When Peter May announced his retirement from first-class cricket in 1962, at the young age of thirty-two, it was hoped that he might one day play again. That he has never done so is the reason for an appreciation such as this having been delayed for so long.
Cricket followers bestowed the same peculiar favour upon May as they had upon Denis Charles Scott Compton and Berry Hobbs. They knew him by his full name. Ask those who played with or against him between 1955 and 1960, or who watched him play, and they will tell you that Peter Barker Howard May was England's finest post-war batsman.
Heredity had nothing to do with it. There was no cricketing thread running through the family. He lacked the instant look of a games player or the natural movements of an athlete. Between the wickets he had a stiff, rather ungainly run. Yet as soon as he appeared in the nets at Charterhouse he was seen to have a most uncommon talent. In his first summer term, when he was still only thirteen, there was a move to play him in the first eleven. Robert Birley, the headmaster, was consulted, and May, for his own good was made to wait. In the following year, at the age of fourteen and a half, he took a hundred off the Harrow bowling in less than as hour and a half. R. L. Arrowsmith, through whose hands passed a multitude of Carthusian cricketers, writes that "even the things you can teach every boy, to have his boots and pads clean, not to run on the pitch, etc., Peter seemed to know by instinct."
May was fortunate, of course, in the pitches on which he learnt to bat. On the hill at Charterhouse they were fast and true, and at Fenner's they were even truer. In 1950, his first year at Cambridge, four of the University side -- Dewes, Hubert Doggart, David Sheppard and May -- were chosen for the Test Trial at Bradford, and by the end of 1951 they had all played for England. May did so for the first time against South Africa at Headingley in 1951, and in his first Test innings he made 138.
By the winter of 1953-54 he was in the West Indies under Len Hutton; by 1954-55 he was Hutton's vice-captain in Australia and New Zealand; and when Len gave up the captaincy it was handed on to May. Still only 26, he wasn't really ready for it; but Trevor Bailey had been passed over, and Sheppard had embarked on the road to Woolwich, and May's place in the England side was assured for years to come. Although he had held the captaincy of Cambridge at soccer he had never done so at cricket, and as Writer P. B. H. May during his National service in the Royal Navy he had had no experience of leadership. Nor had he yet taken over at The Oval from Stuart Surridge. Yet here he was, handling the England side at a younger age than anyone except A. P. F. Chapman. All things considered he did it well, although I am not sure that we gave him credit for that at the time.
His chief qualities as a captain were his courtesy and his intensity of purpose. He was also unwaveringly straight. His players knew exactly where they were with him, and if at times he was too lenient for their own good that was a fault they enjoyed. He was indulgent with them in Australia in 1958-59, when we lost the Ashes without a good enough fight, and it had been the same in South Africa two years before. The last of his tours, to the West Indies in 1959-60, was also the least happy. He and his manager, Walter Robins, viewed the responsibilities of an M. C. C. side in hopelessly differing ways. May thought they were there primarily to win, Robins primarily to entertain. To make matters worse, Peter became so unwell that the doctors ordered him home before the tour was over. That, in the event was the end of his captaincy, and he surrendered it, I think, without regret. In only five years he had led England 41 times, which is still more than any captain of any country. Under him England had won 20 Test Matches, drawn 11 and lost 10.
I am writing this on my way to Australia, and we have just flown over India and Pakistan where May never played. Soon we shall be in Melbourne where I can see him now, hitting Ray Lindwall off the back foot with a cold and calculated fury. One after the other Lindwall took his slips away, to reinforce the covers, and they in their turn were left wringing their hands. That was in 1954, when May was one of the four young men who did so much to help Hutton retain the Ashes. The others were Colin Cowdrey, Brian Statham and Frank Tyson.
Back in England, in the summer of 1955, May and Denis Compton carried the English batting. In his seven Test innings, against a South African attack which included such fine bowlers as Heine, Adcock and Tayfield, May failed only twice. In 1956, when Australia were in England, he had another wonderfully successful season, averaging 90 on some far from perfect pitches. In these two home series, against South Africa and Australia, May made 1,035 runs, and in only four out of sixteen innings was he out for fewer than 40.
