Surrey County Cricket Club are mourning the loss of Bernie Coleman OBE, who passed away yesterday, just short of his 98th birthday.
Richard Spiller looks back on the life of a man who joined the club in 1947 and was president in 1991 and took a leading role in English cricket for many years. The Club flag will be flown at half mast over The Kia Oval to honour his passing.
Bernie Coleman loved to tell the tale about when he first joined Surrey’s General Committee.
“Do we need this publican?,” was a comment heard coming from one of the establishment figures of the time.
The answer was a resounding ‘yes’ given the club were on their uppers and it was down to the work of Coleman and his allies – including his great friend Derek Newton, who died last month – that Surrey survived then and thrive now.
Many of his best friends were made through cricket and he was of a generation who relished all that was best in the game, having lost so many friends during the Second World War, in which he fought.
Coleman had lost his older brother, who had served in the Royal Air Force, and played his own part in the conflict by joining the Navy and, as a coder on HMS Tay, took part in the Battle of the Atlantic which ensured Britain was not starved by the German U-Boats.
Born above a pub in Bermondsey and running one in Kingston by the time he was 15 – you might say he had alcohol in the blood except that he rarely drank – Coleman became a highly successful publican who owned a chain of establishments around London before trimming down his business to a favoured few.
They included The Castle in Tooting Broadway, where he succeeded his father as tenant, and the Dog & Fox in Wimbledon Village.
That meant he could spend far more time doing what he wanted, which was watching and promoting cricket alongside long-term involvements in football, plus watching boxing, visiting jazz clubs and backing plays, although he admitted he was “pretty rotten” at choosing the latter.
It was a rare failing for someone who possessed formidable business acumen, which he put at the service of cricket, and combined it with a natural kindness and generosity, learned from his parents and which was never to leave him.
Having joined Surrey when returned from the war, a membership which went unbroken until his death, Coleman was soon in demand from players to join their benefit committees given his organisational skills and willingness to help out. It was often the only decent opportunity for professionals paid barely subsidence wages at the time and rewarding cricketers properly for their skills became among his leading preoccupations.
Upon election to the general committee at The Oval, Coleman discovered just what a parlous state English cricket was in, the post-war boom over and crowds shrinking steadily despite the invention of limited overs cricket.
In company with Raman Subba Row, Newton – whose death last month was a great blow to him – and others, he set about finding ways to keep the game afloat. Among them were sponsorship and perimeter advertising, which had the English cricket hierarchy of the time choking on their cigars but which they soon adopted.
Recruited to head the promotions and public relations committee of the Test & County Cricket Board (now ECB) by Subba Row – a man he described as ‘a genius who saw things way in advance of anyone else’ – that brief included driving up the amounts of money television would pay to show the game.
That meant any number of clashes with the BBC, who held a monopoly at the time, and ITV for refusing to take an interest. It was Coleman who suggested to Rupert Murdoch that he should televise England’s tour to West Indies in 1990 as a way of rescuing his fledgling Sky TV company after a rocky start to the satellite era.
Coleman’s long and distinguished service to cricket saw him awarded the OBE and, as Surrey president in 1991, he had the honour of escorting The Queen around The Oval when she officially opened the Ken Barrington Centre and Bedser Stand.
Not that cricket was by any means his only recreation, dipping into his own pocket to keep Wimbledon FC afloat in the 1970s and then joining Ron Noades in a takeover of Crystal Palace in 1981. Later on he supported AFC Wimbledon generously, furious that their ground had been sold from under them and delighted to see them returning to a new stadium at Plough Lane earlier this year.
Coleman inaugurated his own foundation, which supported the development of young cricketers, rewarded young journalists and funded medical research – among other things – with the latter prompted by a brush with cancer which forced him to undertake major surgery, bravely born and requiring him to wear a false ear. His put down his survival to his wife Joyce, his companion for many years who he married late in life.
Beyond the work of the foundation were many other kindnesses and acts of generosity, quietly conducted in the same modest manner he went about everything else in his life.
Following his retirement from business – although he was always happy to offer when Surrey and others came calling – Coleman enjoyed spending winters in Sydney and playing golf with a group of old friends which included Richie Benaud.
Coleman became housebound in his final years although he never bored of the wonderful view from his apartment overlooking the All England Club in Wimbledon Village and with a wonderful London skyscape.
The lockdowns were especially difficult but his phone rarely stopped ringing, he cherished visits when they were possible and positively purred with delight at receiving a letter or postcard from one of his many friends. Losing Joyce in early 2020 and the regular departures of old friends saddened him immensely but the possibilities of the future never ceased to fascinate him.
Paying tribute to Bernie, Richard Thompson, Chair of Surrey CCC, said: “For a club to be thought of as a ‘Great Club’, requires great people. Few people could personify that more than Bernie and do more to help in building that reputation.
“He was one of the true greats. Without ego or malice, Bernie did more for Surrey CCC than people will ever know.
“Never wanting the limelight or attention, he just wanted to help in any way he could. There are generations of players, that without his support, would not have fulfilled their potential in the way Bernie enabled. His contribution to English cricket and Surrey was profound across an extraordinary 78 years of continuous membership of his beloved Surrey CCC.”
Picture – Bernie Coleman at home in Wimbledon earlier this year, admiring a silver salva he was presented in 1986 to honour his contribution to the Test and County Cricket Board.