One of the last great romantics
Frank Keating, one of Britain's most loved sportswriters, has died at the age of 75. He had been suffering from pneumonia and died at St Michael's Hospice in Hereford on Friday.
Few have written about cricket, or any sport, as evocatively as Keating. A gentler, more sensitive observer of the sporting scene has rarely drawn breath. At a time when judgements are so often harsh and the accent is on serious analysis of techniques and tactics, Keating's cricketing figures were essentially heroes - even when they were happily presented as flawed characters having fun, they were all the more magnificent for that.
Frank did not go in for technical analysis. At heart, he was a fan, not a critic, a jongleur of the sporting scene, as content watching a sudden Gloucestershire collapse as England pitching for the Ashes. To read Keating was to read somebody who never lost his ability to communicate the enchantment of the game, explaining either in a single phrase or a lengthy, alliterative flight of fancy just why we all spent so much of our lives watching people compete with bat and ball. He had an eye for the comic, and when riled, most often by pompous administrators, he could dip his pen in vitriol, but heroism, whether it be in a cricketer, an Olympian or a horse, was what he yearned for.
He was an unapologetic romantic, showering those he wrote about with praise and devotion and, more often than not, a rush of compound adjectives. In his hands, sentimentality or nostalgia were qualities to cherish. John Arlott wrote of him: "Frank Keating has retained into his adult writing years an almost boyish enthusiasm for sporting performance and a completely non-envious admiration for its performers… his is the blend of romanticism, relish and sheer delight."
Keating wrote about cricket regularly for the Guardian and the Observer from 1970, and those he wrote about often loved him for it. When he covered cricket most regularly, as he did as the Guardian's correspondent on England's 1981 tour of the West Indies, it was a more relaxed age and players were happy to prop up the bar with him until the early hours, swap stories, share beers and trust his humanity. He was unthreatening, sympathetic and a great raconteur, able with his presence to lift the tension, but the journalist in him made good use of the stories that he charmed from people and the moods that he discovered.
Ken Barrington, one-time England batsman, was team manager on that tour and died of a heart attack. Matthew Engel, a long-time Guardian colleague, later wrote of Frank's tribute: "He could make readers laugh; he could make them cry. Sometimes, as when he eulogised Ken Barrington from Barbados after his sudden death on tour there in 1981, he could perform both tricks simultaneously."
Frank also wrote one of the finest cricket books ever written, on that tour, Another Bloody Day in Paradise, a fond mix of cricket, travelogue, homage and beery recollections. No cricket book has ever connected so intimately with the characters of those who play the game. He captured the slightly nutty determination of Geoffrey Boycott, the Edwardian languor of David Gower, the silent strength of Peter Willey and the immense life force of Ian Botham, a particular favourite.
So many passages could be quoted, but today the last three words strike me. "Life goes on," he wrote after England's mauling in that series, and that philosophy underpinned everything he wrote.
He was born on a Herefordshire farm and his education included boarding school with Benedictine monks at Belmont Abbey nearby. There was something of the fallen priest in his strong sense of empathy with those he wrote about and his love of a tipple or two.
I remember an occasion, as a young reporter on the Yorkshire Post, when David Bairstow, a proud captain of a struggling side, was at odds with the Yorkshire press corps. Keating wandered late into Sophia Gardens, where Yorkshire were playing Glamorgan. "Bluey" spotted him and at the end of the over ran from behind the stumps and bawled: "Come and have a drink afterwards. I'm not drinking with that lot, but I'll have a drink with you." I may have embellished that a tad, but it's what Frank would have expected.
His prose could be too florid for some tastes and he was a loveable old rogue when it came to embellishments - it was often joked that in his trips down memory lane Frank had often inadvertently imagined himself at several great sporting events on the same day - but if his facts went astray at times, as he dust-dipped into his groaning shelves of sports books, he had an eye for the greater truths.
When I left the Guardian to join ESPNcricinfo at the end of 2011, he was already suffering breathing difficulties, but he penned me a note, as he did to so many, wishing me well, in his usual rush of M'Dears, M'Darlings and Much Loves. He loved everybody in his own way, did Frank; he could look at the most malevolent cricket figure who ever walked the earth, issue the criticism he roundly deserved, and then pause and say: "But I love him dearly."
I was honoured to be part of the Guardian team on four Olympics with Frank. "I'll do the horses," he would say, which decoded meant he really wanted to do the 100m final. Infamously, in Atlanta in 1996, when wandering back from the sailing with his spare clothes and a note or two jumbled up in two plastic bags, he was arrested and briefly thrown into jail for accusing a policeman of racially abusing a young black couple at a zebra crossing.
He was released just in time to watch Michael Johnson win the 200m final but had to cover it from our flat, a half-empty bottle of whisky at his side to help him recover from his ordeal. I walked in as Johnson crossed the line and Keating, with a hearty final swig to help him on his way, picked up the phone and filed an appreciation to the copy-takers without a single note. That done, exhausted, he fell instantly asleep. He took some lifting into bed that night.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo