Tributes January 27, 2013

Soul Man

Obituaries are hopelessly inadequate in a way. Frank Keating will never know what I owe him. I never got to know him well enough to tell him, but when I heard about his death on Friday evening it felt personal

Obituaries are hopelessly inadequate in a way. Frank Keating will never know what I owe him. I never got to know him well enough to tell him, but when I heard about his death on Friday evening it felt personal. I have loved cricket ever since I became old enough to appreciate a sport but Keating was one of the people who drew me into the world of cricket writing.

It is now hard to imagine a life without the internet and I can't now recall where and when I first encountered Keating, but I remember how eagerly I lunged for the Guardian every time the bundle of international newspapers arrived on the news desk at my first job. Sometimes the papers came a few days later, and sometimes it went straight to the editor's desk, but when Tests were on in the English summer and I couldn't lay my hands on the Guardian at work, I would walk a few blocks to the British Council Library to read Keating. That also got me reading other sections of the newspaper and I have been a Guardian man ever since.

I have had my share of reading on cricket since, but the early memories are the most poignant and I remember Keating not for his insights into the game but for capturing its soul. There were writers who gave you a better understanding of technique and there were others who had a keener eye for detail but to Keating the characters mattered more.

He stayed away from the mechanics, and infused his writing with flesh and blood. Some painted better imagery of the action, but Keating's writing conveyed a feeling, it had warmth and affection that every cricket fan could relate to. Someone like Jack Fingleton helped you comprehend the game better but Keating, he made you fall in love with it. His world was full of heroes, and he was a hero to me.

I didn't quite become a cricket writer but, years later, I did become a cricket editor, and more than the proximity to cricketers, the greater thrill was to gain access to the writers I had admired. To be able to commission Keating was a privilege.

My first mail to him was not as much a commission as it was fan mail and I dreaded I had blown it when he didn't reply for a few days. But it was a merely a case of him not being computer-friendly, for which he apologised. And he turned in the piece - memories of India's tours of England - on time, beautifully crafted, and with the kind of nostalgia and romance that could be expected of him.

I met him only once, and it was a treasured moment. I have known writers who are the exact opposite of how they come across in their writings: liberal and earnest in print and cold and conceited in life. But Keating was exactly how I had imagined him to be: warm, open, jolly, and utterly endearing. He seemed genuinely interested in knowing me: he enquired about India, my job and my family. I told him I wanted him to autograph a copy of Another Bloody Day in Paradise when we met next, but we never did.

Last night I reread his paean to Tom Graveney that he wrote for our "My Favourite Cricketer" series. It was quintessential Keating, hero worship was his territory. The piece ended with these words: "Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory." Frank, ditto for you.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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