sensitive underneath. He was very upset, but no-one said a thing. Then the next year he caught Jim Sims, a brilliant one-handed caught-and-bowled, and all he said was, `One year too late.' It was the only time anybody ever mentioned it."
For all Castor's criticisms, the record of the two captains that summer told a revealing story: Holmes won 3, lost 5; Barton won 10, lost 4. Laker was emerging as a world-class offspinner, Alec Bedser was in his prime, and the batting depended on Laurie Fishlock, Jack Parker and Stan Squires. But by 1950 Squires had died of leukaemia and The Oval pitch was becoming more testing. They needed new batsmen, and in mid-July the Cambridge undergraduate Peter May arrived. He went in at No. 3 and made seven runs in his first four innings. "Herbert Strudwick, our scorer, said to me, `Why don't you put him down a bit?' But I said no. He was obviously going to be a world-beater. The next day he got a hundred on a bad wicket at Worcester and won us the match."
It started a winning sequence that saw Surrey at The Oval in late August needing to beat Leicestershire to share the Championship with Lancashire. Bedser had bowled nearly 1,200 overs in a long summer and he was summoned before play to the captain's room. "I said, `I know you've been overbowled, Alec, but I really must ask you for one last supreme effort'." Bedser looked upset - "I've never been told that I'm not trying before" - and he went out and took 12 for 96 in 54 overs.
Surrey were left needing two runs in their second innings. "You go in first and I'll bowl," Leicester's captain Charles Palmer told his counterpart. "He took a run all the way from the pavilion and bowled a slow full-pitch to leg," Barton recalls. It was only a shared title, but it was the first Surrey had won for 36 years.
In 1952 Stuart Surridge took over the captaincy. His aggression galvanised the team and they became the greatest of all county sides, champions for seven successive summers. May left university, Tony Lock learnt to spin the ball, and Peter Loader, Micky Stewart and Ken Barrington all emerged. Amid the celebrations everybody forgot the name of Michael Barton.
"I was lucky," says Barton, now 88. "I think, if I was asked to do it now in the same circumstances, I would say no, but I got away with it. And I became a part of the cricket community, which has given me such pleasure."
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