LAST YEAR, IN AN essay I wrote about the ‘death of Australian sports books’, I suggested that one thing that might save the industry is for ‘the books themselves to be excellent, especially the ones that are guaranteed to sell in at least reasonable numbers because of the high profile of the subject matter’. In recent years, too many sports books — including some top-sellers — have been mediocre at best, creating a situation where someone buys a book, doesn’t enjoy it, and resolves never to buy another one. Or they receive a sports book as a present, don’t enjoy it, and then tell the gift giver it wasn’t much good. Another two customers gone.
Even before a book was sold this festive season, the most likely best-seller among sports books was the autobiography of Neale Daniher, the former Essendon player and Melbourne coach who was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2013. From a sports publishing perspective, Daniher was a perfect fit. He is from a famous football family, is strongly linked to two of the biggest clubs in the AFL, is much loved and highly respected, is bravely fighting his condition and has mounted a very public campaign to raise funds to find a cure for MND. He could have put his name to any ordinary book and sold a truckload.
Instead, he and his co-author Warwick Green (who previously worked on excellent memoirs with the late Jim Stynes and Kurt Fearnley) have combined with Pan Macmillan to produce When All Is Said and Done — a book that is in part just a good footy story, but also a moving and beautifully written mix of inspiration, anguish, wisdom and self-deprecating humour. Like all the great sports books, you don’t have to be a fan of the sport that is its subject to get plenty from it. ‘The best leaders,’ Daniher writes, ‘are not driven by servicing their own ego,’ and he adheres to this principle on every page. Anyone who finds When All Is Said and Done under their tree or who buys it of their own accord will be better for the experience. The authors and their publishing team deserve plenty of kudos for getting the book so right ...
AS I LOOKED AT all the sports books on the shelves this Christmas, I couldn’t help but wonder if publishers have responded to the declining overall sales of Australian sports books by releasing more than ever. I’m not sure this is a deliberate strategy; more likely, there are just more people who want to be authors. But there is a vast array of books out there and fortunately quite a few of them are excellent. My intention here is not to worry about the books — some of them by well-known authors — that are poorly written, flimsily researched and littered with factual or typographical errors. (There are a few of these, as I imagine there are across all genre.) Instead, I’ll focus on the good ones …
Neale Daniher’s story was one of a number of quality AFL books published in 2019. Inevitably, several come from the Slattery Media stable, with perhaps Electrifying 80s: Footy’s outrageous decade in the words of its best writers (edited by Russell Jackson) and Rhett Bartlett’s Richmond FC: The Tigers, A Proud History of a Great Club being the best of them. Elsewhere, Kevin Sheedy’s Icons of Footy is a good looking book with some decent content to match, while Konrad Marshall has written Stronger and Bolder: Inside the 2019 AFL Finals Series with Richmond, a sequel to his excellent Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, which I rated one of the best sports books of 2017. Carn: The Game and the Country that Plays It, by Andrew Mueller, who I had known previously as a writer of rock’n’roll, overdoses on footnotes while not having an index (why is it that so many Australian sports books don’t have an index?), but it’s informative and entertaining. Dare I say it: Carn’s a good yarn.
Rugby league, in contrast, delivered few books of any substance in 2019. Of course, David Middleton released his Official Rugby League Annual, his 33rd in a row, this one every bit as thorough, detailed and interesting as the previous 32. In 2017, Joe Gorman wrote the exceptional The Death and Life of Australian Soccer and he switched codes this year to produce Heartland: How Rugby League Explains Queensland, a nicely researched book and the best league title this year, but one that doesn’t reach the heights of his football odyssey. Gorman has all sorts of explanations for why Queensland dominated State of Origin from 2006 to 2017, some of them quite spiritual, but I think it was mostly because — as was the case in the 1920s and the 1980s — Queensland simply had most of the great players. I was excited to see that Dr David Headon, official historian of the Canberra Raiders, had written Absolutely Bleeding Green: The Raiders Story, not least because he opens the book with a chapter entitled ‘Frederick Campbell to 1921’. I have done a lot of research into the life and times of Fred Campbell, who has more claim to the title ‘father of Australian rugby’ than any other figure in the code’s history. Of course, I went to the credits at the back to see how Dr Headon had acknowledged my work, but there was not a mention. I didn’t read the rest of the book. It’s probably okay.
