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Ray Robinson — The man who changed the face of Australian cricket writing

Ray Robinson. Photo Courtesy: betweenwickets.com
Ray Robinson. Photo Courtesy: betweenwickets.com

Ray Robinson, born July 8, 1905, was the greatest Australian cricket writer during his long career from the 1920s to 1970s. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and works of the man who penned the celebrated books ‘Between Wickets’ and ‘On Top Down Under’.

The best from Australia… and beyond

“He has a secret of giving so accurate a description of a player’s methods and mannerisms that one can, in imagination, see him even at a distance of 13,000 miles, without a televiser,” wrote Plum Warner in the foreword to Ray Robinson’s celebrated book Between Wickets.

The doyen of cricket writers, Neville Cardus, himself encouraged Robinson to finish this work and recommended the manuscript to his English publisher William Collins and Sons. About the book Cardus wrote, “It would be no great praise to describe this book… as the best on cricket written by an Australian so far.”

Between Wickets, published in 1946, went on to sell 50,000 copies in England and Australia. Robinson invested the proceeds to buy a house at North bridge and named it — what else, but —‘Between Wickets’. And after setting up his new home, he continued writing works such as From the Boundary and Green Sprigs.

By the end of his career, he had also completed The Wildest Tests and the seminal On Top Down Under. When the last named, a study of the Australian cricket captains, was published in 1975, Don Bradman noted “no cricket library could be complete without it”. The latest edition of the book has been updated to include the skippers who have led the Southern cricketing country until 1997 — Robinson’s work continued by the great Australian cricket writer of modern times, Gideon Haigh.

Cardus indeed played a major role in shaping the career of Robinson. As mentioned, he was a constant source of encouragement. Robinson also read the works of this great Manchester-based writer, as well as the pieces of RC Robertson-Glasgow, and ended up idolising both.

Later Cardus was indeed lavish in his praise for Robinson. But perhaps he chose his words with a hint of condescension, anointing Robinson as reaching the pinnacle of cricket writing in Australia — suggesting that for all his antipodean flair he had not really done enough to merit a place among the best scribblers of the old country.

It is interesting to note this in tandem with Warner’s words: “He has a secret of giving so accurate a description of a player’s methods and mannerisms.” Ray Robinson was always the archetypal Australian, rooted to the ground and realistic. His analysis and descriptions were always apt, accurate and factual. In that way he was often diametrically distinct from Cardus whose legendary ditties often sacrificed truth on the altar of romanticism, poetic license, wordplay and not a little hero-worship. From this specific point of view, Robinson’s works were beyond being the best in Australia. They carved a unique niche in the annals of sports literature anywhere. Besides, for all the accuracy, the writings did not really lack literary value.

Between Wickets, Bradman and Sutcliffe

Between Wickets itself provides some defining examples. Not only is it extremely readable and sprinkled with just the right amount of wit, it contains some views and stories full of surprises and gutsy analysis.

In the second chapter, titled ‘Key to a Riddle’, Robinson starts by writing, “The greatest Bradman paradox is that the man who customarily bats surpassingly well should sometimes bat so poorly. Those inglorious moments, infrequent among his hours of triumph, have mostly been when rain incited the turf to revolt against the groundsman’s discipline, enabling the quick ball to rear from an awkward length or the spinning ball to cock up as well as screw across.” What follows is a thorough technical analysis of Bradman’s poor performances on sticky wickets, excellently backed up by statistics.

Given that the publication date was 1946, we realise that Bradman was still an active player and the greatest name in Australia. To engage in such an analysis demonstrates Robinson as both industrious and fearless — not prone to outpourings of poetic eulogies towards the greatest batsman of the world, a pitfall Cardus did not have any inclination of avoiding during his long writing career.

At the same time, Robinson’s very justification of putting the legend’s one and only negative aspect under the microscope was poetic in itself— “To understand him properly, you have to get down from the peaks to the lower levels of his career. Chief result of this mountaineering is to heighten the wonder of his deeds and to discover that he is an even more remarkable batsman than is commonly thought. It has given me a firmer-based esteem for his qualities than could be built on a foundation of blind hero-worship or local patriotism.” Not only are the words excellently crafted, the extract is a lesson for all the cricket chroniclers of the current day. It also shows Robinson was far ahead of his times as a writer.

