BENNETT, DONALD, died on June 12, aged 80. Don Bennett was 16, and a few weeks out of grammar school, when he made his Middlesex debut at Old Trafford in 1950. Gubby Allen had predicted he would become England's leading all-rounder. The Wakefield-born Bennett would remain an integral part of the Middlesex team for the next decade and a half, becoming one of only five players to score 10,000 runs and take 500 wickets for them. But Allen's prophecy remained unfulfilled.
A supremely talented athlete, Bennett was blessed with a rhythmic run-up, and an action that might have come from the MCC manual. But, as team-mate John Murray put it: "He just never got any bigger." His teenage pace settled into a routine fast-medium and, despite a compact, elegant technique, he never scored heavily enough to earn a Test call.
Instead, it was after he became Middlesex coach that he made his most lasting contribution. Under his undemonstrative stewardship the club won six County Championships (and shared another), six one-day cups, and the Sunday League. He also turned into perhaps the game's pre-eminent spotter and polisher of talent. Those he brought to Lord's included John Emburey, Mike Gatting, Angus Fraser, Phil Tufnell and Mark Ramprakash.
And, after he left the post in 1997, he served on Middlesex committees and as president, completing more than a half-century at the club. "He'll be remembered as one of the most significant figures in the history of Middlesex," said Fraser. Bennett had been a schoolboy sprinting champion and, in the winter months, while his Middlesex colleagues looked for jobs or went on tour, he decamped to Arsenal, where he spent nine years on the wing or at full-back without being promoted to the first team. In 1959 he joined Coventry City, where he made a delayed league debut, before retiring from the game in 1962. At a time when few cricketers owned cars, Bennett's football earnings meant he would arrive each spring with a new Volkswagen Beetle. But he was never flash, and retained his native Yorkshire caution. "I roomed with him for years, and we took it in turns to leave half-a-crown for the chambermaid," said Alan Moss. "There was always an argument about whose turn it was."
In 1953 Bennett passed 1,000 runs, took 46 wickets, and might have been a candidate for England's tour of the Caribbean, but the whisper among Middlesex colleagues was that Allen had decreed him "not ready". Bennett continued to perform reliably for an underachieving team. He was often first change, and achieved a consistently full length, although his height - 5ft 9in - made him a skiddy bowler, rather than one who moved the ball through the air or off the pitch. He batted attractively in the lower-middle order, adapting his game to the circumstances.
At Maidstone in July 1961 he made the highest of his four hundreds, 117 not out in a partnership of 220 with Murray. His best bowling, seven for 47, had come at Hove in 1956. He was electrifying at cover. "The old boys like Edrich and Compton were around the bat, while us younger ones did all the running," recalled Moss.
Bennett played just a handful of games in his final three seasons, and retired in 1968 after 392 first-class appearances for Middlesex, 748 wickets at 26, and 10,274 runs at nearly 22. He took a job running the sports ground of a furniture company in High Wycombe, but was soon back at Lord's, replacing Jack Robertson as coach in 1969.
Bennett's interest in coaching had grown when his retirement from football meant more spare time in the winter, and he became a regular at Alf Gover's indoor school in Wandsworth. "I never remember seeing him in a net with a player, conducting a one-to-one," said Murray. "He watched closely and worked quietly." Although Bennett was involved in selection and preparation, his first-team role would today be considered hands-off. He ensured Middlesex maintained a production line of the best young players, organising a small but dedicated group of scouts whose judgement he trusted. And he would keep unobtrusive tabs on his schoolboy starlets. "You would sometimes see him hiding behind a tree while you were batting," said Gatting.
Bennett felt the dressing-room atmosphere improved when Gatting and Ian Gould, another of his graduates, became regulars, and the first trophy arrived with the Championship in 1976. He used the Second XI to instil good habits. "Players arrived in the first team knowing what they were supposed to do," said Mike Brearley. Discipline was strict, and praise rationed. His immaculate appearance and neatly knotted Middlesex tie led some to mistake his approach for old school, but he was ahead of his time, stressing the role of fitness, and disapproving of fast food and excessive drinking.
His judgement remained peerless. In Bennett's final summer as coach, Middlesex recruited a young South African all-rounder. He confided in Fraser and a few others that he thought the new arrival was "as good as Garry Sobers". They had good reason to remember the prediction while following the career of Jacques Kallis.