ONE OF THE MOST interesting and intriguing sports books published in Australia in 2018 is The Finest Gold: The Making of an Olympic Swimmer, the autobiography of Brad Cooper, winner of the gold medal in the men’s 400 metres freestyle at the 1972 Munich Games. Some of the stories — such as that of his often dysfunctional early life as a child of a broken marriage, his battles with coach Don Talbot, and the manner of his Olympic triumph (Cooper finished second by one-hundredth of a second to the USA’s Rick DeMont, but gained the gold when DeMont failed a drugs test) — are fresh, revealing and cleverly told.
Cooper’s story is bookended by two anecdotes. The first involves a bizarre scene, as the new Olympic champion returns to his dormitory in the athletes’ village to find journalist Ernie Christensen perched on the end of the 18-year-old’s bed, chasing his reaction to the judge’s decision. ‘Obviously you can’t accept the gold under those circumstances,’ says the veteran scribe, trying to cajole words out of the swimmer’s mouth that will headline the next day’s front page. The second story comes from the inaugural World Swimming Championships in Belgrade, held a year after Munich, when DeMont won a thrilling re-match in world record time ...
On the victory dais when American photographers were falling over themselves to capture their redemption clichés, one kept barking at me to raise DeMont’s arm. Instructions heeded, I fished for the victor’s wrist but he wrenched it away, muttering, ‘Don’t do it, Brad, they just want a Munich revenge shot.’
And suddenly it seemed an honour to have come second.
In between, there are some harrowing tales, and you are left wondering how Cooper could ever have become, in Talbot’s words, ‘the best male swimmer I ever coached’. The book is not perfect, as it loses its way a little in its final 80 (of 300) pages, but it is still important, one of the best I've read this year. My aim in this essay is to nominate my top five Australian sports books of 2018. That The Finest Gold does not make my top five is proof that several of the offerings this year have been outstanding.
Early in Cooper’s book, he tells of ‘watching’ Gail Neall’s swim in the 400 metres individual medley in Munich as he waited for the men’s 1500 metres freestyle final, by following the race on a monitor in a room away from the pool. There is no vision on the screen, just the lap times for each of the competitors. As the times are updated, Neall’s victory is assured, and ‘my involuntary half-leap from my chair when Gail’s time touches first could pass for rowdiness: it’s one of the most exhilarating sporting triumphs I’ve seen’.
The only trouble is, Neall’s gold medal win occurred five days earlier. On the day of the men’s 1500 metres final, she finished seventh in the 200 metres butterfly. When she claimed gold, Cooper most likely would have been in that same room, waiting for the 4 x 200 metres freestyle relay final, in which the Australian team of Cooper, Robert Nay, Michael Wenden and Graham Windeatt would finish fifth. Clearly, his memories of these two nights have merged; my question is, should his editor have corrected him? Later, he admits he has scant recollection of his gold medal swim, doesn’t try to concoct a memory he does not have, and the book retains its authenticity as a result. I can give examples (but won’t) from sports books published this year, including some of the best-selling titles, where the authors have rewritten history for malicious reasons or to embellish the story. Brad Cooper does not do this, which is one of the reasons his book is so enlightening.
Following an interview Cooper did recently with the ABC’s Tracey Holmes, one of Holmes’ Twitter followers sent her a message: ‘Loads of crap sports books advertised for Xmas: then you find out about a terrific book by Brad Cooper through listening to a podcast … great interview with Brad by the way.’
It was a great interview, but I can’t agree that there are loads of crap sports books out there this festive season. Yes, there are some ordinary ones, same as every other genre, but there are many worthy ones sitting alongside The Finest Gold on the sports shelves and they are the ones I am focusing on. I’m not trying to list every sports book published in Australia in 2018 (Greg Blood, at The Roar, had done that here), just the ones I liked the most ...
