IT’S BEEN ANOTHER PRETTY good year for Australian sports books. There are plenty of good titles currently on sale, with cricket books everywhere. This is my view on the notable sports books released this year in Australia, including a Top 5 and a book of the year ...
For sheer number of ‘celebrity’ cricket books being published, there has never been a summer like it. Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin, Brad Hogg, Mitchell Johnson, Darren Lehmann, Dennis Lillee, Jim Maxwell, Mark Nicholas and Chris Rogers have all released life stories … Dean Jones has compiled a small coaching book … Ellyse Perry and David Warner have their names on kids’ books … from overseas come autobiographies by, among others, AB de Villiers, Brendon McCullum and Jonathan Trott. Beyond the celebrity authors, there are several worthy titles, led by Brian Matthews’ fine and affectionate Benaud: An Appreciation and Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.
Of all these cricket books, large and small, I think A Beautiful Game by Mark Nicholas is the best. It’s very readable, great fun in parts, with some poignant memories and important analysis. Who’d have known that Nicholas played a season with ‘Dutchy’ Holland in the early ’70s? The stories of Malcolm Marshall are brilliant, as are the memories of Kerry Packer, but what really got me in the end was Nicholas’ unwavering love of cricket. He has a great and genuine affection for the game that I used to have and that some of his fellow cricket authors of 2016 also seem to have misplaced. I blame working as a ghost writer for my estrangement; I wonder why the modern Australian cricketer often seems so jaded.
Chris Rogers’ Bucking the Trend is a case in point. Rogers is lucky to have an excellent co-author in Cricinfo’s Dan Brettig, and while their idea of having the ghost introduce each chapter is not new, in Brettig’s hands it really works, allowing others to complement and flesh out the main protagonist’s recollections. But while the story is interesting and comprehensive, and Rogers comes across as a good, intelligent man who is proud of his development and aware of his foibles, the life of a 21st century professional comes across as more grind than glamour. The real joy that pervades Nicholas’ page-turner is far less apparent in the memoirs of today’s cricketers.
Haigh’s tribute to Trumper and the renowned photographer George Beldam has been widely praised, and deservedly so. When you’re writing about the finest batsman who ever lived, how can you go wrong? But it is not perfect. Stroke of Genius is superb in parts, meticulously researched, though the absence of an index is weird and frustrating, and for a book that is in part about photography and features photographs throughout the pages, it’s a pity the publisher didn’t opt for a better paper stock. The legend of Vic has not always been accurately reported, and Haigh is quick to criticise those who in the past have accepted the folklore without checking the facts, so it is disappointing to see him fall for the same trap when it comes to Trumper’s involvement in the birth of rugby league in Australia. If only, among all the books and references listed in his ‘Guide to Sources’, he had also consulted Sean Fagan’s masterful 2007 biography of Dally Messenger. But it would be churlish to leave Stroke of Genius out of my Top 5, because it is way more good than flawed.
Fagan’s work is one of a number of outstanding rugby league books to be published in the last decade, but strangely there were very few league (or rugby union) books released in 2016. Of course, Stoke Hill Press published a 50th anniversary edition of Larry Writer’s Never Before, Never Again, which prompted the Courier-Mail’s Mike Colman to describe it as a ‘great book, arguably the best ever on rugby league’. Colman knows sport and knows books, so we’ll take the compliment. Writer also gave us Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia, which author, historian and academic Sean Scalmer in the Sydney Morning Herald reviewed as ‘sensitive … impressive … artful in its arrangement and humane in its spirit’. David Middleton’s 2016 Official Rugby League Annual is no better or worse than previous years, which simply means it is as exceptional as ever. One of the feature stories in this issue, ‘The Mystery of Charlie Ross: the 59th Kangaroo’, is the league yarn of the year. This is the 30th edition of Middleton’s annual — a remarkable achievement — so, a bit like when Paul Newman and John Wayne received their best actor Oscars after many years in the business, I’m including the Official Rugby League Annual in this year’s Top 5.
In the AFL, three of the code’s most prominent identities of recent times — Brent Harvey, Mark Thompson and Dane Swan — produced autobiographies in 2016. In my view, Bomber’s is best, readable from first page to last. Having finished the book, I’m not sure I like the guy all that much, but that’s not the point, a reality captured brilliantly by Tim Bauer’s grim, highly effective cover photograph. (Compare Bomber staring at you to Chris Rogers hidden behind his helmet on the cover of Bucking the Trend and ask yourself: Which book do I want to read?) The use of the coach’s game-day notes and match plans is excellent and revealing. Maybe the text needed one more edit, but it’s still very good.