To put the above statement in perspective, let us consider the current day scenario. Bradman’s sticky wicket record did not really undergo too much of an improvement in the final couple of years of his career. Some 64 years down the line this columnist had attempted to put the updated analysis in front of the readers. Among the many reactions to the article were disgruntled messages from Australian fans that branded the piece ‘disrespectful.’ In retrospect, for an Australian writer to have made a thorough and honest analysis during the great man’s playing days was full of integrity and commendable.

When it came out in 1946, Between Wickets catered to several such glaring gaps in cricket journalism which had existed in spite of redoubtable writers like Cardus and the others. One such piece was the brilliant analysis of Herbert Sutcliffe in the piece titled ‘Dog-fighter’.

It is interesting to note that unlike the Australian greats Bradman and Bill O’Reilly, who are thoroughly covered in the essays, Sutcliffe was very much an Englishman. Yet, even though there were reams written on his famed opening partner Jack Hobbs, the man from Yorkshire had been harshly neglected by English cricket writers.

Cardus wrote flourishing pieces on Hobbs, covering his movements at the wicket, in the nets and countless appreciations. However, Sutcliffe, who ended with an average superior to Hobbs, batted with an angled bat and seldom played in the region between point and mid-on — the strokes of grace and grandeur that elevated cricket to visual delight and stimulated poetic paeans. Hence, in all Cardus chronicles we find just a solitary page on this great Yorkshireman, penned almost as an afterthought. Robinson’s piece on Sutcliffe stretches across 10 pages and gives a superb description of the man and his methods.

The article spoke much more about the great batsman than any of the writers from England had ever done before Alan Hill penned the much required biography in 1991. Robinson underlined technical peculiarities that might have been lost to the subsequent generations through fading memories and snowballing verbal recollections.

Robinson the Australian fully understood the worth of this supremely effective batsman, and was appreciative of his adhesive qualities as much as his English colleagues had been of the brilliance of the drives and pulls of Hobbs. And he was fully aware that not much had been written about Sutcliffe, as is borne out by this paragraph: “Word went around once that Sutcliffe felt rather slighted because writers about batting style were always lauding [Frank] Woolley and Hobbs but never gave him a mention. Sutcliffe had a style all his own and was proud of it, as… he was entitled to be. If the thought of adopting anyone else’s methods had occurred to him, he surely would have regarded it as a backward step. No batting plagiarism for him.”

Additionally in Between Wickets, some of the descriptions of the battle of wits between O’Reilly and Wally Hammond have gone on to become classics of cricket literature. Such battles were seldom depicted with allegorical parallels of colossal knight and dragon affairs or showdowns between mythical heroes as indulged in by some of the more romantic writers of the game. They remained steadfastly on the 22-yards on which the action took place, the words spent judiciously in depicting the battle between the willow and leather rather than metaphorical clash of swords. Strangely, in spite of being rooted to reality, the descriptions were seldom poorer in terms of literary content.

The journalist

Raymond John Robinson was born on July 8, 1905 at Brighton, Victoria. Father John Robinson earned his livelihood as a butcher. Eldest of three brothers, Robinson was educated locally.

Aspiring to be a cartoonist, Robinson joined Melbourne Punch as an office boy at the age of 15. Later, he moved to Melbourne Herald, starting out as a telephone operator. His uncle ErnBallie was the chief-of-staff at the Herald, and with time Robinson became a sub-editor.

An enthusiastic cricketer for the local teams, Robinson read the English magazine Cricketer voraciously in his youth. However, he was disappointed by the scant coverage of Australian cricket in the magazine. He wrote to the editor of the publication to lodge a complaint. In response he received an invitation from the editor to do a better job of reporting the game in Australia. Thus began Robinson’s association with the magazine and he remained the Cricketer’s Australian correspondent for 55 years.

Robinson was the sub-editor at Herald in December 1932 when Jack Worrall’s description of the bowling of England’s Bill Voce intrigued him —“half-pitched slingers on the body-line”. Robinson is supposed to have coined ‘body-line’ as an adjective and ‘bodyline’ as a noun. The word was subsequently brought into common usage by his Herald colleague Hugh Buggy.