ONE THING THAT MIGHT give the impression that the quality of Australian sports books is in freefall is that, for the second year in a row in Australia, there is no great cricket book. The best read is Gideon Haigh’s Crossing the Line, which deftly explains the recent decline of Australian cricket. The best presented is the ‘complete illustrated biography’ of Rod Marsh, a worthy cousin to Affirm Press’ previous books on the careers of Dennis Lillee and Adam Gilchrist. Daniel Lane’s Big Bash Superstars is the sort of publication I would have wanted when I was a kid. However, the first cricket title on my Christmas list would be Joe Darling: Cricketer, Farmer, Politician and Family Man, by Bernard Whimpress and Graeme Ryan. Haigh’s book is only 184 pages, the first of Slattery Media’s ‘Sports Shorts collection’, so there wasn’t much room to contemplate what might have happened if the Australian teams of the decade before Tim Paine became captain had been led by a man as strong and dignified as Joe Darling, skipper from 1899 to 1905. It’s an interesting thought.
As always, there are a number of ghosted autobiographies across many sports. The best of them, I think, is tennis champion and Paralympian Dylan Alcott’s Able: Gold medals, grand slams and smashing glass ceilings, in part because Alcott’s co-author, Grantlee Kieza, has so nicely captured his subject’s relentless positivity. It’s one of those books that, every time you pick it up and read a few pages, you feel better for the experience.
There are some excellent sporting biographies, not least The Peter Norman Story by Andrew Webster and Matt Norman. Some of the things said and written about Peter Norman, the 1968 Olympic 200 metres silver medallist on the athletics track, during the last decade have been a bit weird. The evidence is far from clear that he was ever banished from Australian athletics as punishment for his role in the ‘Black Power’ protest by the Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 200 metres medal ceremony, but some people have suggested that is exactly what occurred. Fortunately, this book adroitly handles every side of the argument, not only setting the story straight but also reminding us that Norman was an exceptional athlete, perhaps our best ever male sprinter. I was proud to be able to publish Michael Sharp’s biography of 800 metres gold medallist Ralph Doubell on the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Games; the twin stories of Doubell and Norman, who ran their finals on consecutive days, make a wonderful pair.
I was tempted to include The Peter Norman Story in my top five, but instead I’ve chosen another important biography of a remarkable sporting achiever. Sir Hubert Opperman’s life story is like no other — a cyclist who became a household name in Australia by his extraordinary feats of endurance, his role in building the Malvern Star brand and his years as a cabinet minister in the Menzies government. He was a revered figure in Europe, and especially in France, where his heroic performances in events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Brest-Paris earned him ongoing respect. Daniel Oakman’s Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman is a fond and thoroughly researched tribute that paints a colourful portrait of cycling in Europe and Australia between the wars, and also sheds light on some intriguing political machinations in the ’50s and ’60s. Opperman might have felt more comfortable as Immigration Minister if he had filled the role in an earlier time, but his competitive instincts as he fights to retain his seat of Corio in the 1963 federal election against a tenacious young Labor opponent in Bob Hawke are on show as clearly as if he was trying to escape the peloton. The anecdote from August 1991 Oakman uses to close his book is magnificent …
Sometime after the proceedings, Hubert and [his wife] Mavys entered a small bank near the Eiffel Tower, not far from the apartment they had rented 60 years earlier. He passed over a traveller’s cheque with his passport. The young teller checked the documents, paused and looked again at the elderly, beret-wearing figure before him. ‘Êtes-vous Hubert Opperman du cyclisme?’ he asked while making the exaggerated pantomime movements for riding a bicycle. Opperman didn’t need to draw on his rusty French to know what he meant. The teller, unable to contain himself, turned to his colleagues and announced that the great Oppy had arrived at their humble establishment. With the transaction complete, Hubert and Mavys bade the staff au revoir and left to a standing ovation. They stepped out into the street, the applause ringing in their ears.
