An appreciation

Peter May 1929-1994

Six years after the Second World War, Peter May came into the England team against South Africa at Headingley and scored 138 with enormous style. It was the most exciting thing to have happened in English cricket since Len Hutton's 364 at The Oval 13 years earlier. England's batting heroes in the years before that were, inevitably, players like Hutton, Washbrook, Compton and Edrich who had begun to make their reputations in pre-war days. But May's first Test innings against South Africa heralded the arrival of a new generation and ushered in for England the most successful decade in their cricketing history.

Now, 44 years on, I think he remains the best batsman England has produced since the war. His batting did not have Compton's flair and charm, but at the peak of his form he could be dazzling - there was one occasion when I was skippering Essex against Surrey and I felt distinct twinges of regret when we got him out. His basic technique was very sound, and he was an outstanding front-foot player, especially on the on side, where I have not seen his equal.

He seemed to thrive in difficult situations. It would be wrong to say he liked them, but he faced up to them with that determination that was so much a part of his temperament. His confidence depended on habit. He avoided going into the nets on a morning when he was likely to be batting, and he very seldom watched the play before going to the wicket. Indeed, if the opening batsmen were playing and missing a lot, he would retire to the back of the dressing-room, out of sight and sound. His concentration on the task ahead was absolute, and it was not easy to get much sense out of him during this pregnant period.

Sometimes this could boil over into superstition. On the South African tour of 1956-57, Peter began with four consecutive hundreds. At a reception in Salisbury (now Harare), the city's Mayor presented him with a live duck and expressed the patriotic hope that it might have a debilitating effect on his future performances. From that point on, he struggled to reach double figures. After getting out to yet another magnificent catch late in the Test series he came back to the dressing-room, threw his bat on his bag, and said, That ---- duck. He did not often swear.

When Peter took over the captaincy of England from Len Hutton in 1955, he had very little experience of leading a side. But he was liked and respected by those who played under him and he got the best out of them. He was never a soft touch: he was loyal to his players and they were aware of it, but he could be distinctly uncharitable if that loyalty was not returned and he was quick to punish lack of effort, or stupidity, as distinct from naïveté.

His tactical approach was straightforward. He was not adventurous, but it might be said that he had no need to be. The attacks at his command, for Surrey and England, were very strong, and he depended on his established bowlers to do their job. He would set out with a plan and he was not easily deflected from it. During his magnificent unbeaten 285 against West Indies at Edgbaston in 1957, a few of us tried to persuade him to declare earlier

© John Wisden & Co