Cadel Evans’ autobiography, The Art of Cycling, is another well written big book that really should have an index. Evans comes across as a man totally focused on his own preparation, performance and fate. Throughout the pages, he is true to himself, but the result is a read that is safe and sure but lacking in adventure or revelations. The book carries the sub-title ‘The Autobiography of Australia’s Greatest Cyclist’, which is at least debatable — I’d put Anna Meares and Russell Mockridge, the two-time gold medallist from Helsinki in 1952, ahead of him. Earlier in the year, the Queensland-based Hunter Publishers gallantly re-released Mockridge’s posthumous 1958 autobiography, My World on Wheels; if you are going to buy one cycling book for Christmas, that’s the one. The chapters on his one Tour de France are far superior to anything in Evans’ tome. On his 27th birthday, July 18, 1955, during the climb up Ventoux, an almost delirious Mockridge was so desperate for water, sugar and support that he jumped off his bike and made for a nearby farmhouse, where a local family revived him and sent him back on his climb. A little more than three years later, Russell Mockridge was killed in a bus accident while competing in the Tour of Gippsland.
We need to ensure the great books of the past remain available for current generations. Sports history is important. I’m so impressed that Mockridge’s marvellous but for too long hard-to-find book is back in print that I’m including the new edition in my Top 5 for 2016.
If horse racing is your preference, try Adam Crettenden’s Subzero: More Than a Melbourne Cup Hero. For football, Ange Postecoglou’s Changing the Game: Football in Australia Through My Eyes is thought provoking in parts, while tennis fans should enjoy The Pros: The Forgotten Heroes of Tennis, by Peter Underwood, which at $66 is severely over-priced but does tell the story of a largely ignored period in the history of the men’s game. What did Ken Rosewall do between 1957 and 1967? Was Rod Laver dominant between 1963 and 67? How did they compare to Pancho Gonzales? Underwood has the answers.
The two best books from overseas I read in 2016 were Rick Broadbent’s Endurance: The Life and Times of Emil Zatopek (John Wisden & Co. Ltd, London) and The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend (Thomas Dunne Books, New York), by Glenn Stout. Broadbent had me from the opening chapter, where he beautifully retells the story of Zatopek giving one of his Olympic gold medals to Ron Clarke, because Clarke deserved it. Like Haigh, Stout seeks to set straight an important part of an iconic figure’s story, and he does so forensically and splendidly. I always thought Ruth was traded to the Yankees for the money, but it was more complicated and compelling than that.
But back to the best Australian sports books of the last 12 months. Babe Ruth was born in Baltimore in 1895. Three years earlier, near Mornington, south-east of Melbourne, a ghastly disaster occurred, which led to a squad of footballers losing their lives after their boat home from an away game sunk in Port Phillip Bay. As the fruitless search for survivors continued, the Melbourne Argus commented: ‘Similar cases may have occurred in other countries, but never in Australia.’ In Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, Paul Kennedy writes of that gloomy sentence, ‘It was true then and remains true today.’
Three members of one family, the Caldwells, died together. Their sister Annie cried, ‘The cream, the very cream of Mornington is lost; the pick of the whole district was in that boat.’
Over time, especially outside Mornington, the memories of this catastrophe faded away. Some things can be just too painful. Now, Kennedy remembers it with a historian’s eye and a tender pen. It is an important story in good hands, one that deserves best-seller status. In my view, Fifteen Young Men is the Australian sports book of the year.
I recall Christmas Day 40 years ago, when I received Ian Chappell’s just published autobiography, Chappelli. I must have received other gifts, but I can’t remember them. I was 15, younger than most of the footballers who drowned off Mornington in 1892 but not by much. I went straight out the back to start reading. I had to get dragged to lunch and the book was read by sunset. It was magnificent. If you are fortunate enough to find books by any of Mark Nicholas, Gideon Haigh, David Middleton or Russell Mockridge under your tree this year your Christmas Day should be similarly set.
If you get to unwrap Fifteen Young Men, you might shed a tear or two, but you’ll probably be the most satisfied of all.
IT'S BEEN A VERY good year for sports books.
Yet when Australia’s independent booksellers recently revealed the long lists for their annual book-of-the-year awards, not one sports book was included. None. Zilch. Zero. At the time, there were five sports books among the top 16 best-selling Australian books (with a recommended retail price of $25 or more). The public, it seems, enjoy and appreciate Australian sports books more than the industry does.
In one way, perhaps the weirdest omission was the winner of this year’s Walkley Book Award and the William Hill Australian Sports Book of the Year: Chip Le Grand’s superb and well-balanced study of the Essendon drug saga, The Straight Dope. If those awards rated Le Grand research and writing so highly, who are the Indies to think otherwise? Or maybe Something for the Pain, Gerald Murnane’s unique and wonderful horse-racing memoir, is a stranger oversight, because Murnane is a name we don’t usually find on the back pages. (I read Murnane’s treasure-trove in one glorious sitting, and found a bit of myself in many of his tales of the turf. I bet a lot of other punters — but my guess is unfortunately not many Indie Award judges — would feel the same.)
In my view, there are at least two of three other sport books that are equally as good as the work of Le Grand and Murnane, maybe even better. As I said, it’s been a good year for sports books.