Some books this year stand out simply because of the authors’ undoubted love of their sport. An excellent example is Around the Grounds by former ABC commentator (and Sydney Cricket Ground scoreboard operator) Peter Newlinds. My favourite chapter concerns Newlinds’ years covering the Sydney Hobart yacht race. Golf fans will enjoy Preferred Lies by Mike Clayton and Charles Happell, a compilation of original stories and previously published yarns by the authors and their friends. If you only have time to read one chapter, make it the one by Kathie Shearer, wife of Bob and long-time manager of media centres at major tournaments; it’s an absolute gem! Motoring writer John Smailes’ Race across the World, recalling the epic London-to-Sydney marathon that finished in dramatic circumstances 50 years ago this month, is enjoyable throughout, and revealing too, not least when Smailes interviews Allan Chilcott, now 68, an innocent spectator in a Mini Cooper S who was involved in the sensational crash on the penultimate stage that cost Belgium’s Lucien Bianchi and France’s Jean-Claude Ogier victory.
No one loves his sport more than the best rugby league statistician in the business. Last December, I wrote, ‘The best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual.’ Ditto 2018. This is the 32nd edition of Middleton’s annual, a prodigious achievement that should be formally recognised by the NRL. The top-selling Australian sports book of this year is a league book, the Johnathan Thurston autobiography, but while it is very readable I felt a little disappointed at full-time — perhaps for no other reason than that JT, in my opinion the best rugby league player of all time, seemed to me to spend too many pages nursing either a schooner or a hangover. The book also contained the most annoying ‘little thing’ I saw in a sports book all year — captions where the match scores are often listed with the beaten team’s total first: ‘After we took the game, 13–16, I handed my premiership ring to Steve Price’ … ‘The Kangaroos thrashed England 16–46 and I was Man of the Match’ … ‘We thumped the Kiwis 2–24 – and I was Man of the Match’. Maybe this bugged only me, but captions are an advertisement for the entire product, and in a tome of this magnitude it’s the sort of thing that should have been right.
Not that this was the most aggravating thing I saw in an Australian sports book. That ‘prize’ goes to a paragraph in Winx: The Authorised Biography, where author Andrew Rule writes, ‘It is safe to say Winx would toy with the fields Phar Lap, Tulloch and Bernborough beat.’ Unless I’m mistaken, the insinuation is that the legends of days gone past didn’t beat much during their fantastic careers. But among the horses that finished far behind Phar Lap were champions such as Mollison, Nightmarch, Amounis and Chatham. During the recent spring carnival, after UK commentator Matt Chapman suggested Winx had defeated ‘fairly moderate horses’ during the mare’s extraordinary winning streak, trainer Chris Waller responded, ‘I think he's a bit of a dickhead for saying it.’ When I read Rule’s denigration of Phar Lap’s greatest rivals, I wondered if he was guilty of a similar crime.
The Authorised Biography benefits from the access Rule had to Winx’s connections (Waller’s regular emails to the owners are a feature), but in my view Trevor Marshallsea, the author of Winx: Biography of a Champion, which was released three months earlier, is the better storyteller, so there is little between the two books. To be honest, if I was getting a racing book for Christmas I’d be just as happy to receive either The Gauch, by Kristen Manning, in part because the book’s subject, Darren Gauci, was for many years my favourite jockey, or Greg Miles: My Lucky Life, by John Craven, the story of a master racecaller.
Rugby union as a major sport in Australia continued its decline in 2018, but the code was blessed with two of the best books of the year. Greg Growden’s The Wallabies at War features more characters than Shakespeare’s Complete Works, and many similarly compelling storylines too. It’s one of those books where if you got a team around a table to name their favourite personality from the pages, you’d get 15 different nominations. Mine are Twit Tasker, Silly Bob McGowan and Rat Flanagan. The research is fantastic; the stories are sad, funny, grim and inspiring. And yet, as engrossing as Growden’s book is, I think Mike Colman’s biography of Eddie Jones, the former coach of the Brumbies, Australia and Japan who is now in charge of England, is even better. Colman’s book was originally published by Allen & Unwin in London, but he has been writing for the Courier Mail and Sunday Mail forever and much of the book’s action takes place in Australia, so it qualifies as an Australian sports book.
