Alan Ross – Cricketer, Poet, Journalist, Publisher and AuthorMartin Chandler |
There have always been cricket writers who played the game at the highest level, and some of them proved to be equally outstanding with a pen in their hand. Richie Benaud and Michael Atherton are two obvious examples, but there are many more. In this day and age most sports journalists and authors who did not play professionally have studied journalism in institutes of higher education. And then the internet has brought with it a whole new school of writers, those of us who can see that the living that can be made from writing about sport is too elusive, or insufficiently regular or substantial. We therefore stick at other professions and freely give our thoughts to the world, motivated to do so by a combination of pleasure of writing and, of course, a degree of vanity.
However it hasn’t always been so, and in days gone by many writers came from more varied backgrounds and Alan Ross, one of my personal favourites, is one such. The cricketing bibliography of Ross is fairly brief, but he is responsible for some of the finest examples of the forgotten genre that is the old-fashioned tour account. In addition he wrote one biography, and also edited a famous anthology of the work of his old friend, Raymond Robertson-Glasgow, Crusoe on Cricket. There were also, over the years, travel books, volumes of poetry and autobiographies.
A few pieces in an anthology of his own work apart I have only ever read Ross’s cricketing output. Maybe one day I will look at some of his other work, but his cricket writing alone represents an impressive oeuvre. The classic tour accounts are Australia ’55, Cape Summer, Through the Caribbean, Australia ’63 and The West Indies at Lord’s, although it should be added that in a series of books through the 1980s Ross added a commentary to publications designed to showcase the photographic skills of Patrick Eagar.
The story of Alan Ross began in India in 1922. He was born in Calcutta, as it then was, to a father who had emigrated from Clydeside and a mother from a family who had been in India for several generations. They must have been an important family as one of his mother’s forebears had been Governor of the Punjab. One of Ross’s obituarists made the interesting observation that by the 1920s the exotic ancestry had slithered into general extravagance and decline, manifested in drink, good living, Afghan horse dealing and women. Ross himself wrote in later life that I inherited from my father a love of racehorses, cigars and whisky.
India introduced Ross to cricket but although he, apparently, spoke fluent Hindi as a child he seems not to have returned to the country for any length of time after the age of seven, at which point he was sent to England to be educated. Initially he was based in Cornwall during school holidays, but latterly in Sussex where he spent much time at the County Ground in Hove developing a lifelong attachment to the county, who he once described as a raffish club always, in keeping with Regency Brighton, often in the dumps, but sometimes a shooting star.
After leaving school Ross went up to Oxford to study modern languages. He only stayed a year before joining the Royal Navy. It seems Ross was not enthused by the world of academia and the year he did spend in Oxford was largely consumed with pursuing outside interests, including earning blues for cricket and squash. The significance of that of course is that it demonstrates Ross was a decent cricketer, and had it not been war time he would certainly have been a First Class one.
The exigencies of the conflict meant that the Varsity Match in 1941, played as always at Lord’s, was a one day affair, and with a duck from number nine and no wickets in his five overs Ross did not leave his mark on the famous fixture. He was a seam bowler, from what I have read more Alec Bedser than Frank Tyson in pace and, by all accounts, not a keen fielder. Despite that failure in his one major fixture Ross clearly had some ability with the bat as in a match a month before his Lord’s appearance, when representing Northamptonshire against Leicestershire, he had opened the batting and, with 19, been joint top scorer in a disappointing all out total of 57. Leicestershire passed that total with their openers still at the crease and therefore won by ten wickets, but they carried on batting to entertain the crowd. The top class New Zealander Stewie Dempster passed his century, but did eventually become Ross’s only victim with the ball.
War was to prove one of the themes that was frequently chosen for Ross’s poetry. He spent much of his time in the services in one of the grimmer and least glamorous theatres of the conflict, protecting the North Atlantic convoys. Ross’s experiences in the Navy inspired a considerable part of the body of poetry for which, the more so than his cricket writing, he was to become known by many.