I must stress that this is not a criticism of the works that have been nominated for the Indie Awards. I’m sure they are all terrific. I’m equally sure the people organising the Indie Awards are good people. But it is a pity the publishing industry is so reluctant to give due credit when good sports books come along. It happens every year.
Of course, we in the sports publishing industry don’t always help ourselves. Take, for example, a review that appeared last weekend of two of the four Richie Benaud books that have been released in 2015. I presume the reviewer likes his sport. Yes. it was disappointing that Richie: The Man Behind the Legend wasn’t mentioned, especially given how well the book has been received, and also a bit peculiar that the reviewer didn’t acknowledge Rob Smyth’s impressive Benaud in Wisden. But what really grated was the reviewer’s easy dismissal of modern sports books, the sweeping suggestion that controversy has become the ‘stock-in-trade’ of today’s sports books and the reference to ‘the chummy informality favoured by too many sporting autobiographies’.
Sports books — like beauty and commentators — are often in the eye of the beholder. It is true that not all sports books published are excellent. Some need more care; some are published for the wrong reasons. I imagine this is true across all genre. It is also true that many sports books cater for an audience of all ages. I was always aware, for example, that when helping Steve Waugh with his cricket diaries that they were read by kids as well as adults, and while this didn’t mean we had to dumb the books down, it would have been equally wrong to turn Steve into Tolstoy. The diaries kept selling in good numbers, and then Steve’s autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone, sold more than 200,000 copies, which suggests we were doing something right.
For some reviewers, bagging sports books is a habit. If only the Richie reviewer from a couple of paragraphs back had read ‘Inside’, the autobiography of Chris Judd, he’d have found a best-selling sports book that is neither controversial for its own sake nor informal to a fault. Arguably the best footballer of his generation made the wise decision to ask Greg Baum, arguably the best sports writer in Australia, to help him, and the result is a book that I, predominantly a league fan, found compelling and revealing. Baum, like all good ghosts, is clever enough to let Judd tell his own story, which doesn’t make the book chummy. It makes it true.
Far different to ‘Inside’, but just as good in its own way, is Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, by Larry Writer. The late Basil Dickinson, who competed in the triple jump at Berlin and who died at age 98 in October 2013, is just about my sports hero of the year. He was interviewed at length by Writer; his recollections provide the basis for a compelling study of the most controversial Olympics of them all.
I am impressed that Allen & Unwin took a chance with Dangerous Games. There are many editors and publishers in Australia who want sports books to stay in a certain ‘comfort zone’, fit a particular mould. More than once, I have had editors insist on sports books being strictly chronological, as if there is no other way, to the point of putting dates at the start of each chapter. The editors’ desire was to ‘help’ the reader (who they clearly thought was not very bright); the truth was they wanted to help themselves, because they know nothing of sport. I can’t imagine Gerald Murnane copping dates at the start of each chapter of his memoir; nor would Paul Kent, the author of what I reckon is the Australian sports book of the year: Sonny Ball: The Legend of Sonny Bill Williams.
It’s some trick producing a book better than those of Le Grand, Murnane, Judd and Writer. Kent took on his project knowing he’d get no co-operation from the man himself, but this actually adds to the book’s appeal. Sonny Ball is not a conventional biography. The unusual cover and the absence of photos tell a story in itself. The overall result is as much a saga of 21st century sport in Australia and the relationship between heroes, fans and media as it is a book about Sonny Bill. I love the way it ends (the book, I mean; Sonny Bill’s journey is far from over). Kent knows his subject, is appropriately cynical, sceptical and sympathetic, and is an outstanding scribe. He’s written a page-turner of the highest order.
The best cricket book I’ve read this year (apart from Richie, of course) was Test Cricket: The Unauthorised Biography by Jarrod Kimber. If an author’s enthusiasm for his or her subject matter was the only criteria, I would have included That Night: A Decade on, the Story of Australian Football’s Greatest Night, by Adam Peacock. Just about everyone who matters is interviewed, including Lucky Guus. But if depth of research is the key, David Middleton’s ‘Official Rugby League Annual’ wins every time.
The second-best book from overseas I read in 2015 was Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (Simon & Schuster, New York), by Charles Leerhsen, a brilliantly researched story that dispels many of the myths that have tarnished Cobb’s reputation. A legend like the Georgia Peach deserves a biographer like Leershen. The absolute No. 1 sports book of 2015 from overseas, in my view, is Professor Tony Collins’ tour de force, The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby (Bloomsbury, London), which is staggering in its detail, but rich in anecdote, too.
If I’m showing my league bias by advocating Sonny Ball and The Oval World, please forgive me. I don’t think I am. There was a time, about 30 years ago, when many people in the Australian publishing industry honestly thought league fans couldn’t read. Thankfully, those times are gone. Next step is to convince those same publishing types that some of the sports books they release each year are more than just money-spinners; they are actually very good.
It’ll happen one day. Probably.
(This story was originally published on December 18, 2015)