In 2007–08, when I was working with George Gregan on his autobiography, George suggested I interview Eddie Jones. It was one of the best hours of my life, as Jones explained 21st-century rugby to me in a way that George, for all his best efforts, couldn’t quite do. The coach’s rare passion for the game, his love for and understanding of its intricacies and his desire to help me out, to teach, won me over. Colman manages to capture all that, and more, including Jones’ prickly and provocative sides, even though his subject — who is apparently working on a book of his own — did not grant him an interview. Often, this can work to a biographer’s advantage, as he or she is freer to measure positives against negatives. That is what happens here.
It was also a positive year for books on football in Australia, largely due to the efforts of Fair Play Publishing. In May, Fair Play released Encyclopedia of Socceroos, by the game’s No. 1 statistician, Andrew Howe, who is described on the book’s front flap by Fox Sports’ Andy Harper as ‘a once-in-a-generation football anorak … he is to the playing and demographic history and statistics of Australian football what Pelé or Maradona or Cruyff or Ronaldo is to the game itself’. After reading Howe’s mighty work, I wonder if Harper is selling him short. The playing career of every Socceroo, from the nation’s international debut in 1922 to the end of 2017, is covered, with my only quibble being that the profiles of the leading pioneers from before World War II are sometimes scant compared to the space given to modern stars. I appreciate Australia played precious few A Internationals until the 1960s, but I would have liked a full page on Reg Date, for example, rather than Wally Savor. But this is a minor criticism, balanced by the warm tributes by respected journalist Ray Gatt to our four World Cup captains — Peter Wilson, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neill and Mile Jedinak — that lead the comprehensive stats section at the back of the book.
Late in the year, Fair Play released Playing for Australia: The First Socceroos, Asia and World Football, by Trevor Thompson, which is an important complement to Howe’s grand Encyclopedia. Thompson takes us right back to the earliest games of Association football played in the days before Federation, and explains why, unlike the two rugby codes, the national ‘soccer’ team struggled for international recognition. Football in Australia should be very grateful for the work of Howe and Thompson in documenting the game’s rich history, and to Fair Play Publishing for having the enterprise and courage to produce both books.
Australian football was another sport well served by its best books in 2018. First to appear was Martin Flanagan’s A Wink From the Universe: the inside story of the AFL’s greatest fairytale, the Bulldogs 2016 premiership. Unfortunately, coming 18 months after the Bulldogs beat the Swans, and six months after Richmond’s fairytale in 2017, the book seemed a little dated from day one, but Flanagan is a fine wordsmith who writes with much affection about his favourite team. The Norm Smith Medallists, by Dan Eddy, is a worthy piece of history, as is Sam Lane’s Roar: The stories behind AFLW — a movement bigger than sport. In contrast, while George Megalogenis remains my favourite political commentator, I found his The Football Solution disappointing — he lost me from the moment he libelled Charles Bannerman, the most dashing Australian batsman of the 19th century, on page 18 and never won me back. Megalogenis’ previous books, on politics and economics, contain an index, so why not this one? I did enjoy but sometimes got infuriated with Footballistics, by James Coventry, which seeks to explain how data analytics are changing the game. Coventry and his team do a good job in never getting too bogged down in numbers, but I continue to have a real frustration with how modern-day sports statisticians sometimes use their stats to suit themselves. One example: chapter 12 strongly argues the case for Tom Leahy, the best ruckman in South Australia in the early years of the 20th century, to be included in the Hall of Fame, as if it is a felony to downplay the achievements of the early champions; chapter 13 bends the numbers a different way to conclude that the top 10 teams of all time have all come from the last 50 years, six of the ten from the last two decades.
