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  Peter Barker  Howard May (1929–1994), by Brian Griffin, 1982 Peter Barker Howard May (1929–1994), by Brian Griffin, 1982
May, Peter Barker Howard (1929–1994), cricketer and insurance broker, was born on 31 December 1929 at 95 Northcourt Avenue, Reading, Berkshire, the elder son and elder child of Thomas Howard May, director of the family electrical engineering business, Callas Sons and May, and his wife and cousin, Emily Eileen Howard-May, daughter of the Revd Howard-May and his wife, Edith, née Whiteley. Although she died when he was only sixteen, it was through his mother, a good and very keen lawn tennis player, that May came by his interest in games and the intensity with which he played them. His father provided the wherewithal, as well as encouragement, but had been no cricketer himself.

From Marlborough House preparatory school and Leighton Park junior school, May went to Charterhouse School in September 1942, still three months short of his thirteenth birthday. In his first summer there he was already making enough runs for the advisability of his appearing in the first eleven at so tender an age to be referred to the headmaster, Robert Birley. In the event it was thought better that he should wait a year, but it was a true indication of what lay ahead. May was fortunate at Charterhouse to come into the care of George Geary, the school's cricket professional, who had played as an all-rounder for England and was as much counsellor as coach to his young protégé. In the four years he did have in the Charterhouse eleven May scored eight 100s for the school, the first of them against Harrow when he was fourteen. He finished his last year at school by making 183 not out against Eton and successive hundreds at Lord's, the first for the southern schools against the Rest, the second for the public schools against the combined services, an innings of 146 when the next highest score was 18.

May did his two years of national service as a writer in the Royal Navy, combining clerical work with a limited amount of cricket. He had a place waiting for him at Pembroke College, Cambridge (he had sat and failed a scholarship for Oxford), which he took up in October 1949, reading history and economics. He took his work seriously. He was, in fact, a serious-minded person, not at all without a sense of humour but wary as to the friends he chose and possessed of a quiet yet fierce determination. May's years at Cambridge covered the last golden period in university cricket. The pitch at Fenner's was all that a batsman could ask for; Cyril Coote, Cambridge's coach-cum-groundsman, was the best of batting tutors, and among May's contemporaries were seven others who also became test cricketers. No fewer than four of the Cambridge side (May, J. G. Dewes, G. H. G. Doggart, and D. S. Sheppard) played in the test trial of 1950, the season in which Cambridge scored 594 for four declared against the first West Indian side ever to win a test series in England. The first of the nine 100s May made for Cambridge during his three years in residence was an innings of 227 against Hampshire. In 1951, a month into his second long vacation, he scored 138 against South Africa at Headingley in his first test innings. ‘His equanimity from first to last stamped him as a player well above the ordinary’, said Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack, the canonical work in such matters.

So emerged England's finest batsman of the second half of the twentieth century. May was a good 6 feet tall, upstanding, and strong in a rangy way. Although he won Cambridge blues for soccer and Eton fives as well as for cricket, he was not a noticeably free mover. As a batsman his special glory was the on-drive, and he was as ruthlessly and powerfully acquisitive as he was courteously so. He never captained Cambridge, and his highest score in the five innings he played against Oxford at Lord's was a modest 39. Yet two years after going down from Cambridge in 1952 he was Len Hutton's vice-captain in Australia, and on Hutton's retirement, shortly afterwards, May himself was given the England captaincy—at the age of twenty-five and with very little experience in the job. It was a pity, perhaps, that it came to him so soon, not because he was unsuccessful—he had too many world-class bowlers at his command for that—but that by taking so much out of him it almost certainly shortened his career. He took over the captaincy of Surrey in 1957, and led them to the last two of their record seven successive county championships.

May was of too retiring a disposition to find communication easy, and he harboured a stubborn, somewhat unsparing streak. His players, though, held him in awe for his batting, and liked and respected him as a captain for his loyalty to them and his absolute straightness. The Hutton influence was evident in his tactical approach, not only in the way he kept his own counsel but in his suspicion of flamboyance and his thriftiness in the field. On the health of both men the burden of leadership, combined with the responsibility of so often having to carry the batting, eventually took its toll.

