On Top Down Under: Australia

Published: 1975
Pages: 285
Author: Robinson, Ray
Publisher: Cassell
Rating: 4.5 stars

On Top Down Under: Australia

It is commonplace now for books to have splashed across their front and/or back covers glowing words of endorsement by well known authors (usually who, coincidently I’m sure, write for the same publisher). I pay no credence to these phrases at all, however, when Don Bradman commented on the value of a book, I was intrigued. Cricket writer Ray Robinson’s most famous book, On Top Down Under, chronicles the cricketing lives of all the Australian cricket captains. Bradman was a big fan of Robinson’s work, and commented publicly that “no cricket library could be without it”; words that now appear on the jacket of the edition I own.

Ray Robinson was a Melbourne born journalist who specialized in writing about cricket. He began writing about sport in the 1920s with the Melbourne paper The Herald, and started submitting regular pieces to the English based The Cricketer magazine in 1925. Robinson was a regular contributor to The Cricketer for over fifty years. He also wrote for other newspapers including The Star, The Times of India, Sportsweek and The Daily Telegraph before his retirement from journalism in the 1970s.

Robinson was viewed by many as the preeminent cricket writer in Australia by the 1970s, and he was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowship and a grant from the Literature Board of the Council for the Arts in order to write a book about all of the Australian cricket captains. This book, titled On Top Down Under, was released to widespread acclaim in 1975. At the time of publication, it was seen as one of the best cricket books written by an Australian, and it won the English Cricket Society’s Silver Jubilee literary award in 1976.

On Top Down Under is a series of short biographies of all the Australian cricket captains, initially from the legendary Dave Gregory through to Ian Chappell. Robinson’s long history as a journalist had allowed him to establish close relationships with most of Australia’s Test cricketing family. Ian Chappell and Rod Marsh were both great fans of him, both as a person and a writer, and this admiration was certainly mirrored in the previous generations. This access allowed Robinson to interview and discuss the cricket captains both in person and with their contemporaries. However, it was Robinson?s willingness to research the very early cricket captains such as Dave Gregory and Billy Murdoch that provides the book with its most interesting sections. As an example of this, Robinson was introduced to Pearl Gregory, the daughter of Dave, by the Hon. Rae Else-Mitchell*, who was himself Dave’s grandson. This introduction provided Robinson with a lot of personal information that had not previously been disclosed to the public.

In spite of the seemingly universal admiration for the book, the first edition contained an unfortunate number of errors and mistakes. Nonetheless, Bradman was a great fan of both Robinson’s writing and this book in particular. Bradman praised Robinson by saying “my circle at least he is tops, and everyone said so, and I certainly gave him credit at every opportunity”. The recommendation and support of Australia’s most famous cricketer was certainly helpful in assisting the book to sell in excess of 17,000 hardback copies; sufficient numbers to warrant a second edition. This version allowed for the correction and modification of some of the errors that slipped through originally.

Robinson was not a wordsmith in the manner of a Cardus. However, he was a very effective and skilled writer, and his books should not be considered as lesser than other more ‘flowery’ competitors of the era. It is a different style to many of the English authors, but no less fascinating or worthy for that. Roland Perry released a book, Captain Australia, in the year 2000 which attempted to replicate the efforts of Robinson. It is only obvious to compare the two books, as they are so similar in design. It is to Robinson’s ongoing credit that his effort stands well above that of Perry’s, and is still easily the better work. Captain Australia contains no new information, and a number of obvious errors. On Top Down Under remains the definitive work on Australia’s cricket captains, and is another book I re-read on a regular basis.

I have two versions of On Top Down Under, one being the original and the second being an updated edition co-authored by Gideon Haigh. If you are searching for a copy of this book, I would recommend the revised version released in the 1990s. Not only has Haigh proofed the initial writings of Robinson for inaccuracies, he has also updated it to include captains up to the time of Mark Taylor’s leadership. Bradman?s words “no cricket library could be without it” were on the mark. A wonderful look at Australia’s cricketing leaders.

* Rae Else-Mitchell was a lovely man, and I had a number of wonderful (and long!) phone calls with him about the Gregory family. He was always willing to share his knowledge and memories, and was incredibly generous with his time. He had many stories about his childhood and his famous relatives, and was himself quite famous, serving for many years as one of Australia’s leading Supreme Court judges. Sadly, Rae passed away last year at age 91, and our last living link with Dave Gregory would appear to have gone.

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