The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Comments at the Lunch for Alec Bedser’s 90th Birthday – 4 July 2008

Below is the text of Sir John Major’s comments made at the lunch to celebrate Alec Bedser’s 90th Birthday, held at The Oval on Friday 4th July 2008.


Today is Alec’s 90th birthday. If I had any doubt that Fate had a sense of humour, Alec being born on Independence Day removes it: some think St George’s Day would have been more fitting. I disagree: George was a Greek, living in Syria who never visited England. Not at all right.

Alec was born into a world now gone. On his birth date, Mehmed VI became Emperor of the Ottoman Empire. Later that month, the Soviets murdered the Czar and his family at Ekaterinburg, and the Battle of the Marne began. And yet, July 1918 had its good points: four Nobel Prize Winners were born together with one of the greatest bowlers in the long history of cricket.

Today, Alec Bedser is revered in every part of the English-speaking world.

Gathered here, today, are friends of a lifetime. Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey, Ken Archer and Alan Davidson have flown in from the opposite end of the earth. Richie Benaud is here, too. So are a galaxy of England players, some former team-mates of Alec. They are not only here as good friends to Alec: they are here because Alec is a good friend to them. Today, we celebrate Alec Bedser the man as well as Alec Bedser the great cricketer.

I know that view will be shared by those here from Alec’s other great love: golf. Peter Alliss, John Jacobs, George O’Grady and his old friend and neighbour, Ken Schofield, will tell you Alec was a top-class golfer, too – well able to hit a Par 4 on the 14th at West Hill.

In Pro-Am tournaments he partnered the great golfers, such as V J Singh, who played with Alec because they wished to win, and being second best was never a Bedser characteristic.

Others present can – and will – speak more authoritatively about Alec’s cricket. I saw him only from beyond the boundary; they saw him at close quarters – too close sometimes if they were batting.

His record is remarkable. He lost six cricketing years to the War, but still took 236 Test wickets in only 51 matches. If Tests had been as frequent then as today, his tally would have been phenomenal. In his first Test at Lord’s, against India in 1946, he took 11 wickets prompting his mother to say – when asked for some treacly quote – “Well, that’s what he’s paid for, isn’t it?” Glib platitudes were never a Bedser trait.

In his early Test days Alec was often the alpha and omega of the England attack. Later, at Surrey he was the core of the greatest bowling attack any County side has ever put into the field. He bowed out of first-class cricket, with 5 for 25 for Surrey against Glamorgan. As a bowler, he was in the line of Sydney Barnes and Maurice Tate, and – 48 years on – his equal is yet to be found.

Sometimes, little things tell you a lot. In his long career – which ended at the age of 42 – Alec only once left the field during play. He didn’t turn his ankle, pull a muscle or feel queasy. Nor did his studs or stitching work loose. He was never on a piece of elastic reeling him onto the masseur’s table and – if nature called – she was told to wait until the next interval. Nor did he begin the day’s play with a cuddle in a huddle: the senses rebel at the very thought.

“Nothing can come of nothing”, said King Lear to Cordelia. Nor can talent.

Is it God-given or the result of hard work? Both – of course. No-one could have bowled Alec’s leg-cutter without those huge hands. And no-one could have bowled over 16,000 first class overs – more than 1,000 a year – without massive stamina and supreme fitness. And no-one – without diligence and practice – could have gained his uncanny accuracy.

Nor can a personality come of nothing. Alec’s character is as steady as a rock and as certain as the changing of the tides. He is a tribute to what must be a long line of ancestor Bedsers. I wish I’d known them – I daresay they told it as it was.

When his playing career ended, Alec continued to serve cricket: as an England selector and long term Chairman; as a Tour Manager; as President of Surrey – and, more ephemerally, as a peerless judge of the game.

Watching cricket with Alec is to enjoy a master-class in the finer points of the game. To ransack his mind is to open a treasure trove.

Sometimes this was unnerving because he and Eric remembered everything. I said to him (rather smugly) one day that – as a boy – I saw him get Maurice Hallam caught in the slips off a rare out-swinger. This – remember – was one of nearly 2000 first-class wickets.

“Ah”, said Eric, “yes, it was second slip!” “And it wasn’t an out-swinger” chimed in Alec, “he just mis-judged it!”.

In this room are over 100 friends of Alec. At a conservative estimate he would, on average, have known everyone for 40 years: some, of course, far longer. Add it up – and there is over 4,000 years of friendship gathered together. And yet, there is one glaring absentee: Eric.

Eric is not here: at least, not visibly so. And yet – I daresay he is somewhere about, because he was never far from his twin. No-one more enjoyed Alec’s success: Eric over-flowed with pleasure when his brother joined the select band of cricketing Knights. “Quite right, too”, he said to me, adding in character, “Course, he should have had it years ago!”. And how he would have loved the tributes – so richly earned – as Alec celebrates this special day (which, of course, is Eric’s birthday, too).

Now, it’s after mid-day: so Eric will already have raised a pint in the Long Room to toast Alec. Let me now invite you to rise and do the same: the toast is – Alec – a very Happy Birthday.