THE BEST AFL BOOK of the year, in my view, is unquestionably Leather Soul: a half-back flanker’s rhythm and blues, by Bob Murphy. Indeed, I think it is the sports book of the year. I’m a rugby league aficionado, so it takes a bit for me to really fall for an ‘Aussie rules’ book, and I imagine Murphy might not be to every AFL fan’s taste, but he had me from the prologue, as he prepared to not play in the 2016 grand final (Murphy, the Western Bulldogs captain, missed most of the season with a knee injury). This is a proud yet humble man who loves his sport, but not too much to miss its foibles, and he has a Steve Waugh-like ability to stop and ‘smell the roses’ occasionally, rather than stay totally absorbed by this week’s game, next week’s game and the one after that. Like Waugh and Brad Cooper, Murphy writes his own copy, and his editor Peter Hanlon and publisher Black Inc./Nero have done a superb job in keeping their author’s voice on every page.
It’s a book of many highlights. One favourite for me, which I would never have thought I would relish, is when Murphy writes about pre-season training in 2016 …
I read in Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run, that he trained hard as a way of keeping his clinical depression at bay. His outlet was lifting heavy weights. In his own words, this left him ‘too tired to be depressed’. I found that really interesting. I don’t suffer from debilitating mental illness, but I can appreciate how the fatigue of exercise can simplify your life.
I’m sitting here right now with my aching legs stretched out on the couch. Having just eaten two meals, I’m too tired to sleep, too exhausted to move. It’s a beautiful feeling. Pre-season, in particular, simplifies your life. You train, eat and recover. Train, eat and recover. Logic tells you that the repetition would become boring, but I’ve found it to be the complete opposite. It’s like physical poetry. There are some days and moments that don’t inspire me, of course, but for the most part, it relaxes me. I’m 34 years old, coming off my best year as a player, and I feel stronger than I ever have. In my private moments, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be able to play forever. I feel faster now than I did when I was 21. I don’t know if that’s normal.
What follows in Murphy’s career adds a rare poignancy to these observations. It’s not what you find in a run-of-the-mill sporting memoir. Andrew Howe’s colossal work could easily have been the sports book of 2018, but Leather Soul is special, as good a sporting identity’s life story as I have read in several years. Maybe, as the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in the UK did last month, I should have declared a tie. But as Brad Cooper might say, it can be an honour to come second.
When I wrote recently about the 'death' of Australian sports books, I was highlighting the fact that people are not buying good sports books as they did in days gone by, fewer people still are reading them, and it can be desperately hard to effectively promote them. There is a certain irony that, at a time when sales of all but the biggest ‘celebrity’ sports books are slumping, the Australian sports publishing industry can still produce books of the calibre of Leather Soul and Encyclopedia of Socceroos, and also Eddie Jones, The Wallabies at War, Oppy, The Peter Norman Story, The Finest Gold and more. What all the stakeholders — authors, booksellers, publishers, fans, reviewers, administrators and members of the media — need to do now is create an environment that ensures this can continue. Australian sport will be much the poorer if we do not.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2018
Bob Murphy: Leather Soul; Nero
Andrew Howe: Encyclopedia of Socceroos; Fair Play Publishing
Mike Colman: Eddie Jones: Rugby Maverick; Allen & Unwin
Greg Growden: The Wallabies at War; ABC Books
Daniel Oakman: Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman; Melbourne Books
I was lucky to get my hands on several superb sports books from overseas in 2018. The best from the UK, in my view, were State of Play, by Michael Calvin, a remarkable expose of modern football, Berlin 1936: Sixteen Days in August, by Oliver Hilmes, a riveting account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and How Football Began: A Global History of how the World’s Football Codes Were Born, by the remarkable rugby league historian Tony Collins. My favourite two books from the US were Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, by Mark Leibovich, and Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Fall of the USFL, by Jeff Pearlman.
ONE OF THE VERY best sports books published in Australia in 2017 is Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond, by Konrad Marshall. A senior writer with Fairfax Media and a devoted Richmond fan, Marshall attached himself to his favourite club for two seasons to produce a remarkable record of the Tigers’ path to grand final glory. The book is a publishing triumph for the Slattery Media Group — not because of the sales figures (which are strong), but because they took on the project long before Richmond emerged as a genuine premiership contender, and then had an exceptional book in shops not long after the flag was won.
