Jack Hobbs and Len Hutton (both averaging about 57) are widely considered to be the finest English Test batsmen ever, along with Wally Hammond who averages 58.5. Besides these two, in terms of averages (minimum 40 Tests) Herbert Sutcliffe, Ken Barrington, Dennis Compton, Ted Dexter, Geoff Boycott, Patsy Hendren and Kevin Pietersen are all ahead of Peter May.
So, why are we saying that Peter May, who barely averaged 47 with just 13 centuries in 66 Tests is higher impact than all other English batsmen?
Let’s make it even more scandalous – we are saying that in the history of Test cricket, with the obvious exception of Don Bradman, Peter May is the highest impact batsman of all time.
Despite there being 46 batsmen in Test history who have a higher batting average than May (minimum 50 Tests, till December 2014).
Insane, right? Now, please go through the case we make below and see if you continue to believe that aggregate runs, batting averages and century-tallies are the way to judge batsmen. Or if the quality of runs, the match circumstances they are made in, the context of the series, the strength of opposition, pitch and weather conditions and how the player’s big performances changed the team’s history could possibly be factored in as well.
As we have explained in the introduction to this series, everything we put forth is verifiable by examining scorecards and conventional cricket stats. It’s just that we wouldn’t be able to identify such stories without Impact Index.
Let’s lay out the big picture first.
PETER MAY PLAYED IN THE TOUGHEST DECADE TO SCORE RUNS IN.
In the last hundred years, the 1950s were the toughest on batsmen – the average runs per wicket is considerably lower than any other decade post the First World War. In fact, if an adjustment for this is made (using general rule-of-thumb methods), May crosses an average of 50 quite easily (and many others would have their batting averages reduced for the same reason).
It was also the lowest scoring decade in England (post 1920). This is where Peter May averaged 60 in that decade and 57 through his career (1951-1961) in 39 Tests.
July 1957. Fourth Test v West Indies, Leeds. Peter May makes 69 (the highest scorer for his side) against West Indies. England make 279 and actually win by an innings.
ENGLAND, DURING THIS PERIOD, HAD THEIR LONGEST UNBEATEN STREAK IN TEST HISTORY.
From 1951 to 1958, England played 14 Test series (via 62 Tests) in Australia, New Zealand, West Indies, India, South Africa and, of course, at home. They did not lose a single one (won 10, drew 4). Inarguably, this was the best team in the world then – this is the longest time England has been number one, before or since. In the 137 years of Test cricket so far, that was English cricket’s finest moment.
Peter May played in 48 of his 66 Tests in this period.
PETER MAY WAS THE HIGHEST IMPACT PLAYER IN THE WORLD IN THIS PERIOD.
During this heady period, when May played most of his international cricket (his career ran from 1951-61), he was the highest impact batsman in the world by a distance in this period. Even more significantly, he was the highest impact player too (minimum 30 Tests).
The latter is particularly interesting because only in very exceptional cases is the highest impact player a batsman – the quality bowlers and bowling allrounders almost always have a higher impact than batsman in this format (which is not hard to understand) – and there were more than a few in his time. A batsman being the highest impact player in the world over eight years is remarkable, Bradmanesque actually.
Conventionally, May had a batting average of 49 in this period and Walcott, Weekes and Hutton (who finished his career in a blaze in 1955) were ahead of him on averages. But May’s greater proportion of runs in low-scoring matches and his role in producing his best performances when the team needed them the most, which went on to make the biggest difference in the series, makes him higher impact than everybody.
This amply reveals the extent of May’s role in his team reaching the summit amongst Test teams. Despite having bowlers like Jim Laker, Alec Bedser, Tony Lock, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Frank Tyson and Roy Tattersall and an all-rounder like Trevor Bailey in his team at various times, May was higher impact than all of them during those triumphant years.
July 1956. Third Test v Australia, Leeds. Having lost the previous Test and trailing 0-1 in the Ashes 0-1, England are 17 for 3. May’s 101 and Washbrook’s 98 change the course of the match as their team reaches 325 in difficult conditions. Australia collapse for 143 and 140. Series 1-1.
England win the next Test and go into the deciding Test 2-1 up.
August 1956. Fifth test, The Oval. At 66 for 3 things look shaky, before May and Compton take charge. May stays unbeaten at 83 as England are dismissed for 247- a very good score in these conditions. Australia 202. Another unbeaten 35 from May in the second innings which leaves Australia with too much to do in two hours of play. In 38 overs though, they do plummet to 27 for 5 before play is called off. Series and Ashes to England.
PETER MAY ABSORBED MORE PRESSURE THAN ANY ENGLISH BATSMAN EVER.
In the history of English Test cricket, no one absorbed the pressure (of falling wickets) more than May. In fact, he is amongst the highest Pressure Impact players in Test history.
Again, this is very interesting because every player above him on the Pressure Impact list (except Clem Hill and Warwick Armstrong who played in the early part of the 20th century for Australia), which includes the likes of Andy Flower, Brian Lara, Jimmy Adams, Chandu Borde and MAK Pataudi, belonged to relatively weaker sides (which leads to circumstances where a strong player ends up facing more pressure for obvious reasons).
Here, it necessarily suggests that May’s contribution in absorbing pressure as successfully as he did played a big part in England’s ascent to the top and staying there.
The above is also apparent from the number of Peter May performances that came under pressure, none more than his highest Test score (not a common occurrence at all; most batsmen get their highest scores in easier circumstances – Hanif Mohammed, Brendon McCullum and Martin Crowe the only exceptions above him).