In the winter of 1956-57, on his first tour a captain, he had his one bad series -- against the same South Africa bowling as he had scattered to the winds in 1955. He began the tour with hundreds in each of his first four innings -- against Western Province, Eastern Province, and in successive weeks against Rhodesia. Wherever we went the crowds poured in to see May at the wicket. His mastery seemed complete -- until the Tests began. Then the strain of having supported the English batting through two hard series took its toll.
In 1957 and 1958 he was back in form and the outstanding batsman of the English season. His 285 not out, in the First Test Match against the West Indies at Edgbaston in 1957, was one of the landmarks of his career. When he went in his side was facing an overwhelming defeat, and he remembers feeling unexpectedly composed. With Cowdrey he shared a fourth-wicket partnership of 411 which gave England a hold on the series and broke the spell that Ramadhin had cast upon England's batsmen since 1950. In Australia in 1958-59 May would have made more runs, I thought, but for the cares of captaincy, and in his nineteen Test innings after that he scored only two more hundreds. His illness in the West Indies in 1959-60 caused him to miss the English season of 1960. In 1961 he made a last and unsuccessful attempt to regain them Ashes which he had lost in 1958-59, and after one more year with Surrey, when he asked not to be considered for England, he retired. Despite frequent petitions from friends and selectors he refused to come back.
On the few occasions that May can still be persuaded to take a bat in his hand, either for charity or a friend, he plays in a different dimension from anyone else in the game. To see him is to be reminded of his class. The on-drive was his particular glory. Though one of the hardest of all strokes to play, he scored many runs with it even as a boy. From wide mid-on to cover point, off front foot and back, his shot had great power, the result of timing rather than strength. The most remarkable stroke I ever saw him play was at Lord's when from the middle of the ground he hit a medium-pacer high into the Mound Stand, over extra cover and off the back foot.
He had a delicate touch with both the late cut and the leg glance; but the hook, and more especially the sweep, were not among his favourite strokes. He was too good a straight hitter to need to sweep, and the hook carried an element of risk which he hardly cared for. Brilliant player though he was, he took few risks, partly because he didn't need to. As for statistics, he paid them more attention than some might suppose. A milestone he would have liked to reach was 100 hundreds. In another two or three years he would have become the first amateur since W. G. to have made so many, and that would have appealed to him.
At the same time he was a conspicuously unselfish cricketer, always ready to shield a lesser player or to give himself up if he thought it was someone else's turn to bat. He was above pettiness and completely uninterested in gossip, and on tour he was unfailingly loyal to his players. "A good day for the boys," he used to say, even when he knew it wasn't. To the public he was polite but unforthcoming. He gave them his time but not his attention. It was as though had modeled himself on Hutton. He had the same distant and yet disarming manner, the same flair for the enigmatic reply. Like Len he was quietly scathing about batsman who played recklessly in a crisis, and bowlers who had a job to make up their minds what field they wanted. Like Hutton, too, he was a masterly player on bad wickets. During the 'fifties, when Surrey were having their great run in the Championship, the wickets were all in the bowlers' favour. If not specifically prepared to suit Bedser, Lock and Laker, they certainly did so. Yet May batted superbly on them, seldom compromising his wish to attack.
He took over the captaincy of Surrey in 1957, by which time they had been champion county for five successive years, and in 1957 and 1958 they won again. May's predecessor at The Oval was Stuart Surridge, a strong character whose style might have been expected to influence May more than it did. While Surridge was forthright, May was unyielding. He listened to Alec Bedser and one or two of the older Surrey professionals, but generally speaking he had his own way of doing things and he rarely changed it.
It was this spirit of independence which decided him to retire when he did, and to remain in retirement. Although for ten years and more cricket was his whole life, it was never his profession. He enjoyed the pleasure and the success it brought him, and the opportunities it provided of seeing the world. He was quietly delighted with a standing ovation at the Guildhall in Cape Town for having spoken a few sentences in Afrikaans which he had learnt on the ship going out.
He must have enjoyed waving modestly from The Oval balcony whenever Surrey won the Championship or England won a series. As a perfectionist he could take pride in many of his innings. But having reached the age of thirty-two he turned happily enough to the City and the life of a family man. With four daughters he is surrounded now by women and by his wife's horses which he resolutely refuses to ride. He was an England selector from 1965 to 1968, and he serves on numerous committees at Lord's and The Oval, to which no doubt he brings the same gentle determination of his playing career.