It’s actually not difficult to get a book out quickly after a major event, but it is hard to do it well. Yellow & Black has been likened to The Coach, John Powers’ famous study of Ron Barassi and North Melbourne in 1977, and that is an apt comparison. It looks a bit like a mini Yellow Pages, and maybe it is a little too long, but it’s a fantastic story told with great passion and perception.
Sadly, in Sydney at least, it’s also very hard to find. Up here, there are plenty of copies of the autobiographies of recently retired players to be found, even though these books are pedestrian at best, while it took me ages to locate even one copy of Marshall’s outstanding work. Why? My guess is that back in the middle of the year, when upcoming Christmas books were being presented to the bookshops, the quality and excitement of Yellow & Black was a hard sell. Who’d have thought Richmond would win the comp?
Better to play safe with household names. The publishing industry decided a diary of a mid-table Victorian club’s season was too esoteric even for Swans and Giants fans. Similarly, the biographies of former VFL champions Phil Carmen and Roy Cazaly, both published mid-season in Melbourne, were deemed suitable only for aficionados in the southern states.
I’m really not sure why in the 21st century publishers have to ‘sell in’ books so early. The flavour of the month in May or June is often stale by November. It’s a crazy, antiquated system that in 2017 will lead to many AFL fans in NSW and Queensland receiving a book from Santa that they will never or hardly read, while a much better product remains, for them, unknown. Many people in professional sport and in publishing take the attitude that, with sports books at least, any book will do. I once had a high-profile player agent say to me, ‘Mate, it doesn’t matter what you write, we’ve already got the advance.’ The titles in the Christmas catalogues are not the best sports books of the year, but the ones for which the publishers have paid the biggest advances. Book buyers with little knowledge of sport need and want guidance, but they are not getting any — instead, as a reflex, they buy books for their husbands, fathers, sons and daughters with the name of a sporting celebrity on the cover, as if it’s a souvenir. They should be buying books by Konrad Marshall or, to use a rugby league example, by Ian Heads, because they are outstanding books that will actually be read; instead, they end up with a book that’s not much good, and the reputation of Australian sports publishing in the wider community drops another notch with every purchase.
I know from experience that it is very difficult to ghost a great book if the subject is not fully engaged. A few years ago, I was asked to write 70,000 words for a cricketer who gave me six hours of his time, including coffee breaks; I consider the end-result to be one of the better books I’ve worked on, because I made something out of nothing. Those who got it for Christmas probably thought it was rubbish. The best sporting autobiographies published in the UK in 2017 are streets ahead of what is being produced by Australia’s biggest stars — one sledge Jonny Bairstow might like to try with Steve Smith is, ‘My book’s a lot better than yours!’
The one exception to this trend in 2017 is Unbroken, Jelena Dokic’s story of her life so far, which from its simple yet striking front cover by photographer Simon Upton and designer Luke Causby to the final page is often brutal and harrowing, and always compelling. Dokic is not particularly likeable — her ghost Jessica Halloran has done an excellent job in presenting a complicated character in three dimensions — but that, in a way, is the point. Only a very stubborn and persistent individual could have survived let alone won on the tennis court as often as she did.
Not that Unbroken is the best Australian sporting autobiography of the year. That accolade, in my view, goes to Phil Jarratt’s Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey. The back cover describes Jarratt as ‘one of surfing’s foremost authorities [who has] worked in surf publishing and the surf industry for more than 40 years’ but as this rollicking and riveting book reveals, he is actually much more than that. Celebrity names jump off the page, but the yarn never gets too self-indulgent; the best paragraphs are the deeply personal ones. Like Steve Mascord, the author of Touchstones, Jarratt is originally from the Illawarra. Again like Mascord, Jarratt is obsessed, in his case with the perfect wave — finding it and writing about its magic and the men and women who are similarly entranced. As a seasoned journo who has reported on a wide variety of sports and cultures, I think Jarratt might get Mascord’s love of league and rock’n’roll. I’m sure they’d get each other.