For best cricket book of the year, I’ll call it a tie between Daniel Brettig’s Bradman & Packer: The Deal that Changed Cricket, which recalls a previously forgotten meeting between two heavyweights that ended the World Series Cricket fracas, and Greg Growden’s Cricketers at War. The latter is a cousin of Wallabies at War, which I rated one of the sports books of 2018, and it is just as good, and as with the Wallabies it is the brave and brilliant characters we previously knew too little about — such as Bob Grieve, Betty Archdale, Bruce Dooland and Tony Dell — that sets the book apart. Growden, like Norm Tasker and Ian Heads in their Great Australian Sporting Stories (which covers a range of sports), includes some pages on Doug Walters, adding even more virtue to an already high-class read.
The most intriguing cricket book of the year is The Genius, Renato Carini’s affectionate study of the immortal Victor Trumper, who was, of course, the Doug Walters of his day. Carini uses a vast array of statistics and historical records to show that statistics and historical records don’t provide a true measure of Trumper’s pre-eminence, which sounds silly but actually works. Just because Trumper and Billy Murdoch, for example, averaged about the same in Australia v England Tests (32.80 to 32.00) doesn’t mean they should be placed on the same pedestal. As I noted in 2015: ‘Those who played with Trumper and those who saw him play, almost to the last man, asserted, often passionately, that Trumper was unequivocally the greatest batsman of his time, perhaps of any time.’ Carini supports this argument in a style that might be too in-depth for some casual observers, but his analysis will delight an aficionado.
Talk to any passionate cricket fan who was a teenager in the early 1970s and there’s a fair chance they would have found My World of Cricket by Ian Chappell in their Christmas stocking in 1973. The book was published by Jack Pollard, a master of producing cricket books that made the ideal gift for males of all ages, from Cricket: The Australian Way to Six and Out. When, 46 years later, I first saw Perspective, by Ellyse Perry, I wondered if it was a 21st-century version of My World of Cricket, aimed mostly at teenage girls. Sadly, to me anyway, it is not in the same class. It is very glamourous, with colour photographs throughout, which is why it is included in this review, but the text, which only runs to about 25,000 words, reveals little and lacks inspiration. Maybe I’m being harsh, because I’m not the target audience, but that’s a shame in itself. I’m sure my dad enjoyed My World of Cricket as much as I did.
For Cap and Country: Interviews with Australian Cricketers on the Enduring Spirit of the Baggy Green, by Jesse Hogan, Andrew Faulkner and Simon Auteri is an entertaining book, especially when the authors are talking to men such as Shaun Tait or Stuart Law who played little Test cricket but could easily have played more. Inevitably, especially with those men who had longer careers at the top, some of the responses sound cliched and shallow, but that’s 21st-century Test cricketers for you. For me, the conversations with pioneering women of Australian horse racing such as Clare Lindop and Gai Waterhouse that are a feature of Shane McNally’s Sport of Queens are more revealing, and the ones with some of our greatest basketballers from the last 30 years in Matt Logue’s Hoop Dreams Down Under are the most interesting of all. I loved Michele Timms when she was one of the best and most tenacious basketballers in the world in the 1990s and, after reading Logue’s interview with her, I love her still.
Quickly, some good books from other sports …
Swimming enthusiasts and Olympicaphiles will appreciate Beneath the Surface, Libby Trickett's sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately positive autobiography, which reveals in painful detail the sacrifices Trickett made to become the fastest swimmer in the world. Trickett candidly reminds us that as well as being an Olympic gold medallist, she was also a young woman, wife, mother and worker, and trying to be all these things led to times of conflict and deep stress. Encyclopedia of Matildas, by Andrew Howe and Greg Werner, is the companion volume to Howe’s Encyclopedia of Socceroos, which I rated one of the best sporting books of last year. Ron Reed’s unauthorised tribute to the No. 1 women’s tennis player in the world, Barty: Power and Glory, is a little book with a lot of padding, but Reed is a good writer and it does contain a superb essay by the acclaimed tennis correspondent Linda Pearce that is nearly worth the price of admission alone. The best Australian golf book of the year is My Story, by the late Jarrod Lyle, the autobiography of one of the country’s most popular and courageous sportsmen, expertly handled by co-authors Mark Hayes and Martin Blake. Two books focusing on a famous motor-racing circuit — John Smailes’ Mount Panorama: Bathurst, the stories behind the legend and Bev Brock’s warm and well-illustrated homage, Brock at Bathurst: Peter Brock’s Unrivalled Racing Career at Mount Panorama — are worth looking at. So, too, is The Rip Curl Story: 50 Years of Perfect Surf, International Business, Wild Characters and the Search for the Ultimate Ride by the acclaimed surfing writer Tim Baker.
