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No benefit for Bertie

Before players were paid regular wages, the benefit match was their best bet for a comfortable retirement. But it didn't turn out that way for this Somerset bowler

Martin Williamson

July 17, 2010

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Before journeymen cricketers started to be paid a living wage, many relied on their benefit match to set them up for life once they had retired. And unlike today, when most benefits are professionally run, slick marketing operations, they used to be much simpler affairs back then.

A player would, with the agreement of his committee, nominate a three-day match where he would keep the gate money but be responsible for meeting all the costs out of that. The fixture lists were eyed with interest by the beneficiary, who would be looking to pick a local derby or a game against a big county. If all went well, he could pocket the equivalent of two or three years' income; if it went badly - mainly as a result of the weather - he could find himself out of pocket, and there are many instances where that happened.

Perhaps the most unfortunate beneficiary of all time was Somerset's Bertie Buse. A stalwart of the side since his debut in 1929, the 42-year-old allrounder had decided 1953 was to be his final season and, offered a benefit, he chose the match against Lancashire in Bath in early June.

The opposition guaranteed a good crowd, and Bath was Buse's hometown, further increasing the potential of a bumper gate. He played his club cricket for Bath CC on Recreation Ground, where the match was due to take place, and in the winters he played as fullback for Bath RFC on the adjoining land. The one doubt surrounded the pitch at the Rec, which was never among the best.

In response to constant criticism, the groundsman had relaid the square the previous October but a bitterly cold and windy winter had stifled the growth of the grass. Preparations had further been frustrated by the use of the area for Coronation Day celebrations a fortnight before.

When the captains went out to toss they saw a pitch that lacked grass, and much of the green that remained was found on closer inspection to be dried moss. Brian Langford, making his debut, recalled the pitch was also covered in acorns and gravel.

Somerset batted first and their innings was all over in 90 minutes as they were bowled out for 55. "It was only necessary for the bowler to put the ball on an approximate length" noted the Guardian, "and the pitch did the rest".

Lancashire's top order fared no better and by lunch they were 46 for 5 before a change of approach tuned the game. Peter Marner and Alan Wharton decided to counter attack and added 70 for the sixth wicket in 25 minutes. They took 15 runs off one over, and then Marner smashed the unfortunate Buse for 18 off four deliveries. "This may imply wild hitting," the paper noted. "In fact it was not."

They were finally dismissed for 158 - Buse taking 6 for 41 despite Marner's onslaught - a lead of 103. But by this time the pitch was falling apart, each delivery exploding through the surface and behaving in a completely unpredictable way.

A hostile opening burst from Brian Statham reduced Somerset to 7 for 4, and despite a brief rally when Harold Stephenson thumped Roy Tattersall for a four and six, by 5.15pm, 65 minutes before the close, they were 44 for 9. Jim Redman and Langford offered another 20 minutes of resistance before Tattersall (6 for 44) polished off the innings.

It was all over in a day, leaving Buse facing a financial disaster. He was responsible for paying the costs of everyone for the scheduled three days, and only had one day's gate money. Somerset stepped in and agreed to waive their costs, and a fund was set up to try to help Buse out. In the event it raised £2800, which was by the standards of the time a decent return.

While Buse eventually came out in credit, Somerset did not. On the evening of the one-day finish, the county committee met and discussed moving two other festival games - the next due to start at the Rec three days later - back to Taunton. In the end the logistics proved insurmountable, but they did call in the cavalry - the county's head groundsman, Cecil Buttle, was summoned from the County Ground and was appalled by what he saw. "I had to take drastic action, and I decided on plenty of liquid marl and cow manure," he told David Foot. "We used a watering can to spread it across the wicket. The problem was knowing how to camouflage what we'd done. Then I hit on the use of cut grass. I sprinkled it all over the top and gave it a good roll."

Despite Buttle's attention another disaster seemed on the cards when 18 wickets fell on the first day of the Championship clash with Kent. But the pitch calmed down on the second day and Somerset closed on 416 for 8, with Buse hitting his seventh and final first-class hundred.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.

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