On top of his game
Here is a little bet I set myself: I could open Ray Robinson's On Top Down Under (a collection of biographical essays on Australian Test captains) to any page at random, and find a memorable turn of phrase. So here goes.
Exhibit #1: On GHS Trott: "Harry folded his shirtsleeves as formally as banquet serviettes around elbows that knew how to bend after a hot day's play."
Exhibit #2: On W Bardsley: "He would notice which end had worst visibility, whether a sightscreen was missing, which were the farthest boundaries, and whether they were favoured by slopes, casing the joint for stealing runs."
Exhibit #3: On Arthur Morris: "Hooking to the four winds and the white pickets, Arthur's bat seemed to have no top edge."
I could go on. But I think you get the picture. As do I, as did many, many other readers of Ray's. If there was one thing that he was good at, it was to combine verbal virtuosity with a deep passion and encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. This talent is abundantly on display in his opus On Top Down Under and it has been in every book of his.
I first encountered Robinson's writing when I ran across Between Wickets, safely stashed on my cousin's bookshelves. I was too young to read it then but I looked through the photographs, made a mental note of his name, and carried on. Years later, I ran into Robinson again, reading the description of the (literally) riotous Bombay Test of 1969-70 between Bill Lawry's Australians and MAK Pataudi's Indians (excerpted from The Wildest Tests). The Test came alive to me; I could almost smell the cordite as it were.
And then, this past (southern) summer, I found him again, running across the first edition On Top Down Under on the top floor of Berkelouw's on Oxford Street in Sydney. (This version ended with a portrait of Ian Chappell; the book has subsequently been re-released with additional work by Gideon Haigh that updates the captain's list). "Score!" I went, under my breath, as I plucked it out of the shelf. Many large lattes later, (all consumed on beautiful Sydney mornings in gentrified Newtown), I had consumed the book; it went down as easy as a fine meal. My enjoyment of the book was considerably enhanced by familiarity with many of the place-names that Robinson sprinkles throughout the book; an excellent example of how the reader's background can affect his take on a book.
Writing a series of concise biographical portraits of cricketers is more difficult than it might sound, for the mastery of what to leave out and what to include is hard to come by. It's made harder because each of the cricketers in this work was the captain of the same country; how many times can you riff on the same theme?
But Robinson does it, mastering this particular challenge by dwelling on a variety of different points of contact to bring out a cricketer's character (both sporting and personal). As Robinson notes in his foreword, he wants to round out the exclusively cricketing view of the men he writes on, because, given the near-mythic status of the Test captain in Australian culture, there is no way these men can be understood as just manipulators of bat and ball. We get formative childhood moments, relationship quirks, weaknesses of character, evidence of candidacy for sainthood; it's all here.
Robinson is sometimes present himself in the book, when he recounts a conversation with one of the subjects of his prose. It is no accident that he comes across as the modest voice of wisdom in the little encounters that he describes. At those moments, we don't resent his intrusion; rather, they serve as a reminder of his place in the world of Australian cricket. It is an exalted position, one well-deserved.
Every serious cricket fan, whether Australian or not, should read On Top Down Under. You'll learn about cricket, and you'll learn how to write well.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here