Obituaries: Peter May
Wednesday 28 December 1994
Peter May's cricket epitomised the best traditions of the amateur in the English game. Not simply the breathtaking power and technical excellence of his batsmanship, but also the way he conducted himself, both as a cricketer and as captain of England.
Perhaps it was only appropriate that his retirement from first-class cricket in 1962, at the age of just 32, presaged by a matter of months the end of the amateur cricketer. Yet such was the sense of loss and so great the desire for a comeback that it was 1971 before Wisden bowed to the inevitable and published the essay it accorded the great players on their retirement.
Penning this tribute, John Woodcock reflected that cricket followers bestowed on May the same compliment they had conferred on Hobbs and Compton before him. "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."
Six feet tall, wide-shouldered and strong, May was a natural ball-games player, even if his stiff, somewhat ungainly running between the wickets belied this. He captained Cambridge at football and won a Blue for fives, but it was as a future England cricketer that his card had been marked since his schooldays. As young as 14 in the first of his four years in the XI, he headed the Charterhouse batting averages, and at 17 he scored an outstanding 146 for the Public Schools against the Combined Services atLord's. The next highest score was 18, a precursor somewhat of his 165 for Surrey against the 1958 New Zealanders, when the next best in the entire match was Mickey Stewart's 25.
Going up to Cambridge after National Service, May not only won his Blue in his first season but was also one of four Light Blues invited to Bradford for the 1950 Test trial. The quality of his strokeplay was manifest and his strokes manifold, from the delicate timing that cut the ball late, or glanced it fine to leg, to the upright driving that sped the ball in the arc from cover point to wide mid-on. The Peter May on-drive was his particular glory, and his execution of this, one of the most difficult s trokes in cricket, underwrote his strengths as a batsman: his footwork, his balance, the power in his wrists and particularly his unremitting concentration. Sir Donald Bradman rated concentration as the essence of batting, and whether batting in a crisis or dominating bowling, May's steely resolve never wavered. Against West Indies at Edgbaston in 1957, he and Colin Cowdrey batted for more than eight hours together in a world-record stand of 411 to prevent defeat.
May's call to England's colours had come in 1951 against South Africa at Headingley, where his 138 opening - the first of 13 Test hundreds - made him the seventh England batsman to score a century in his first Test innings.
When the Australians visited England in 1953 they were determined to get May out of the England side, such was his reputation, and ferocious bowling by Lindwall in the Surrey game, followed by May's failure in the first Test, achieved their purpose. He was not recalled until the final Test at The Oval where two resolute innings helped England regain the Ashes. From then until indisposed by illness in 1959 he was never absent, and his 52 successive appearances in that time equalled Frank Woolley's recordfor England. He was, moreover, captain in 35 of those Tests and went on to lead England 41 times, still the longest reign by an England captain and concentrated within seven years from 1955 to 1961. Although groomed by Allen to be Hutton's successor - he was his vice-captain in Australia in 1954-55 - May had not been appointed to captain either Cambridge or Surrey, his county, when he took over from Hutton. He did captain Surrey from 1957 to his retirement.
From 1955 to 1958 May did not lose a series. It is not surprising in today's crises that cricketers of his time wistfully recall May's record of 21 Tests won. His loyalty to his players might surprise the modern generation of cricketers who came and wentin May's time as chairman of selectors in the 1980s. His rather distant, enigmatic personal manner had much in common with the Prince in Lampedusa's The Leopard in that he possessed "a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not in what he could wrest from others". May was immensely kind to me when I was editor of Wisden and generous with his time and his knowledge of cricket.
In his 66 Test matches, Peter May scored 4,537 runs at an average of 46.77, while his highest score of 285 not out, in that Edgbaston Test of 1957, was at the time the record score by an England captain. In all first-class matches he scored 27,592 runs at an average of 51, including 85 hundreds.
Peter Barker Howard May, cricketer, insurance broker: born 31 December 1929; captain of England 41 times 1955-61; CBE 1981; Chairman, England Cricket Selection Committee 1982-88; married 1959 Virginia Gilligan (four daughters); died Liphook, Hampshire 27
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