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‘Sugar Ray’ – Australia’s Finest?

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When I first started reading cricket books there seemed to be one big difference between the English and Australian writers. For some reason the latter all seemed to be former players, whereas generally the former were not. Monty Noble, Jack Fingleton and Tiger O’Reilly of the old school were Test veterans, as were Richie Benaud, Keith Miller and Ashley Mallett of more recent vintage. I also knew that AG ‘Johnny’ Moyes and RS ‘Dick’ Whittington had each played plenty of First Class cricket, so I’ve always considered it understandable that for many years I laboured under the misapprehension that the Ray Robinson whose Between Wickets was one of the first books I really enjoyed, was the Ray Robinson who had appeared in one Ashes Test against Gubby Allen’s 1936/37 England tourists.

In fact he wasn’t, and there is no reference that I am aware of as to what level of cricket Robinson played and for how long, nor indeed whether he played the game at all. That said the fact that O’Reilly, who first met Robinson in 1932 when the latter was 26, was immediately impressed by Robinson’s understanding and knowledge of the techniques of the game, suggests that at some point he must have been a decent player. He was certainly never a First Class cricketer however, and as soon as he left school went straight into employment with the Melbourne Sun-Herald Group.

When he was introduced to O’Reilly Robinson had yet to become a cricket writer, and at that time simply reported on whatever his employer asked him to. His involvement in the game began when he started sub-editing the cricket reports during the Bodyline series of 1932/33. He was doing that job when the word ‘bodyline’ began to be used. The first use of the expression was by journalist Jack Worrall, who wrote of half pitched slingers on the body line. Joining the two words and using the result as a noun or adjective was something that Robinson wasn’t permitted to do when first he wanted to. As matters stand therefore the credit for the actual first use of the word goes to a staff writer at the Melbourne Herald, Hugh Buggy, and not to Robinson.

His efforts on the 1932/33 tour earned Robinson the opportunity to travel to England for the return series in 1934, and it is from then on that his writing started to appear regularly in newspapers and magazines both in England and Australia. Few books on the game, Ashes accounts apart, were published in Australia at this time and despite Robinson’s reputation growing with all that he wrote it was to be 1946 before the first of his seven books appeared.

During the war, whilst Neville Cardus was in Australia, a lasting friendship developed between him and Robinson. It is clear that to some extent Robinson was influenced by Cardus, but then all writers who followed Cardus were. In terms of style a better comparison might however be the lighter touch of ‘Crusoe’ Robertson-Glasgow. An example is Robinson’s view on Cardus, a turn of phrase that might have come from the pen of Crusoe himself; Cardus did for cricket reporting what Parker did for pens, and Heinz did for beans.

Cardus was in many ways responsible for Robinson’s first book, Between Wickets, getting published at all. Robinson sent the finished manuscript to Cardus who, deeply impressed by what he read, sent it to William Collins, the UK publisher, with his recommendation. The book duly appeared and, after Robinson had spent the summer of 1948 in England with Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’, a new and expanded edition appeared.

Between Wickets is a book of essays on the cricket and cricketers that Robinson had seen. Bradman inevitably looms large, but there are many other points of reference. A personal favourite is a chapter on the subject of Stan McCabe, the batsman above all others who clearly caught Robinson’s imagination; the sight of the ball leaving the bowler’s hand set him thinking of a stroke, not of keeping it out of his stumps. He could not play a cheap shot, even to save his wicket. He was beyond the ordinary measures of scoring, consistency and safety. Generally McCabe eschewed easy runs, but is remembered for three of the great Test match innings. Robinson went on; his big innings were masterpieces, not adapted to mass production, and were produced in response to his side’s pressing need.

The famous Bodyline controversy raised it’s head in Between Wickets as well. In some ways it is a little odd that the account published at the same time by Jack Fingleton, Cricket Crisis, is still regarded as one of the best accounts of the series. Robinson’s views are equally perceptive and just as measured yet seem rarely to be referred to. One comment in particular has always struck me as a telling one; long before he was warmly applauded for his innings of 98 in the final Test, Larwood had needed no recorder of sound waves to discover that the angry billows of noise from the crowd were directed not at him personally but at the methods used.

After Between Wickets two more similar collections of essays followed in 1951 and 1955. From the Boundary was first, followed by The Glad Season in 1955 (the title in Australia was Green Sprigs). After that Robinson published only one more book before retiring from journalism, and that one wasn’t a cricket book. The Wit of Robert Menzies was published in 1966. It is slightly odd, given the popularity of the genre at the time, that despite accompanying all of Australia’s major touring parties up to and including the 1961 Ashes series Robinson never wrote a tour account, nor even gathered together in book form his reports from one of the series he followed.

Robinson retired in 1970, and after that he published two more cricket books. The first, in 1972, was The Wildest Tests, the stories of matches characterised by trouble, either on or off the pitch. Finally in 1975 he produced his magnum opus, On Top Down Under, a collection of essays on each of Australia’s Test captains, a book he had been working on for a number of years.

The absence of the sort of volume of output that comprises many cricket writers’ oeuvres would seem to be explained simply by the fact that Robinson seems to have been able to earn a decent living from writing. In a booklet published 14 years after his death, in 1996, fellow writer Phillip Derriman recounts a story of Robinson telling him that he had made enough money from Between Wickets to buy a house. Derriman adds the somewhat wistful observation that at the time his piece was published a cricket author would do well to make enough from a book just to paint a house!

For a number years prior to his leaving the press box Robinson’s health had been somewhat fragile, but he did enjoy a twelve year retirement before departing this mortal coil after an unfortunate accident at his home in 1982. In a little over six months Australian cricket writing had lost both Robinson and Fingleton. Former Australian all-rounder Alan Davidson’s tribute to Robinson was as meaningful as any; we nicknamed him “Sugar” Ray Robinson after the best fighter in the world because we reckoned he was the best cricket writer in the world pound for pound. His books were masterpieces, the research incredible. He was not just a writer, he was a friend of cricket.

A key word from that Davidson quote is ‘friend’. No one seems to have a bad word to say about Robinson and indeed he was, unusually for a journalist, universally popular amongst the players. The Cricketer’s obituarist made the observation that Robinson was accepted in the Australian dressing room as if he were the twelfth man, and no doubt the insights he gained as a result are part of what set his writing apart. When Ronald Cardwell, a great admirer of Robinson, decided a few years ago to start publishing a journal of Australian cricket I suspect there would never have been any doubts as to the title it would bear, and through Between Wickets a modern cricket tragic is regularly reminded of the book that remains one of the very best on the subject of Australian cricket.

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