Ireland's Greatest Cricketers 7: Justin Benson
Justin David Ramsay Benson
Irish by birth, though not by upbringing, Justin Benson was an aggressive batsman capable of dominating the bowling. However, while this could be the norm against weak attacks, he was sometimes found wanting against stronger opponents.
Thus, though his careers at Minor County, County and Irish national level could certainly not be described as failures, they have been seen as disappointing and indicative of an unfulfilled talent. He was also a useful medium pacer, though, again. not the force he once promised to be.
At The Leys School he was an outstanding batsman. Three years in the XI, he aggregated 2198 runs at 46.76. His highest score was 201* against the possibly weakish attack of the Headmaster's XI, but he had shown his class when, just turned 15, he hit 90 in 80 minutes v Highgate School with eight 6s. In his third year he was captain and hit 977 runs with 3 hundreds and 8 fifties. That season he played for the NAYC XI v The Combined Services at Lord's. He was number 5, while a young Manchester schoolboy called Atherton batted at 3!
These performances earned Justin selection for Cambridgeshire for whom he was to appear, spasmodically, until 1997, returning after his county career and as his Irish episode came to a close. He scored 1324 runs for them with an average in the high 20s, but managed only one century. His best performance for them was indeed outstanding. In 1986, having left The Leys and entered CCAT, he played for the County v Yorkshire in the Nat West Trophy. Cambridgeshire were, of course swamped, but he made 85 out of a total of 176, there was only one other double figure score. He was deservedly Man of the Match.
This innings gained him a Leicestershire, and Derbyshire trial, the former offering a contract. For the County Seconds he batted consistently, scoring a hundred in each season from 1986 to 1989. His first class performances were adequate, but not always outstanding. He hit 4 hundreds, the first in a drawn match v India in 1990 was praised by Wisden, "Benson enlivened the final day's play by striking twelve fours and three sixes."
In 1991 came his maiden Championship ton when he made 133* v Hampshire (21 fours) putting on a county record 7th wicket unbroken 219 with wicket keeper Phil Whitticase. In 1992, his team went down by an innings to Middlesex al Lord's, though his 122 (273 minutes, 15 fours) and 58 could not be faulted. His final century came in 1993, when he headed the Leicestershire averages. He hit 153 v Gloucestershire, he was, however missed twice.
At the end of the season he was released, blaming a personality clash with coach Jackie Birkenshaw as he was given no other reason. However he scored only 90 other runs in 5 innings. Further his one-day career had been disappointing as he managed a total of only 3 fifties. Birkenshaw would no doubt have claimed that Benson had not lacked chances to establish himself.
His Irish career might never have happened but for Alan Lewis, then the captain, watching Leicestershire in a one-day match on TV, gathering that he was Dublin born, and asking him to play. His debut was in 1993 v Alan Border's Australians when he opened but scored only one run. He appeared in the ICC Trophy in Kenya in 1994 and justified his selection with 235 runs at 39.16 including a brilliant 73* v Malaysia.
Having lost his county place, he appeared for Cambridgeshire in 1994 but also established himself in the Irish side. In 1995, he played a full season with Malahide where he proved not only a very popular figure, coaching all the Club's teams, but also a highly successful one. His 1221 runs came at an average of 61.05 and included a highest score of 160. However he did not produce the same sort of form consistently for Ireland. He never made a century, which seems extraordinary for such a commanding and free scoring batsman when set, and his sixty innings included only 7 fifties. His highest was 79 v The Netherlands in the 1997 European Championships in Denmark, gaining him a man of the Match award to sit with that won as a teenager two decades earlier, but his best innings was his 74* v West Indies at Castle Avenue in 1995 when rain may well have cost him his ton.
When Lewis retired from international cricket to pursue his distinguished rugby-refereeing career, Benson became Irish Captain. He took Ireland to the semi finals of the ICC Trophy, but defeat there and in the third place play off, meant that the World Cup had to wait until the next century.
Otherwise he was one of Ireland's more successful skippers with a 48% win rate. He signed off in some style with fifties in each of is last two matches. He had also that season led Ireland to victory over Middlesex in the famous Benson and Hedges match at Castle Avenue, when he also returned his best Irish bowling figures 3-45, including a bemused Mike Gatting.
His contribution to Irish cricket was indeed a valuable and appreciated one. However the feeling remains that it could have been even more so. He is profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald Ireland 100 Cricket Greats
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