On Top Down Under January 26, 2008

Baggy green crowns

Ray Robinson's masterpiece on Australia's captains is among the finest of all cricket books

What's a great sport without great prose to chronicle it? To the true lover of game, part of the allure of the cricket has always been in the writing it has inspired. Cricket's pace, its long-winding nature and its intellectual dimensions have been ideal fodder for literary pursuits, and over the years, writers have not merely described the game but enriched it. To celebrate the game's rich literary heritage, we've compiled a list of essential cricket books, based on votes from a jury of some of the most respected names in cricket writing. We'll be unveiling the entries, one a week, here on Cricinfo, starting today

The greatest joy of arguably the finest of all Australian cricket books is that every page celebrates the humanity of the game. Much loved by generations of cricketers, "Robbie", as he was affectionately known, penned the most wonderful portraits of Australia's captains, from Dave Gregory ("Handsome Dave") to Ian Chappell ("The Houdini Touch"). Robinson started his life as a cricket writer with the Melbourne Star in 1930 at the age of 25 - just 11 years after the demise of Gregory, Australia's first Test captain - and wrote with distinction on the game for more than 50 years before his death aged 76 in 1982. His friendship, or acquaintanceship, with Australia's leading players and legislators over such a long period enabled him to gather the most intimate and fascinating details of Australia's captains. Furthermore, he gained the trust of family members and descendants of the players to glean material that hitherto had belonged to family archives.

Robinson is among the most evocative of writers and he unselfconsciously explored the personal and working lives of his subjects. In essence this is also a spectacularly researched cultural study providing a valuable insight into the social mores of Australian sporting society and beyond during the latter stages of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century. As Robinson says in his opening paragraph: "The human side of Australia's cricket captains is a fascinating backdrop to the better-known successes that earned them world renown. Romances, family and business interests, unknown to record-books and critics' outpourings, influence Test captains' careers." Certainly, for the first time the wives of the captains had a champion and therefore a voice.

"Robbie" never abrogated his responsibility to the tenets of his profession and he openly examined the high dramas and controversies that periodically enveloped Australia's captains. All these eminent men, famous and infamous, were brilliantly brought to life by the author. Sir Pelham Warner once said Robinson's pen pictures enabled readers to "picture players from 12,000 miles away." This is so.

In 1996, Gideon Haigh, one of Australia's finest modern writers on the game updated On Top Down Under (first published in 1975) in the style of Robinson to include Greg Chappell, Graham Yallop, Kim Hughes, Allan Border and Mark Taylor.

Robinson was the most gentle and genial of men and the warmth of his writing will always serve the great game with distinction. Little wonder Rod Marsh always had a cold beer waiting for him when he came into the Australian dressing room at the end of a day's play.

To become captain of the Australian XI has long been regarded as a pinnacle of achievement. American dollars poured into golf purses and professional tennis are enabling Australian stars at these sports to make more money but I believe the aura still surrounding the Test captaincy owes much of its origin to the skippers having been the first Australians to give Australia an identity. They developed it for 20 years before a straggling set of colonies by the South Seas took shape as an infant nation.

For good reasons the captaincy of the Australian XI gained greater prestige than eminence in any other field. In research as a senior lecturer in history at the Australian National University, William Mandle has produced a mass of facts explaining the phenomenon. Booming from the 1850s, cricket was the one game at which the colonials could match themselves against the mother country with increasing success. By playing it they could dispel fears of white men degenerating in blackfellows' country and showed they could combine in a national sporting side, if federation was a long way off. Mandle traced the progress of Australian national feelings through cricket from deferential attitudes in the 1860s to self-confident near-arrogance in the 1890s.

On Top Down Under
by Ray Robinson

Cassell, 1975

Mike Coward is a cricket writer with The Australian