"Bertie Buse's Benefit" sounds rather like a PG Wodehouse short story and photographs of its supposed leading character do little to dispel the fancy. The cheery smile and the chevron moustache combine with the brightly striped blazer and the crumpled Somerset sweater to suggest a cricketer for whom the game was a welcome break from his proper work as a conveyancing clerk in a solicitor's office. But those latter accoutrements ultimately play us false. In his late twenties Buse gave up the dull grind of office life and became a professional. His 10623 runs and 657 wickets would lead HJ Channon, a local journalist to describe him as "the embodiment of steadiness, thoroughness and modesty".
Buse certainly gave of his best, which will always be enough to win over the Stragglers in Taunton, and his mannerisms increased their enjoyment. "He gives himself a courteous nod and commences his run with the decorous tread of a butler anxious not to awake echoes from a stone or wooden floor," wrote John Arlott. After ten seasons as a professional cricketer the 42-year-old Buse was awarded a benefit in 1953, which would be his last year with Somerset. He chose the fixture against Lancashire at Bath as the match whose takings would swell what was effectively his pension fund. But the game was completed in less than a day's play and the beneficiary wilted in despair. "It's all over" he told his wife Elsa when he returned home that Saturday evening.
That match at the Recreation Ground can tell us much about county cricket in the decade following the Second World War. For one thing it reflects the importance attached to benefits by professionals who were nothing like as well rewarded as their current counterparts. Relatively few had private money and fewer still could earn as much outside the game as Denis Compton, whose 1948 Brylcreem advertisements netted him an annual £1500 (c.£55,000 in today's values) A good benefit gave an player a nest egg before he returned to one of the relatively few occupations obviously available to him: umpiring, coaching, running a pub or perhaps working for one of his county's rich employers.
Yet very few of those professionals would have chosen another career, even when they arrived at grounds and saw pitches like the one a council groundsman had prepared for them that Saturday morning at Bath. "You could see the squares where it had been returfed, said the Lancashire batsman, Geoff Edrich. "They hadn't knitted together properly. If you pushed them they wobbled like plates of jelly." Lancashire's skipper, Cyril Washbrook, assured people afterwards - probably very pompously - that he would have declined to play had it not been a benefit match but instead he lost the toss and was asked to bat second.
The first ball of the game was bowled by Brian Statham to Harold Gimblett. "It pitched and a piece of earth came out of the wicket, half the size of the ball practically," said Edrich. "There was the ball and this bloody piece of earth coming at Harold. He looked round to us, and he said: 'It's one of those rough days, gentlemen.'
Gimblett was quite correct. Run out without scoring, he then watched his colleagues skittled for 55 in less than a session. Despite excavating part of the pitch, Statham bowled eight wicketless overs; the main damage was done by Roy Tattersall, once a seamer but now an offspinner whose height and pace made facing him tricky on the flattest surface. Tattersall took eight for 25 and no Somerset batsman reached double figures. One wonders when Bertie realised what might happen.
In the afternoon Somerset's beneficiary set about doing all he could to keep Lancashire's lead within bounds. After all, a match containing four innings would surely stray into Monday morning and some people might turn up if things were close. But Lancashire's cricketers were in no mood to poke around. Six of them made double figures, including the 17-year-old Peter Marner, who hit four sixes and shared a sixth-wicket stand of 70 with Alan Wharton, those runs being rattled up in only 25 minutes. Malcolm Hilton and Frank Parr also made double figures and died with their boots on. Lancashire had scored at nearly five runs an over and their lead was 103. Buse returned figures of 6 for 41. One doubts it was much consolation.
When Somerset batted again Statham took three quick wickets and the home side were 7 for 4 before some late hitting by Jim Redman and his last-wicket stand of 35 with the 17-year-old offspinner, Brian Langford, yanked the total up to 79. Then Tattersall bowled Langford and finished with a match analysis of 24.1-6-69-13. Everyone was sorry for Buse, particularly, one imagines, Tattersall, who was the gentlest of men. But there were no complaints to the authorities and certainly no one thought of docking points. Instead Somerset's proper groundsmen collected a huge amount of bull's blood from the abattoir and rolled it into the square. The next two matches in the Bath Festival went ahead. Buse made a century in the first of them.
