Paul Edwards, sunning himself in Hove, pays tribute to a writer often associated with Sussex cricket....
On the eve of the 2009 Ashes Test at Headingley I sat at the back of the famous Western Terrace with nothing but the ground itself for company. If there were security or other media folk around, I did not see them. Unencumbered by the present, I grappled happly with the past: the final day of the 1948 Test, Hedley Verity bowling in the 30s, legions of Roses matches with the place brimful of Pennine passion.
Yesterday evening the same trick worked again. The gatemen at Sussex's County Ground were quite happy to let me in and saw no need to keep an eye on my movements once they had done so. True, there was some corporate event taking place, but its attendees had no interest in me, nor I them.
Quietly I sat and imagined what it might be like tonight when there is a not a seat to be had in the place and how a raucous din will fill the air as the match itself deepens into the evening. Gradually, though, my mind wandered away from three-hour quarter-finals and back to three-day Championship cricket in years when a season consisted of 28 or 32 such games - and nothing else.
And almost inevitably, I suppose, I ended up thinking about Alan Ross. Educated at Haileybury and, for eighteen months, at St John's College, Oxford, Ross survived hazardous wartime service in the Royal Navy before becoming football correspondent of the Observer from 1950-4 and cricket correspondent from 1954-72. He wrote a number of cricket books and edited the game's most famous anthology The Cricketer's Companion. He was also editor of the London Magazine from 1961 until his death forty years later.
Alan Ross was a poet. His first volume of autobiography, Blindfold Games - there was a second, Coastwise Lights - was, he wrote, "as much as anything...an attempt to...trace the manner in which a single-minded devotion to sport developed into a passion for poetry." But no more than around 15 of his poems are about cricket. Ross seems to have employed his skills only when he truly had something to say about the game. As an illustration, consider this opening stanza from Remembering Hutton: "Leonard, I see you as by Rodin, head in hand,/Leaning on a rail. The chipped blue ocean/Repeats the colour of your eyes."
Ross's love for Sussex cricket was born when he was a schoolboy in East Grinstead and it never left him, even when a multiplicity of other interests jostled for his attention. In his autobiographies and in an anthology of his own work, Green Fading Into Blue, he writes about players like George Cox (Jr), John Langridge and, a particular hero of his adolescence, Hugh Bartlett. He also writes of Hove as follows: "The ground slopes to the sea, so that the villas lining it have a precarious air, their verandahs tilted like pitching steamers."
I am both appreciative and wary of people telling me that I "would love" a particular book or film. Likewise, I understand that people can appreciate cricket very deeply without reading a word that's been written about the game. Nevertheless, if the bailiffs arrive in Birkdale, one of the last things they'll take will be my collection of Ross's work; and if the last poem I read is J M Parks at Tunbridge Wells, I think I shall pop my clogs a happy man. Being reminded of what I owe to this deeply humane writer is one of the delights of my 36-hour visit to Hove; and being able to acknowledge my debt to Alan Ross is quietly thrilling.
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