Dudley Doust: Sports writer of energy, insight and unswerving devotion to his trade
Thursday 17 January 2008
Dudley Allen Doust, sports writer: born Syracuse, New York 17 January 1930; married 1963 Jane Ingram (two daughters); died Glastonbury, Somerset 13 January 2008
In the spring of 1982, Dudley Doust arrived in Strasbourg to interview the tennis ace Ivan Lendl. It didn't start well. To Doust's question "How long have I got?", the notoriously moody Lendl answered: "Until you ask the first stupid question." An hour and a half later, Lendl said, "Look, Dudley, I am on court in 20 minutes, could we finish this later?"
Dudley Doust, who was to become one of our most renowned sports writers, had first arrived in England from the United States, off the Queen Mary, in May 1961, to cover arts and theatre for Time Life magazine. He had a tireless fascination with people and they with him. Whether they were minion or megastar, it soon became clear that his interest was utterly unfeigned, if totally relentless. He treated sports stars no less respectfully nor more reverentially than anyone else he might meet. It made him into a unique figure in the sports-writing canon.
Not for Dudley Doust the few quick "quotes", the alliterative "intro" and the heady conclusion. He asked about everything, from early schooldays to the latest tournament to the reason for that scar on the index finger, and took endless, endless trouble to put them together on the page. Neither in person nor in print did he fawn or patronise and he was appreciated for it. "Hello, Dudley," said Arnold Palmer, stepping away from his group one day at Augusta to greet the scattily dressed, bespectacled figure in the press pack, "haven't seen you for a while."
Doust was born to a medical family in Syracuse, New York on this day, 17 January, in 1930. His father was a paediatrician, and his brother became a haematologist, but Dudley was always bound for writing and after Rochester University and a year at Stanford he won a job, as Ernest Hemingway once did, at the Kansas City Star. That paper's famous style book, with its emphasis on lean, terse prose, became as central to Dudley Doust as it did to Papa Hemingway himself. Doust's next role was with Time Life in New York and then he arrived in London, having crowned his voyage by winning the on-board table-tennis championship.
More momentously, on the night of his arrival he met a bright young gallery worker called Jane Ingram who was to become his wife, but only after she had later re-routed to New York and Dudley to Mexico, from where he sent a ticket which was to join them for life. Being bureau chief for something as then politically loaded as Time Life was never going to suit somebody as open and inquisitive as Dudley Doust, who was as happy supping with a Communist as with a city slicker. Eventually, the Mexico bureau was closed and rather than report to Miami, Dudley chose to take Jane and their daughter Hannah to live in a mud hut near the lake in Valle de Bravo, to think about a novel. It had hardly been the normal on-field or jock-obsessed prelude to a sports-writing career.
But hunger drove the Doust family back to London and John Lovesey, a former colleague in the Time Life London bureau, then starting an era-changing stint as Sunday Times sports editor, came up with idea that would change Doust's life. The "Inside Track" column was the first and best of the sports diaries with its fearless, tightly written take on stories most didn't bother to touch and the Sunday Times soon realised Doust was a very special, if deadline-pushing, asset.
When Henry Longhurst retired, Doust succeeded him as golf correspondent, but his range soon extended across all sport. From downhill skiing to boxing, athletics, cricket, football, tennis and more. On many of these he was accompanied by the great photographer Chris Smith and their first assignment together, to Pedreña in northern Spain, to interview a young golfer called Ballesteros, was also to spawn Doust's book Seve: the young champion (1982).
While the journalism continued through the years with a switch to the ill-fated Sunday Correspondent, followed by freelance work with the Telegraph and others, the books, albeit few in number, may stand as the best monument to the Doust talent. For in them, he found the space to expand his style and, in the case of his books on cricket (including Ian Botham: the great all-rounder in 1980) and steeplechasing (221: Peter Scudamore's record season, 1989), make a virtue of having a completely fresh eye on the game.
There is no greater example of this, and no better writing in sport, than the chapter on Derek Randall's 150 in the Fourth Test of the 1978/79 tour of Australia chronicled with Mike Brearley in The Ashes Retained (1979). The drama of the innings is built up in pointillist style from interviews with everyone from Randall to the umpire's dog, but instead of being overwhelmed by facts you are entranced by detail. Doust asked all those questions, and asked them again when he was checking for the third time, not because he felt he ought to, but because he was truly interested. It made him a wonderful, if sometimes exhausting, husband to Jane, with whom he moved down to Somerset with their second daughter Nell in the late 1980s. Dudley Doust will be remembered for his energy, his insight, his friendship and his unswerving devotion to the much abused ethics of his trade and to the unimportance of himself compared to his subject.
At some great crisis in the world of cricket, a well-meaning worthy approached Dudley and asked him, now that he was so well versed in the game, how things looked from his perspective. Dudley, who had plenty of views in private, was almost vehement in reply. "What on earth would be the good of my opinion?" he said. "I don't know anything about anything. I am just a reporter."
There is nothing but regret in saying that they don't make them like Dudley any more.
It would have been easy not to look beyond Dudley Doust's wild-eyed stare, his rasping drawl and caterpillar eyebrows and see only an idiosyncratic American writer, writes Stan Hey. But behind "the look" was a kind-hearted man who brought a great rigour to his sports writing. Paired with me at the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry for the fledgling Sunday Correspondent - I was an utter rookie, though nominally chief sports writer, while Dudley was golf correspondent - he showed no resentment at my intrusion.
Indeed, from the moment he dragged me into the broom-cupboard of the farm where we were staying for a 6am briefing about what rival papers were planning, to an even earlier morning "yomp" across fields and tracks to St Andrews for the 1990 Open, I was swept away by Dudley's uncommon enthusiasm for getting the job done properly.
Dudley was never one for the "press tent", where you could sit comfortably, watch the action on television, and be fed information and printed interviews. His style was always to try and find the heart of the action and follow it all the way. "I'm going out now," he'd say, checking for notepad, pens, glasses, binoculars and media pass, like a trooper preparing for a shoot-out.
His instinct for where the real story was would always lead him away from the press conference to a quiet tête-à-tête with the hero of the hour, even if it meant trailing the subject back to his home to find the how, the what, and the why, with effortless charm. Sportspeople would trust Dudley because far from "stitching them up" - the interviewee's greatest fear - his work would reveal to them a truth about their efforts that they had probably not seen for themselves.
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