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Big pictures, artfully painted

Alan Ross is often classed as a cricket belletrist - with good reason. And this book is among his finest works

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh

One of the chief regrets in my writer's life was occasioned by opening a 2001 edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly. This was the number fit to burst with obsequies for the dear departed Sir Donald Bradman. For me, however, the pang was at the far less conspicuous notification of the passing of Alan Ross.
Until that moment I had nourished the vague thought that our paths would somehow cross, or else that I'd find the nerve to write him - then would I have the opportunity, at last, to express my gratitude for the pleasure I had derived from his writings. First among these would have been Australia 55, an account of the MCC's 1954-55 Ashes triumph and a travelogue of his antipodean peregrinations, written while he was the cricket correspondent of the Observer.
Ross is sometimes categorised as a cricket belletrist, such is his erudition and elegance; indeed, he began reading modern languages at St John's College, Oxford, in 1940, as a contemporary of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin. But he lasted only a year, preferring a distinctly dangerous war in the Royal Navy. In particular, he was rescued at the Battle of the Barents Sea in December 1942 from the flooding hold of the HMS Onslow, lead destroyer in a flotilla warding off a powerful detachment of German capital ships intent on annihilating arctic convoy JW51B. Onslow's commanding officer during that engagement, Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, was awarded the Victoria Cross for coolly continuing to give orders after shrapnel had knocked an eye from his head. It was more than an airy martial allusion when Ross wrote: "A good [cricket] captain needs... to be something like a destroyer captain, a father confessor as well as an object of fear and inspiration."
Ross approached Australia with undisguised ambition. "I am as much interested in Australia as I am in cricket," he explained - noting also that "it would need be a dull fellow who was not". En route he read not Cardus but Kangaroo, the novel of Australia dashed off by DH Lawrence during a few months in the New South Wales country hamlet of Thirroul that is nonetheless one of the sharpest fictional visions of the country and its people. And when Ross came to assessing his surrounds, it was in passages of Lawrencian astringency:
[The Australian] civilisation is in its earliest adolescence, and they have the ascetic's lack of interest in, if not contempt for, the civilising indulgences: food, clothes, comfort, the appearance of things. This might argue an overworked technocratic society, with no time for the frivolities of style. On the contrary, Australians have all the time in the world: but they belong by nature, or rather accident, to an age that does not look at things, that is democratic to the extent of admiring the ordinary and fearing the excellent, for excellence, besides making demands of its own which require imagination and discipline, creates inequalities. It is not that Australians dislike inequality: despite their often reiterated belief that every man is as good as another (with which they half-wish you to quarrel), there are quite distinct social levels in every city. But they approve of the illusion of equality, which is only fair, for otherwise they are a genial race who allow themselves few deceptions.
Ross approached Australia with undisguised ambition. En route he read not Cardus but Kangaroo, the novel of Australia dashed off by DH Lawrence during a few months in New South Wales
In the main, however, the impressions were fair and fond, far and wide. He wrote prettily of the Great Barrier Reef, plausibly of surfing, appreciatively of indigenous art, amusingly of the Melbourne Club: "The Melbourne Club has a cloakroom of such delicacy that mirrors placed obliquely allow one to observe whether the various compartments, partly screened in anyway, are occupied, without need to approach and thereby risk disturbing members." He warmed to the gregariousness of Australians, while also intuiting their tendency to authoritarianism, noting the large, censorious notices at The Oasis, a swimming centre in Brisbane: "Wrestling and all forms of undue familiarity between couples are not permitted."
The cricket, too, came off rather better, I suspect, than Ross anticipated. The massive fluctuations of the series - England, overwhelmed in Brisbane, won in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to retain the Ashes - engaged his interest; his fascination with Len Hutton, a "lonely figure struck down by as many disasters as any overworked hero in Greek mythology", deepened; his excitement with the youth and élan of Frank Tyson, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey grew by the day. "May is a player of the Renaissance, lean, hungry, adventurous," Ross decided. "Cowdrey is a Georgian, discreet, handsome, and of substance."
A capable enough medium-pacer himself to have once opened the bowling with Alec Bedser, Ross' technical assessments of players were always better than mere impressionism, his word pictures hard to fault. Two batsmen uneasily not out at tea were "poised as precariously as curates on a dowager's Regency chairs"; a pair scampering smart singles exhibited "the effrontery of urchins outwitting an old, blindfolded aunt". No passage better conveyed Tom Graveney's mixture of fluency and frailty than this: "A player of yacht-like character, beautiful in calm seas yet at the mercy of every change of weather. There are no obvious faults in construction but the barometer has only to fall away a point or two from fair for way to be completely lost and the boat broached to, if not turned for harbour.'
For some years I was without a copy of Australia 55 - vexingly so, for I had lent it to someone, to this day I know not whom. One year when I was asked by a newspaper which book I would most like for Christmas, I replied: "I would like my copy of Australia 55 back!" Not even that did the trick, and I finally replaced it - the book is mentally marked "never to be lent again". I have a large enough stock of regret about my admiration for Alan Ross without wishing to add to it.
Australia 55
by Alan Ross
Michael Joseph, 1955

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer