OBITUARY: Robin Jackman & Gordon Forbes — the spirit of the game
Cricket commentator Robin Jackman and tennis player Gordon Forbes both mastered the art of sharing their sports’ inner workings with their audience. The sporting world is the emptier for their loss
Last April, as we were all beginning to adjust to the hard lockdown, I had occasion to speak to former SuperSport cricket commentator Robin Jackman, who died in Cape Town on Christmas Day.
I was writing a feature for an English cricket magazine on the 1980 English county season, in which Jackman had taken an incredible 125 wickets for Surrey, and I wanted to press him on a few things.
The idea was to get him, Vintcent van der Bijl and Peter Kirsten around a table together. All then lived in Cape Town and all three had had stellar seasons for their respective counties 40 years before. Kirsten had scored nearly 2,000 runs for Derbyshire while "Big Vince" had taken 85 championship wickets for Middlesex, helping the side to the County Championship. I wanted them to come together, spar and swap memories, and then I intended to write about what I found.
Alas, Jackman, though keen on the project, demurred on his doctor’s advice. He wasn’t well and didn’t want to take any undue risks.
I was disappointed but understood his need for caution. Instead, I interviewed them all separately and wove their stories together. I was pleased with the result, but still regret that I wasn’t able to watch their cut and thrust at close quarters.
The summer of 1980 was a bittersweet one for Jackman. He was in his mid-30s by then, a Surrey man through and through, and had spent long seasons grooving a solid, repeatable bowling action. He was helped, he emphasised, by the arrival shortly before at the Oval of Sylvester Clarke, he of the barrel-chested action and almost lazy amble to the crease. The two were inseparable. Between them they pocketed nearly 200 County Championship wickets.
Though Surrey were beaten to the championship by the Middlesex of Mike Brearley and Van der Bijl, these were happy days.
On the basis of his ability to take wickets with his eyes virtually closed, Jackman was chosen as part of the England 12 for the Centenary Test against Australia at Lord’s. He arrived at the team hotel, as per instruction, on the Wednesday night, but on the morning of the game, having changed into his kit, he thought he had better approach England skipper Ian Botham and ask what was what.
"Oh, sorry, Jackers," replied Botham, a little too casually for Jackman’s liking. "You’ll be carrying drinks."
The following year England toured the Caribbean. Bob Willis was chosen but was injured early on in the tour. Jackman flew out as replacement.
The second Test was at the Bourda, in Georgetown, Guyana, and Jackman was picked. Problem: Jackman had played cricket across many English winters in Southern Africa, turning out for either Western Province or Rhodesia in the Currie Cup. The Guyanese refused to issue him with a visa because of this apartheid connection: SA was under fire internationally for its oppressive regime, and much of the Caribbean prided itself on taking a strong stand on the matter.
The second Test was abandoned and, for a couple of days, the tour hung in the balance.
At Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, Jackman took his chance in the third Test, making his debut aged 35 and taking three for 65 in removing Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Clive Lloyd. He followed it up with two more second-innings wickets, but that wasn’t enough. England were blown away by the pace barrage of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner, all out for 122 and 224.
Jackman’s Surrey teammate, Clarke, couldn’t even make the Windies side.
Fast bowlers all have personas, and Jackman’s projected the fact that he thought of himself rather highly. I can vouch for this because as a schoolboy in grey woollen shorts — can you imagine — I watched him many a time appealing for leg-before decisions against sundry Cooks and Fotheringhams of the Transvaal at the Wanderers.
Forceful it was, but a Jackman appeal was no thing of beauty, let me add. In those days the main Wanderers grandstand was housed under a protruding wedge of corrugated iron on the Corlett Drive side of the ground; Jackman would thunder a delivery into the pads and go down on his haunches, his right arm outstretched as he implored the cricket gods. His deep-throated appeal lodged with the pigeons in the eaves of the grandstand roof. Even the hair in commentator Charles Fortune’s famously bushy eyebrows bristled where he sat in the commentary box.
In contrast, tennis player Gordon Forbes, who also died in December, made an entire post-tennis career out of regretting the fact that he didn’t think of himself highly enough.
After his twirls on the European circuit in the 1950s and 1960s were over, Forbes wrote a much lauded book, A Handful of Summers, about his adventures.
Forbes was a fine tennis player but never a star, and he used the knowledge that he was indisputably the former and never the latter to suffuse his literary opus with pathos.
A casual reading of the book (reprinted many times) tells you that it is all about fun, travel and the discovery of beautiful European cities, combined with the ancient jousting and comic turns of the mating game.
This much is true, but only up to a point. A Handful of Summers is really about regret. It is about the realisation by Forbes — nicknamed Forbsie by his fellow tennis travellers — that he was never single-minded enough as a tennis player; he was never brazen enough, never focused enough.
At one point in the book, coming as close to self-criticism as his mild temperament allowed, he says he was too careful. Becoming great has an element of carelessness about it, says Forbes.
This is the carelessness of wagering everything on tiny odds and serving-and-volleying your way past your doubts.
Forbes was careful in all things, on the court, as in the bedroom. Indeed, he cared a little too much for his carefulness, which probably accounted for why he was so attracted to fellow doubles partner and compadré Abe Segal — an individual whose carelessness is legendary.
Segal was all that Forbsie was not. He was an action man, getting things done. He was of the warm-hearted, leap-before-you-look variety. The two made a fine pair.
In one respect, carefulness served — ahem — Forbes extremely well. Writers can’t be imprecise about the words they use, and Forbes, despite giving the impression of stringing his sentences casually together, was fastidious, as one needs to be if one wants to write well.
He was also rather good, as the following quote about Australian player Rex Hartwig demonstrates: "His game ran around him like a covey of quail escaped from a basket. Darting and beautiful — but impossible to get together."
Imprecision is all the rage at the moment; this is particularly clear if you’ve spent some time over the holidays listening to the SuperSport commentary team for the recently completed Test series against Sri Lanka.
Clichés abound, the most insidious of them being favoured by SuperSport commentator and ex-Protea JP Duminy. "Such-and-such has been asking good questions," Duminy reminds us all too frequently, never stopping to ask himself what these questions are and why they might be good ones.
After a Jackman appeal even the hair in commentator Charles Fortune’s famously bushy eyebrows bristled where he sat in the commentary box
If Duminy doesn’t know or is incapable of telling us, he is obliged to assume, then neither do we.
Commentary is there to help us along, to illuminate. With Duminy, all is consuming darkness.
As a commentator, Jackers would never have stooped to such lows. He saw his preferred sport from the inside without ever scaling its highest peaks, and this made him, like Forbes, knowledgeable about the sport’s inner workings — but also compassionate and full of empathy about its near-misses.
Most of all, Jackman had the knack of taking viewers into the heart of the game. I remember him once asking himself (and us, of course) what such-and-such was thinking about at one point in a Test match. What was such-and-such hoping for, trying to achieve; how was his mind whirring?
Unlike Duminy’s nonquestions, these were important considerations, taking us deep into cricket’s inner recesses.
In a thoroughly unflashy way, Jackman was a master, while Forbes wrote a book of charm and resonance, the like of which will not be equalled in a hurry. The wide world of sport is diminished for their absence.
Robin Jackman (August 13 1945-December 25 2020)
Gordon Forbes (February 21 1934-December 9 2020)
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