In September 1933, Robinson was appointed cricket writer with the Star. When the Australian cricket team under Bill Woodfull toured England in 1934, he worked for the Australian Press Association in London.It was in England that he read the works of Cardus and Robertson-Glasgow.

In 1939, Sir Frank Packer, father of the famed media baron Kerry Packer, invited Robinson to join the staff of The Daily Telegraph. He accepted and relocated to Sydney.

During World War Two, Cardus lived in Sydney, working as a music critic for Sydney Morning Herald. Robinson worked as the foreign editor of the Sunday Telegraph. The two men met often and Cardus provided the younger man with plenty of encouragement to finish the manuscript of Between Wickets. As mentioned earlier, it was published in 1946 by William Collins and Sons and proved to be hugely successful.

After the War, Robinson served as chief sub-editor at the Sunday Sun and Guardian in Sydney. He later joined the Sydney Morning Herald. During the summers, however, he was thoroughly engaged as a cricket writer, and also accompanied the Australian team on their overseas tours. He visited England in 1948, 1953, 1956 and 1961. Besides, he went to cover the South African tour in 1957–58 and travelled to the West Indies in 1954–55. He also visited India and Pakistan several times, writing for the Times of India and Sportsweek.

During his days as a journalist, Robinson, unusually for a man of his profession, enjoyed the complete trust of players. According to Bradman, “Ray lived as he wrote, honestly, modestly, sincerely and always respected a confidence”.

Stepping away from cricket, in 1966 Robinson compiled a charming and delightful book documenting the witticisms of the long serving Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies. The statesman was a fervent follower of the game who made it a point to watch Test matches and host the Australian cricketers and perhaps Robinson did not have to step too far from the game to get the material for the book. The Wit of Sir Robert Menzies resulted in a collection of superbly chosen words of the cricket-loving politician, and sparkles with wisdom and humour in every page.

Blindness and magnum opus

That same year, in 1966, Robinson was diagnosed with detached retinas. The required treatment necessitated travel to Boston, Massachusetts. The New South Wales Cricket Association loaned him the passage money.

The operation was not entirely successful. He lost sight in his right eye, and also had to undergo further surgery for twisting of the bowel. The blood transfusions were costly and the Australian journalists in the USA contributed several pints of blood to offset the charges. For the rest of his life, Robinson’s diet was restricted to eggs, baby food and fruit juice.

While still in hospital in 1970, Robinson retired from fulltime journalism. Simultaneously, he was inspired by the idea of a new book – describing a dozen Test matches that had been disrupted by unruly crowd violence. The Wildest Tests was published in 1972. Robinson courted minor controversy with this work. Having been wrongly informed by a fellow journalist, he misquoted a proverb while writing about a riot filled Test at Eden Gardens: “If a Bengali and a Cobra confront one on the road, one should kill the more dangerous one first — the Bengali.” The original proverb is attributed to a different community. And coming from a renowned author, this did ruffle a few feathers. If the faux pas had been made in the modern day with the extreme media focus on cricket, the resulting outrage might have reached serious proportions. However, we must understand it was an honest mistake.

Soon after this, Robinson was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship and a modest grant from the Literature Board of the Council for the Arts. This enabled him to begin work on his magnum opus, the work on Australia’s cricket captains from their earliest days in Test cricket. On Top Down Under was released in 1975 and won the English Cricket Society’s literary award for 1976.

Like all his books, On Top Down Under was remarkable for itsamazing accuracy and painstakingly crafted phrases.  Bradman made the purple patches of others ‘look like washed-out lilac’. Bob Simpson had ‘a mind no easier to change than a £100 note’. Richie Benaud had ‘the faculty of making snap decisions that did not snap back’. The volume was a delight and still considered the defining reference on Australian captains.

By the late 1970s, Robinson was legally blind but he continued to write till the very end of his life. He passed away on July 6, 1982 at St Leonard’s, Sydney. His final article for the Cricketer was published alongside a notice informing about his death.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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