June 1957. Opening Test v West Indies, Egbaston. Mystery spinner Sonny Ramadhin takes 7 for 49 and England crash for 186. West Indies put up 474 and England are 65 for 2 when May walks in, which is soon 113 for 3 (two wickets to Ramadhin and all set up for an early finish, with almost two days to go). But after ten hours of batting, May emerges 285 not out. England declare 295 ahead and reduce a shaken West Indies to 68 for 7 before captain John Goddard bats out time. But the tide has turned emphatically as Ramadhin takes only 5 more wickets in the next four Tests and England win three of them by an innings.
PETER MAY WAS THE HIGHEST IMPACT THIRD-INNINGS BATSMAN IN TEST HISTORY.
May’s batting average of 68 in the third innings belies his significance (as there are quite a few ahead of him on this count – minimum 20 Tests). What averages do not show (unless you search for that) is how many times May stabilised his side from behind and helped his team save the game, or win it (win – aptly four times in 1954-155 when he was at his peak; drew, twice post-1958). More than the number of times, it was the timing of these performances – as on most of these occasions, it changed the course of the series.
December 1954. Second Test v Australia, Sydney. Australia have won the first Test by an innings, dismissed England for 154 here, taken a lead of 74 and reduced England to 55 for 3 with an attack comprising Lindwall, Archer, Davidson, Johnston and Benaud bearing upon them aggressively. But Peter May takes charge – with some help from Cowdrey at first, then Edrich. His five-hour 104 (second-highest score 54) gives England a 222-run lead. Despite Neil Harvey’s heroics, Australia fall 38 runs short. The series is 1-1.
Next Test, Melbourne. England 191. Australia 231. England 40 for1 as May walks in. He makes 91 (next highest score 42) as England get a lead of 239. Frank Tyson takes seven and Australia are dismissed for 111. Series 2-1.
England go on to win the series 3-1.
PETER MAY WAS THE BIGGEST SERIES-WINNER OF HIS ERA.
May had three series-defining performances in his career – all three came in that period 1951-1958, more than any batsman, bowler or allrounder in that time-frame. Even till the time he stopped playing Test cricket (1961), no one had gone past him – allrounders Alan Davidson and Keith Miller did get 3 too, but no batsman. Again, this exemplifies the huge impact May had in his time.
Furthermore, in all the three series May accomplished the series-defining performances, he was so consistent that his series-defining value (which is dependant also on the player’s consistency in that series) is very high. In fact, with the sole exception of Bradman (and if we take 40 Tests as a minimum), no one had a higher series-defining value in Test cricket history. This essentially means that May’s outstanding performances during big moments were just a continuation of astonishing consistency. In fact, this is the one reason why May is ahead of Hutton on impact despite being almost 10 runs behind on conventional averages and more pertinently, despite Hutton being marginally ahead of May on almost every other batting parameter.
June 1955. Second Test v South Africa, Lord’s. After beating South Africa in the first Test (where May and Kenyon lead the way with the bat), England struggle here. All out for 133, conceding a lead of 171 and then 9 for1 when May walks in. He makes 112 (second-highest score is 69) and England get a lead of 182. Brian Statham takes 7 and England are 2-0 up.
Then, South Africa win the next two Tests (a third-innings 117 and a fourth innings 97 by May in vain – both are highest scores for his team) – series is at 2-2.
August 1955. Fifth Test, the Oval. England 151. South Africa 112. England 30 for 2 when May walks in – match, and series, in balance. Wickets fall regularly but not his. A five-hour unbeaten 89 from him, last man standing when England are dismissed for 204. A target of 244 on that pitch with Laker and Lock to face proves too much and England win the match by 92 runs. And the series 3-2. May has contributed significantly in every single match.
PETER MAY IS THE THIRD-MOST CONSISTENT BATSMAN IN TEST HISTORY.
Only Don Bradman (27%) and Len Hutton (30%) have lower failure rates than Peter May (31%) in Test cricket history (minimum 40 Tests). Given that nobody considers May in the same league as Bradman and Hutton, and given the luminaries below him on this list, it does redefine some ideas about the pantheon of batting greats.
It is this consistency and the circumstances in which May played (the lowest-scoring decade in 100 years) that also has him sixth on the list of Runs Tally Impact (proportion of runs made by batsman in a match-by-match context; minimum 40 Tests) after you-know-who, Jack Hobbs, Neil Harvey, Len Hutton and Lindsay Hassett. The fact that Harvey and Hassett average less than 50 and have therefore not been clubbed with the all-time great batsmen is further shown as bogus – like May, they too played in eras where run-scoring was not as easy and produced the goods more emphatically in challenging circumstances than conventional stats would have us believe.
The “home vs away” comparison will always come up in the end, but sometimes they can be tired arguments. Yes, May averaged 57 at home (39 Tests) and 36 away (27 Tests). More importantly, he averaged 40 in Australia (ten Tests) and 35.5 in West Indies (eight Tests) – and produced important contributions in both countries. His one truly bad away series happened in South Africa where he played five Tests for an average of 15 (a series England could not win, but drew 2-2). He did not play in the subcontinent – an opportunity lost to bolster his average perhaps. The bottomline here is that England is not an easy place to bat and that decade was particularly tough (as explained before). Given how much May contributed to keeping England dominant at home against strong opposition, often in difficult circumstances, this aspect should not really matter. And besides, nobody has a perfect away record, except Bradman, and he only played in Australia and England all his career.
May’s departure from the scene in 1961 (within three years of that heady period) coincided with a palpable slipping of England from a pre-eminent position as a post-Bradman Australia, West Indies and South Africa asserted themselves. During his career, he even captained his side 41 times (winning 20 and losing 10 – he was an influential captain) and was at his best as a batsman during this.
In the end, it is somewhat unbelievable that someone like Peter Barker Howard May did not get the respect of being who he truly was – an all-time great batsman who helped change the history of his country’s cricket history, more than any other English batsman. Often with his back to the wall.
If names compulsorily reflected character, his name would have been Peter Will.