As the co-author of a recently published Phar Lap biography, I was keen for there to be no other good racing books released in 2019. Instead, at least four outstanding rivals appeared. Two came from Melbourne Books: the previously mentioned Sport of Queens by Shane McNally and Manikato: ‘The Man’ by Adam Crettenden. I remember going to Rosehill to see Manikato clash with a rising star named Emancipation on Slipper Day in 1983. It was the George Ryder Stakes and it proved to be the champion sprinter’s final race start, so he was past his best, but I was still in awe at what I can only call his ‘presence’. Only the truly great ones have it and Crettenden does an admirable job capturing what set Manikato apart. Last year, Trevor Marshallsea wrote a fine biography of Winx, but I think his tribute to Makybe Diva is even better. I was especially taken with the way, in the first half of the book, Marshallsea weaves the story of the Melbourne Cup into the narrative, setting the stage for him to argue assuredly that ‘as astounding as the winning streaks of Black Caviar and Winx were, and as worthy an achievement as Winx’s 25 Group Ones will remain, Makybe Diva [through her three Melbourne Cup wins] carved a more revered place in Australian folklore’.
Most entertaining of all among racing books in 2019 is The Fine Cotton Fiasco: The behind-the-scenes account of Australia’s dodgiest horse race, by Peter Hoysted (aka Jack The Insider) and Pat Sheil, which recalls one of the industry’s most remarkable and ridiculous days. The tone of the book fits the absurdity of the attempted ring-in, but the authors have done their research, and as a result never have to revert to cliché or to myths that have been peddled in previous accounts by less accomplished scribes. There’s always a belief with racing scandals that the ‘gangsters’ involved are hard-nosed, cold and dastardly, but often — whenever a get-rich-quick scheme goes awry — they turn out to be bungling idiots with little or no clue. Here, there is nothing but scorn for the mugs who inspired the crime, and for those heavy hitters who got involved once they heard the sting was on, but some sympathy for Hayden Haitana, the trainer in way over his head, and much for the poor animals involved, to whom this terrific book is dedicated.
And finally, before I get to the quartet of books to go with Neale Daniher in my top five books of the year, I must mention Craig Foster’s Fighting for Hakeem, the story of Foster’s battle to rescue Hakeem al-Araibi, who fled Bahrain, was granted refugee status in Australia, but was arrested in late 2018 while on his honeymoon in Thailand. Put bluntly, I was disappointed by this book. I wanted it to be fantastic, because Hakeem’s plight engaged so many people, and as it evolved in the media through the early months of this year it was clearly a very significant and compelling saga. Unfortunately, I found Foster’s writing style exhausting and, at times, frustratingly annoying. There are other characters in the story whom I wanted to learn about, but in Fighting for Hakeem we hardly meet them, and Foster has an unfortunate habit of diminishing men and women in influential positions without, I think, even meaning to. My view is you shouldn’t call senior government ministers, even prime ministers, by their first name when you hardly know them. And if Foster calls the 25-year-old Hakeem a ‘kid’ one more time I will have to scream. But maybe I’m being too hard a marker because, as I said, I had such high hopes. I’m sure Foster’s heart and passion is for the greater good, and the travails and tragedy refugees encounter should never be ignored, so I hope the book is widely read and that others enjoy it more than I did.
NOW FOR THE BOOKS of the year. Maybe it’s because I am a child of the 1960s and one’s earliest heroes never lose their lustre, but I have long thought that Jack Brabham is one of the most underrated of our sporting legends. Sure, everyone knows he was great, but he should be ranked in the top three or five of all time. No one ever rates him that highly. But think about it … an Australian has only claimed the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship four times in 70 years, and Jack Brabham has won three of them (1959, 1960 and 1966). The third was won in a car that Brabham constructed himself and carried his name. Brabham: The Untold Story of Formula One, by Tony Davis and Ákos Armont, is a worthy tribute to a rare champion. Using material from previous books about or co-written by Brabham, stories and interviews from the archives and interviews conducted especially for this project (including contributions from his engineering partner Ron Tauranac and Brabham’s sons, Geoff and David), Brabham paints a picture of a tough but brilliant man who was a master of his trade but a terrible salesman of himself. It was a triumph just to survive in elite motor racing in the ’60s — legends such as Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren did not — but Brabham did much more than that. However, in the authors’ words, he ‘talked without moving his lips, if he talked at all’. I can think of many competitors whose relative sporting greatness grew after they retired because they became prominent in the media or much loved in the community. Brabham was the reverse. This excellent book helps set that straight.
