Walter Robins: Achievements, Affections and Affronts
Author: Brian Rendell
Rating: 3.5 stars
By Martin Chandler
08 Mar 2014
I will begin this review of the 31st book in the ACS Lives in Cricket
series with a quiz, the answer to which will become apparent as you read on.
There is but a single question. The object of the exercise is to identify, from two quotes I have extracted from reviews of the book, the subject of the biography in question and its author. The first is from David Frith in Wisden Cricket Monthly
; Obviously aware of the dangers in a wartless biography, (the author) refers here and there, in the kindest possible way, to a suspicion of hypochondria about his subject. Elsewhere, it is a tale of heroic proportions.
The other is Alan Gibson in The Cricketer
; .....(the author), with a sympathy which only old friendship can produce, helps us to understand. I am not sure if there are any two living Englishman who have given more to the game.
Returning to the current review Brian Rendell has chosen Walter Robins as his subject. Robins was a leg spinner and hard-hitting batsman who played for Middlesex as an amateur for more than a quarter of a century, between 1925 and 1951. He was an inspiring and aggressive leader who skippered the county for several seasons, including the vintage summer of 1947. This was the year when Middlesex, with Denis Compton and Bill Edrich breaking batting records with gay abandon, won the County Championship. Between 1929 and 1937 Robins was capped 19 times by England, and captained his country in the three Test series against the 1937 New Zealanders.
Robins' name seldom crops up these days, which is perhaps surprising as his Test record is a decent one. His average with the bat was 26, and there was a century against the 1935 South Africans to go with four fifties, two against Australia. With the ball he took 64 wickets - not as many as England's most successful ever leg spinner, Doug Wright, who took 108, but the 27 runs each that Robins paid for his wickets was significantly less than the 39 that Wright's cost him.
In addition to his prowess on the cricket field Robins was also a very good footballer, and no slouch at many other sports. He must have thoroughly enjoyed his early adulthood. He spent three years at Cambridge University, but even in the days when examiners and tutors bent over backwards to help their sporting students he failed to graduate. Not that that troubled him unduly as he soon found work with Sir Julien Cahn, the furniture magnate who employed a number of quality cricketers within his organisation, whose main duties included regularly turning out for Sir Julien's own side, who were sufficiently important to have played a number of First Class matches through the 1930s.
There would almost certainly be greater fame for Robins if his commitments to Cahn and his family had not meant he had to turn down an invitation to take a place on the famous Bodyline
tour of 1932/33. He was a favourite of Plum Warner and, from a story Rendell tells of a Test against New Zealand in 1931, had a tendency to irreverence that antagonised Douglas Jardine. It seems unlikely anything Robins might have said or done would have deflected the single-minded Iron Duke
from his mission, but it seems equally improbable that Robins would have simply kept his head down.
This biography of Robins is not Rendell's first book. Now retired he spent his working life in publishing and education before taking up serious research into cricket's rich history after he retired. Two of his three previous books were written about the 1932/33 and 1936/37 Ashes series. They are not tour books as such, rather a look at the trips through the eyes and private correspondence of Gubby Allen, the Anglo-Australian fast bowling all-rounder who had a very good series in 1932/33, despite refusing to bowl leg theory, and who was England's captain in 1936/37.
Which neatly brings me back to the quiz. The biography concerned is Gubby Allen - Man of Cricket
. By the time the book was published in 1985 Allen was already a national treasure after a lifetime of service to the game, and EW 'Jim' Swanton's hagiography served only to cement his reputation. It is remarkable in many ways that Swanton, pretty much Allen's equivalent in the field of cricket writing, should have so lost his objectivity and left future generations with such a flawed picture of Allen.
As Rendell's previous books inform, Allen was a selfish individual and, to put it in simple terms, could be a nasty piece of work. He counted Robins as a friend, but took plenty of potshots at him in his letters home in 36/37, a trip Robins was able to make. There was probably some jealousy there, as during the tour Robins struck up what was to become a close and lifelong friendship with Don Bradman. Certainly Allen seems not to have appreciated all the support Robins gave him during that series.
Writers, like cricketers, do not all excel at the same discipline. Swanton could write a fine pen portrait, and had a deft touch when describing a day's play, but he was found wanting when called upon to write the story of a man's life, and in truth much the same applies to John Arlott. The Basingstoke Boy
's biographies of Fred Trueman and Jack Hobbs are both good reads, although not a patch on the later works of Chris Waters and Leo McKinstrey, who both demonstrate fully the biographers art. So one service that Rendell has done is to heighten the need for someone to give us a fully rounded account of Gubby's life.
It is tempting to make not dissimilar observations in respect of Rendell's work on Robins. He spoke at length to his subject's two sons, and had access to a memoir written by his wife, however I can't say that on finishing the book I really know what made Robins tick - perhaps Rendell's book might have benefitted from some input from Robins' two daughters, given that in many ways a man's daughters know him rather better than his sons, and certainly are generally much more adept at identifying and exploiting his Achilles heel.
The book is also somewhat frustrating in that it ends rather abruptly. Robins' story is an interesting one and I would have liked to have known more about the lives of his children and the paths in life they took, both before and after his death. As it is we are told relatively little of their lives, and know nothing of what became of Robins' wife after his death at the early age of 62. There is also relatively little on the family business that, with a little help from Sir Julien Cahn, seems to have thrived during Robins' time there. I do not pretend for one moment that the history of an insurance brokerage is something I would want to read about at length, but a few pages explaining what happened to the business would certainly not have gone amiss.
However I do need to bear in mind Rendell would doubtless point out to me that the series that sponsors his book is called Lives in Cricket
, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a full blown biography. That is of course correct, and the fact remains this is an exceptionally well researched book that puts plenty of flesh on the bare bones of a career in danger of being forgotten. The mere fact it has aroused my interests beyond the scope of its own subject matter must of itself reflect well on its quality, so I am happy to recommend Walter Robins
. Whilst I have it in mind I would also point readers in the direction of the other Rendell books I have mentioned; Gubby Allen - Bad Boy of Bodyline
and Gubby Under Pressure
. If you follow those with Gubby Allen - Man of Cricket
I can guarantee you will question whether Swanton is talking about the same man who wrote the letters Rendell quotes from so extensively.