Australian horse racing gave us two terrific books this year: Max Presnell’s Good Losers Die Broke and Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion, by Ken Linnett. Presnell, a product of a bygone era in racing journalism, has written a genuine page-turner, though his book is more a collection of good racing yarns than a group-one memoir. Tulloch was one of Australia’s best thoroughbreds and perhaps our greatest ever three-year-old (yes, even better than Phar Lap), and at times his back-story is as fascinating as his wins were massive. Linnett handles all this in superb fashion; this is much more than just a collection of race commentaries. Just one gripe: whoever it was who decided to constantly put the metric equivalent in brackets after the imperial measurement — nine stone (57kg) … 3–1 ($4) … six furlongs (1200m) — please don’t do it again.
The Australian cricket books of 2017 are a mixed bunch. Austin Robertson’s Cricket Outlaws, which provides an insider’s account of World Series Cricket, looks and sometimes reads like a cousin of our very own Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, which means it’s pretty good. Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second is one of the weirdest books I’ve seen and read in a long time. A book that focuses on and features the work of the greatest of all cricket photographers, Patrick Eagar, it is small-format hardback printed on cheap stock, so the photos don’t jump out at you. That old line about a photograph being worth a thousand words is especially true with a genius such as Eagar, yet too often Ryan overwrites to the point that I had to re-read a sentence three or four times before I think I got the point. Yet for all the panache of the paragraphs, the author occasionally reduces champions such as Doug Walters to a cliché. Still, I read the book in one sitting and now that I’ve got through the pile of books all around me, I want to read it again.
The cricket book I enjoyed most this year was Chappell’s Last Stand, by Michael Sexton. Of course, I’m fifty-something now and I was fifteen then, but the cricket heroes of the ’70s seem so more rounded and interesting than the shrunken stars of today, and Sexton has done a mighty job searching out names such as Yagmich, Curtin and Prior to proudly stand next to Chappell, Mallett and Hookes. The book is flawed, with a cover photo of Ian Chappell wearing a baggy green and not a South Australian cap, no stats section, no photos and no index, which is why there is no cricket book in my top five for 2017.
Outside of Stoke Hill Press’s The Great Grand Final Heist by Ian Heads, the best rugby league book of the year is, as usual, David Middleton’s Official Rugby League Annual. The lack of a worthy rugby union book is another indication of the decline of a once fine sport. For golfers, I can recommend Matt Cleary’s A Short History of Golf, which often goes from very good to excellent even if it looks, to me, like it’s come straight out of a 1970s remainder bin. Fans of Olympic sports could try The Medal Maker by Roger Vaughan, a biography of the legendary sailing coach Victor Kovalenko.
Alternatively, they could turn to one of the more intriguing sports books of the year: Cold War Games, by Harry Blutstein, which recalls the ‘spies, subterfuge and secret operations of the 1956 Olympic Games’. The level of research in parts is quite remarkable, as Blutstein has trawled through sources from many countries, not all of them English-speaking, so he can give fresh perspective and fascinating insights on aspects of the Melbourne Games that we only thought we knew about. Like Chappell’s Last Stand, I really wanted to include this book in my top five books of the year, but unfortunately the descriptions of sport on the field are often laboured and simplistic, and some of the errors I recognised (all, of course, relating to Olympic records and athletic performances) eventually had me questioning the accuracy of everything.
Just one example: on page 206–207, Blutstein recalls the women’s 4x100m track relay, and how the German team, which competed as a ‘unified’ country, rather than as East and West, included West German Maria Sander-Domagala as a late replacement for her compatriot Erika Fisch. Blutstein describes Sander-Domagala as a ‘steeplechaser’, the implication being that she was a distance runner included as an act of sabotage by officials who did want the team to be made up of four East Germans. In fact, Sander-Domagala was a sprinter who won a silver medal in the relay, a bronze in the 80m hurdles and was fifth in the 100m final at the 1952 Olympics. When I saw ‘steeplechaser’, I wondered whether Blumstein’s lack of sporting understanding was letting him down, or was he gilding the lily?