Once peace returned Ross married Jennifer Fry, a member of the family who owned the eponymous chocolatiers. In the years that followed Ross had cause to be grateful to his wife’s means, something that allowed him to take over The London Magazine, which he edited from 1961 until his death in 2001. The Ross/Fry marriage was a long one although eventually, in 1978, the couple separated and later divorced.
Ross was soon appointed to the staff of The Observer. Initially he was a soccer writer, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. That position lasted until 1953 when, on the retirement of Robertson-Glasgow he became the paper’s cricket correspondent, a position he held for two decades.
The London Magazine is still with us. It is a literary review that can trace its origins back to 1732. Under Ross’s control it shortened its name to London Magazine and broadened its base to cover the arts more generally. Books were published as well and, just once as far as I can see, a cricket title was amongst them. The book was a biography of a great Sussex bowler by a great Sussex enthusiast, Maurice Tate by Gerald Brodribb.
In time, in 1983, Ross himself wrote a biography. Again the subject was a Sussex great, Ranji. It is a fine book, by a distance the second best biography of the Jam Sahib that has been written. The romantic in me would like to say it is the best, but the reality is that Simon Wilde’s 1991 book Ranji: A Genius Rich and Strange, shades it for that particular accolade.
One factor in Ross’s appeal is the welcome absence of any of the sort of the ‘it was better in my day’ type of writing that has a tendency to bedevil many writers of every generation as they pass middle age. This is demonstrated by Ross’s own summary of his craft; the challenge for a writer is to convey the music of the game, a sweetly-timed cover drive by David Gower, or a long defence-splitting pass by Glenn Hoddle, without neglecting its nuts and bolts. One might reasonably have expected Ross’s classic examples to be men like Len Hutton, Stanley Matthews or Danny Blanchflower, rather than the likes of Gower and Hoddle.
Hutton was amongst Ross’s great favourites as, from rather different backgrounds, were Peter May and Colin Cowdrey. Ross was from a generation who enjoyed cavalier cricket, but still revered the dogged struggles that Test cricket provided; In the whole picture the defiance of a Trevor Bailey is often as important as the heroics of an Ian Botham, that wholly adventurous superstar, half charlatan, half avenging angel, who hit sixes with glorious abandon, took wickets with the most harmless seeming of deliveries, and who proved, ultimately, endearingly vulnerable.
Foremost amongst Ross’s other qualities was how sharp his observation was. In South Africa in 1956/57, one of the tours he covered for The Observer, Ross witnessed the international swansong of Denis Compton, for many the most gifted English batsman of his generation. Ross had seen Compton at his unorthodox best on many occasions, and his description of the 1956/57 edition facing Hugh Tayfield is a haunting one; tied to his crease like a dog in a kennel by mercilessly accurate off spin, I could sense the mind straining to escape but the legs were moored.
I shall end with what is certainly one of my favourite pieces of Ross’s writing, the more impressive because he was already 75 when he wrote it. In his description of West Indian Curtley Ambrose he demonstrates once more that he is not a writer to pass judgment on a man on the strength of the era in which he played; he begins his run, high stepping like a show pony, arms and legs struggling for priority. Mouth like a slice of cut papaya, teeth like a keyboard, he glares down the pitch as if sighting Van Diemen’s land from the bridge of a frigate. His gaze goes far beyond the batsman, a treasure to be located on a tropical isle, if only he can find it.
Cricket Books of Alan Ross
Australia 55 (A v E 1954/55)
Cape Summer and the Australians in England (E v A 1956 and SA v E 1956/57)
Through the Caribbean (WI v E 1959/60)
Australia ’63 (A v E 1962/63)
The West Indies at Lords (E v WI 1963)
With Patrick Eagar
A Summer to Remember (E v A 81)
Summer of the All-rounder (E v P and E v I 82)
Summer of Speed (A v E 82/83)
Kiwis and Indians (E v NZ and 1983 World Cup)
An Australian Summer (E v A 85)
Summer of Suspense (E v NZ and E v I 86)
West Indian Summer (E v WI 88)
Tour of Tours (E v A 89)
Cricketer’s Companion (an anthology that went through a number of editions and publishers)
Crusoe on Cricket (an anthology of Robertson-Glasgow)
Green Fading Into Blue (an anthology of Ross’s own work)