"Sussex v Lancashire, the air birded and green after rain,/ Dew on syringa and cherry."
The location is Hove, of course, but the unusual verb and the careful eye for climatic and natural detail might already have suggested to some readers that these lines are the work of Alan Ross. They come from "Cricket at Brighton", one of only nine poems Ross wrote about the game in a career which spanned well over half a century. Less than half his 40 or so books are about cricket, but there seems little doubt, in this reader's mind at least, that he is one the game's finest writers. In truth, perhaps, that balance explains the richness: Ross is a great cricket writer because he gave his attention to so many other subjects: war, India, childhood, the beguiling, inescapable thisness of human experience.
We go back to writers, not because their works have changed but because our sensibilities have. This autumn I had to re-read many of Ross's cricket books which had been reissued under the Faber Finds imprint. I found the imposition quite bearable and, incidentally, the publishers are to be congratulated on making these fine works available once again. I was struck by how new they seemed, how fresh. Ross married the poet's eye for an image with the journalist's passion for accuracy. Very few current writers on the game can equal him in this respect.
Having survived a particularly bloody war, much if it spent on the Arctic convoys, Ross probably knew he was fortunate to end up as cricket correspondent of the Observer and editor of London Magazine . (His luck did not hold in other respects: he was plagued by the black dog of depression and attempted suicide.) His journalism required him to travel abroad on long tours in an era when the England team was called MCC and in which the press could get to know the players very well during the long sea voyage to their destination. Friendships were made. It was one such trip that produced what many regard as Ross's finest book Australia 55. Indeed, John Woodcock, the quondam cricket correspondent of The Times, considers this to be the best book ever written on cricket.
Yet Australia 55 is a triumph partly because it is about so much more than cricket. Yes, there is a theme emerging here. Consider this extract:
"Australians are ascetics, however, their 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's some way removed from "good areas" and the 400-word parcelled quotes piece, isn't it?
And yet there is so much more to Ross's work than social curiosity. For example, the last stanza of "Late Gower":
Stance, posture, combine
To suggest a feline
Not cerebral intelligence. A hedonist
In his autumn, romance lightly worn,
And now first signs of tristesse,
Faint strains of a hunting horn.
My flat was more than chilly when I got in this early March evening. Yet the advance of tomorrow's dawn will proclaim the imminence of the new cricket season. Soon the hurried glory of an English spring will be upon us, all blossom and bud. Each frantic vernal fiesta invites us to jump with joy - and then check to what extent we are the people we were a bare twelve months previously. Writers can soothe this sometimes painful process, and few manage it more felicitously than Alan Ross. Read him - and then, a year or two later, read him again.
Photo of Hove (c) Rebecca Naden/PA Archive/Press Association Images
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