Between 1955 and 1961 May captained England forty-one times, more than anyone before him. Of his tests in charge, twenty were won, ten lost, and eleven drawn. As captain, he knew both the joy of waving from the Oval balcony, in 1956, after the Ashes had been won, and the mortification of losing them in Australia, in 1958–9, with a well-fancied side. He also took England to South Africa in 1956–7 and to the West Indies in 1959–60. Overall they were years of plenty for English cricket, and for that May could take his full share of credit. In his first three home test series he averaged 72.75 against South Africa, 90.60 against Australia, and 97.50 against the West Indies. Of his thirteen test hundreds nine were made in England, the highest of them his 285 not out against the West Indies at Edgbaston in 1957. For a variety of reasons, on his three overseas tours as captain he was markedly less successful with the bat. In the five tests of the drawn series in South Africa in 1956–7 Neil Adcock and Peter Heine, South Africa's two fast bowlers, reduced his average to a mere 15.30; in Australia in 1958–9 he came up against three Australian bowlers with highly questionable actions; and in the West Indies in 1959–60, with a reshaped England team, he had to return home early for an operation on an ischiorectal abscess, a form of haemorrhoid, caused partly by stress, which kept him out of the whole of the English season of 1960.

In Australia in 1958–9 May took against the large press contingent following the tour when two or three of the tabloids attributed England's poor showing partly to the presence of May's fiancée, Virginia Gilligan (b. 1935/6), daughter of Alfred Herbert Harold Gilligan, company director, claiming that she was a distraction. She was there with her uncle, Arthur Gilligan, himself a former England captain to Australia. It was even rumoured that May and Miss Gilligan had been secretly married. They married, in fact, at Cranleigh on 24 April 1959, and, as May's wife, Virginia would have been unlikely to try to dissuade him from retiring from test cricket in 1961 and from all first-class cricket two years later. She knew that he had had enough of it, and that he felt the time had come to be doing something else. In sixty-six tests he had scored 4537 runs at an average of 46.77, and in all first-class cricket 25,592 runs at 51.00.

On going down from Cambridge May had joined the insurance broking firm of E. R. Wood, as a result of personal contact. They were glad to be associated with so promising and highly regarded a sportsman. In 1970 he moved to Willis, Faber, and Dumas, who allowed him the time he needed to serve as an England selector, which he had done first from 1965 until 1968 and did again, this time as chairman, from 1982 until 1988, with a specific brief to look to the declining standard of players' behaviour. He was as conscientious in commuting to the City as in the pursuit of his selectorial duties, beset though these were with problems.

In May's first term as a selector there was the D'Oliveira affair to contend with, to which the selectors were thought to have contributed by their apparent equivocation. A ‘Cape coloured’ and, as such, a red rag to the South African government of the day, Basil D'Oliveira was first omitted from the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) touring party to South Africa and then brought in as a replacement for a different type of player who had withdrawn from the team. The upshot was the cancellation of the tour. Characteristically, May said that ‘it would be grossly wrong and utterly against the principles on which our selectors work if we allowed ourselves to be influenced by considerations outside cricket’ (May and Melford, 191). When May's second term as a selector began, fourteen prominent England players had just been banned for three years from test selection, for having played a series of matches in South Africa against the urgings of the Test and County Cricket Board, who had by then replaced the MCC as the ruling authority of the first-class game in England. For his services to cricket May was appointed CBE in 1981. He served on the committees of MCC and Surrey, becoming president of MCC in 1980–81 and of Surrey, honoris causa, in 1995. His work with Willis Faber was concerned largely with their retail operation, other than when he was acting as the most modest and charming of hosts in their company box at Lord's.

Besides being the niece of one former England captain, Virginia May was the daughter of another, so it was ironic that with such strong cricketing ties the Mays' four children should all have been daughters who excelled in the world of equestrianism. Nevertheless, their mother had once finished sixth in the Badminton horse trials championships, and three of the daughters were to achieve international honours at one level or another. Although he supported them to the hilt, May refused resolutely to take to the saddle himself. ‘No brakes’, he used to say, with his gentle, unaffected smile, when asked the reason why. May died of a brain tumour at his home, Hatch House, Wheatsheaf Enclosure, Liphook, Hampshire, four days before his sixty-fifth birthday, on 27 December 1994. He was survived by his wife and four daughters.

John Woodcock

Sources  

P. May and M. Melford, A game enjoyed (1985) · Wisden · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · The Times (28 Dec 1994) · The Independent (28 Dec 1994) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · WWW, 1991–5

Likenesses  

photographs, 1953–62, Hult. Arch. · R. Burton, photograph, 1957, Hult. Arch. · B. Griffin, bromide print photograph, 1982, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£245,491: probate, 1 April 1996, CGPLA Eng. & Wales