To be perfectly Frank, I'm sucking lemons

22:11, Feb 05 2013

A lovely man called Frank Keating died last week. Lovely seems the right word. Because, m'dears, Frank loved life, people and sport, in no particular order.

When I was a small boy, sometime in the Edwardian era, my father took me to watch a cricket match in Somerset. For some reason lost in time the match went on a day longer than expected and my dad had to stay on to work. And so Frank Keating, Guardian columnist, volunteered to take this star-struck boy back on the train to Paddington.

In my mind it was a steam train, but that could just have been Frank's pipe. He filled my head with stories and wonder. Frank probably told me about Harold Gimblett's first game for Somerset at Frome in 1955, immortalised in the article All he missed was the bus from Bicknoller.

He might have asked me if I collected autographs. Triumphantly I revealed the inky scrawl of David Hughes, the man who arrived at the crease at 8.45pm and hit 24 runs in almost complete darkness to win Lanky, Lanky, Lanky, Lanky, Lan-ca-shire a Gillette Cup semifinal. That was the Big Bash back in the seventies and in my mind the BBC delayed the 9 o'clock news for the finish. Maybe they really did.

Frank smiled and leaned over confidentially. He used to collect autographs, too. One morning at school he found an envelope from Lancs Cricket Club in a friend's desk and borrowed it. But as fate would have it the Benedictine monks decided to search the school and Frank did the "only thing a hoodlum could do". He ate the letter.

And so "I am the only man I know to have actually eaten the signature of Ken Cranston (Lancs and England)".

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In what seemed like five minutes we were back in London. My mum was waiting for me at the barrier, but I don't think I was back in the real world. Frank's was the real world.

We loved Kenya at the Wellington Sevens when the team danced for joy after beating mighty New Zealand in the semifinal. And we loved Kenya when the whole team stood together in interview after losing to triumphalist England in the final. That was Frank's world.

I am a big fan of Gordon Tietjens. The man has done mighty things for New Zealand rugby. But just one thing, Gordon. You don't always have to look as if you are sucking on a lemon. It should be beer and baubles.

Dear old Frank used to call the grand, gleaming plate held aloft by the ladies Wimbledon champion "the golden biscuit".

Its real name, the Venus Rosewater bowl, seemed just a bit pompous and daft. But the golden biscuit is the sort of prize you might go in search of as a kid. When Gordon thinks ahead to the Olympics, maybe he could see a golden lemon and smile, just a little bit. Never mind if it doesn't feel natural.

Phil Mickelson won again at the weekend. It was something called the Phoenix Waste Management Open. And the Mickelodeon walked up the 18th hole smiling and nodding and giving the thumbs-up to the crowd.

"Fake Phil" some of his fellow pros used to call him. But they are wrong. Of course Mickelson doesn't always feel like smiling at the crowd. Yet he makes the effort. Because Phil, even if he does sometimes make daft statements about tax, has always known that sport is about entertainment - or having a "bunch of funzies" as he once, gruesomely, said.

I think Frank would like the notorious 16th hole at Phoenix where the crowd barracks the players and goes nuts.

Padraig Harrington came to the tee the other day and kicked an American football into the stands.

The kicker for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, Jay Feely - Frank would probably spin an elaborate yarn to call him "Touchy" Feely - so enjoyed watching the shenanigans on TV that he took his boy along the next day.

If Frank had ever gone, he might have turned up and sat in the empty stands at dawn, watching the wondrous sunrise creep over the Arizona mountains and hearing the hum of the crowds in his head, thinking of what had been and might be again.

That was part of the trip for Frank. He wrote of an early morning visit to the Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain, "I get a buzz out of empty, early morning sports fields: I can sit there, all alone with history, and contemplate the deeds that were done when the sun was high in the sky and the crowd was high on the rum and fun and tension.

"I love being alone at an empty Lord's, or at Wembley, or at Wimbledon, or on the Hill in Sydney. Once in America I crept at the crack of dawn under the ropes and into a boxing ring where, later that night, there would be a bloody world championship fight. It was an eerie feeling..."

Frank was full of feeling. So when I go and play footie in the Wanganui Masters this weekend, I will try to remember Frank's wonder at receiving a football one Christmas and subsequent homage to "the leather, sphere, orange, orb, globe, pill, pigskin, bladder, 'thing', cherry, turnip, crimson rambler, fuzz, pea, pellet, puck, bead, aspirin and, finally, dimpled onion".

But who can really live up to Frank?

Still, as the lovely man wrote at the end of his book Another Bloody Day in Paradise ... life goes on.

The Dominion Post