One book I did not get to read this year (as I mentioned, there are a lot of books out there) was Pulling Through: The Story of the King's Cup, by Bruce Coe, but it has been recommended to me by someone whose opinion I respect so it would be remiss of me not to mention it in this essay. I did, however, discover another book on the same subject, Scott Patterson’s The Oarsmen: The Remarkable Story of the Men Who Rowed from the Great War to Peace, and was blown away by the level of research undertaken to complete a comprehensive and sometimes heart-rending book, and by the characters who found themselves involved in the Australian challenge for the King’s Cup in 1919. These were men who’d seen the worst of the battlefields; many were scarred appallingly by what they had seen and survived. Chief among them was a true hero of Australian sport: Syd Middleton, an Olympic gold medal winner in rugby in 1908, a member of the Australian eight that rowed at the Stockholm Games in 1912 and a decorated solider who rose to the rank of major. Patterson paints a broad picture of a gallant bloke carrying plenty of mental baggage from his years in the trenches, but who was still able to build a fruitful life and to fall in love and live out his days with an English nurse who was as tough and wonderful as he was.
Another book that goes back to the years immediately after the Great War is Never Say Die: The Hundred-Year Overnight Success of Australian Women’s Football. Authors Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan admit that the book is ‘a beginning … a conversation starter and a contextualised point-in-time look at the history of Australian women’s football, with a view to deepening and extending that look in the future’. In this regard, they have done a mighty job, even though the book falls away in its final two chapters, when some errors appear and a few arguments seem lopsided. Rather than complaining about Robbie Slater’s criticism of the Matildas for failing to reach the quarterfinals at the 2019 World Cup (because analysts like Slater don’t bag the men for never getting that far), in my view his comments should have been taken as a compliment. But overall the book is excellent and important, the most entertaining and informative history of a women’s sport in Australia I’ve read in quite a while.
Sporting battlers of a different kind take centre stage in Alex McClintock’s love letter to pugilism, On the Chin: A Boxing Education. I was originally taken by the striking cover of this book, but then I started reading and was hooked even tighter by the text — McClintock had me completely from the moment he ran into Ruben Olivares, conqueror of Lionel Rose, in a market in Mexico City. The book is part well-researched history, mostly personal journey, as a pudgy university student decides to take up boxing to get less unfit and gradually discovers the virtues of hitting and being hit. Discipline is part of it; a wise coach and mentor is crucial. Sure, the game is corrupt and sometimes frightening, even fatal, but there is much skill, courage and honour to be found.
McClintock’s climb into the ring taught him more about himself than he could ever have imagined. As an author, he takes us along for the ride quite beautifully, never assuming that we’ll fall for the sport as he has, but ever hopeful that we’ll hear him out. The years he spent trying to be a boxer were ‘some of the best of my life, a time of excitement and education, intense focus and hard work’. By the end of On The Chin, you might not want to get into the ring yourself, but you’ll have a real regard for the men and women who do.
I think that’s the common thread of my five books of the year. Neale Daniher, Jack Brabham, the footballers in Never Say Die, and the soldiers/rowers in The Oarsman and the fighters in On the Chin are men and women of valour and dignity. I can heartily vouch for the quality all five books. By a small margin, I rate Alex McClintock’s On The Chin over Neale Daniher’s When All is Said and Done as the best of them all.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2019
Alex McClintock: On The Chin; Text Publishing
Neale Daniher (with Warwick Green): When All is Said and Done; Pan Macmillan Australia
Fiona Crawford and Lee McGowan: Never Say Die; NewSouth Publishing
Tony Davis and Ákos Armont: Brabham: The Untold Story of Formula One; HarperCollinsPublishers
Scott Patterson: The Oarsmen; Hardie Grant Books