Pitches as atrocious as that provided for Bertie's benefit were unusual in the 1950s. However, the relative equanimity with which the matter was greeted was the product of an age in which wickets were uncovered and a great deal of cricket was played on outgrounds that always offered a wide variety of testing conditions. County cricketers were expected to acquire the ability to bat on different surfaces against spinners of Test-match quality. It made them better players.
It was relatively common for three-day games to be completed in less than six sessions, especially when the daily ration of overs was around the 120 mark. One-day finishes were exceptional but they were not the stuff of banner headlines and questions in the House. Nor were they confined to outgrounds. Lancashire had beaten Sussex inside a day at Old Trafford in 1950, and only three weeks before that game at Bath Surrey had hammered Warwickshire by an innings at The Oval. "Bedser and Laker" said people, as if three words explained everything.
It had been a filthy few days in London, so wet, indeed, that the first day of the match between MCC and the Australians was abandoned even though the sun shone strongly for most of the morning at Lord's. At the Oval, however, play was only delayed for 45 minutes and Warwickshire's batsmen were immediately in trouble against Alec Bedser, arguably the best seamer in the world at that time. Bedser took 8 for 18 and only Dick Spooner managed double figures in a total of 45.
As so often when conditions were difficult and Surrey needed runs, Bernie Constable played a fine innings and his 37 would be comfortably the highest score in the game. Late hitting by Stuart Surridge, who whacked Eric Hollies for three sixes in four balls, and more strokeplay without regret by Tony Lock took the home side's total up to 146. Warwickshire fared no better in their second dig. Bedser again reduced his pace to maintain control and took 4 for 15. Jim Laker, bowling for the first time in the game because Lock had been hit over the eye when batting, took 5 for 29, including a hat-trick. No one else was needed and Wisden did not stifle its hosannas: "Members rose as one when the triumphant Surrey team walked from the field having begun their Championship programme with victory in a day." By the end of the season Surridge's team would be celebrating the second of their seven successive titles.
"I would much prefer to see people play natural cricket. Then you get a multi-faceted game"
Warwickshire's Tom Cartwright
Cricket such as that played at Bath and The Oval in 1953 now seems as distant as hansom cabs. One imagines current umpires would have abandoned the match inside a few overs on the first ground and not allowed Saturday's play to start on the second. These are litigious times. More interesting, though, is the preparedness of helmetless batsmen to keep buggering on, even when the ball was lifting spitefully. Of particular value are the reflections of Tom Cartwright who, at the age of 18 and pressed into service as an opener, had put on 20 with Fred Gardner in Warwickshire's second innings. It was his side's highest partnership of the game.
"You could never let the ball hit the bat. You always had to have the bat playing the ball. There is a difference. You learnt that very quickly," said Cartwright. "On uncovered pitches you had to compete almost all the time. And if you survived, you learnt. County cricket on uncovered pitches was a great learning environment. I learned more in my time at the wicket in that game than I learned in any period in any other game.
"I would much prefer to see people play natural cricket. Then you get a multi-faceted game. And when you take away some of the facets, which we have done, it shrinks in its artistic form, certainly in the disciplines required, and the overall product is diminished."
It is all too easy to agree so strongly with Cartwright that one becomes the "one-way critic" so mercilessly demolished in a famous poem by RC Robertson-Glasgow. Yet just as cricket in the 21st century has seen the acquisition of glorious new strokes and a revolution in outfielding by players whose overall athleticism would shame many of their predecessors, so there has also been what Philip Larkin called "a recession of skills". Something has been lost and to want it back is to cry for the moon.
Thankfully, though, Bertie Buse did not lose too much. Keen supporters and even sympathetic adherents dug deep when they heard of his disastrous benefit match and he ended his year with £2814 (c.£79,000 today). The second volume of Stephen Hill and Barry Phillips' magnum opus, Somerset Cricketers records that he coached at King Edward's School in Johannesburg for ten years before returning to be landlord of the St Peter's Finger pub in the Dorset village of Lytchett Minster. That latter job was given to him by George Woodhouse, who had been Somerset's captain in two post-war seasons and now ran the family brewery. As happened on a few occasions, the amateurs looked after the old pros. No doubt Bertie was grateful and it does not strain credence to think that on good nights he would tell the regulars about his Benefit Match.