I am always reticent to criticise books for factual errors, because I know — as hard as I try — that my books are not perfect. There is an element of pot-kettle-black about authors and publishers highlighting errors in other people’s work. One of Australian sport’s finest writers reviewed a book for The Weekend Australian in 2017, and in that review he complained about the book not having an index, a criticism that might have carried more weight if his acclaimed book from 2016 had included one. I remember how a cricket journal of some repute once featured a scathing book review, in which countless mistakes in a recently published book were highlighted. It might have been karma, fate or something similar that made for the first word in the first line after the review to be badly misspelt.
And then there was a Twitter exchange I saw during 2017 concerning Joe Gorman’s The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, when an online pundit tweeted indignantly: ‘Gorman's description of the Australia vs Uruguay match in Sydney in 1973 had them playing at the wrong stadium … if you know your football history, you know it was played at the SCG.’
Of course, if you know your football history, you’d know the game was played in 1974. It is true that the game was played at the Sydney Cricket Ground and not the Sydney Sports Ground as Gorman states, but I can certainly live with that error because over the course of 372 pages Gorman’s work is important and magnificent. This is not just a book about soccer, though there is plenty of that, but also about our country’s uneasy relationship with multiculturalism. Early on, Gorman leans heavily on the contribution of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian refugee who settled in Australia after the second Great War and rarely stopped writing and dreaming about what soccer in his adopted country could be. The game’s good times and bad in the ’80s and ’90s, many of which I sort of knew about, are recalled with verve and clarity, as is the evolution of the national competition as it morphed into the A-League. How Gorman retains his optimism is, frankly, beyond me, but it’s a huge credit to him that he does so. This is not Australian soccer’s obituary but an incisive spotlight showing where it needs to go.
In my view, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer is the Australian sports book of 2017, ahead of Yellow & Black, Life of Brine, Tulloch and Unbreakable.
I read several outstanding books from overseas in 2017. The pick of them was How to Build a Car by Adrian Newey, one of the pre-eminent car designers in the history of Formula One. Like many, I’m sure, I went straight to the pages relating to the death of Ayrton Senna, which are written so adroitly and honestly that I quickly decided to start at the beginning. From that point, like Newey’s cars, I never stopped.
In most other years, I would have made Anquetil, Alone, by Paul Fournel — which was originally published in France in 2012 but was translated into English this year — my No. 1 overseas book. It’s a book like no other, eccentric, revealing and very clever, a book about hero worship almost as much as its hero, Jacques Anquetil, the five-time Tour de France winner. I also really enjoyed two high-quality football biographies: Andrew Downie’s Doctor Sócrates: Footballer, Philosopher, Legend and Ian Herbert’s Quite Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager. The ‘surprise packet’ was Swell: A Waterbiography, by Jenny Landreth, which explains how women in early 20th-century England had to fight for the right to swim in public places. I confess: I bought it for my wife and daughter. Then I began reading, just to see what it was about, and was entranced.
The best book from America was Jonathan Eig’s colossal study of Muhammad Ali, which adds much to the Ali story even though there have been countless biographies and profiles produced since the legendary fighter first emerged in the late ’50s. The book has a sensational cover, my favourite of 2017, but Eig’s biggest triumph is that he paints Ali as an imperfect character, yet still heroic. The goal is not to cut the legend down, but to humanise him.
I also relished and often argued with Jay Jaffe’s The Cooperstown Casebook, an analysis of who is and isn’t in the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is surprisingly readable and deliberately provocative. I just wish that baseball’s stats gurus weren’t so smug.
There are many ways to measure greatness, not just numbers, but the ‘sabermetricians’, as baseball geeks like to call themselves, seem to think their numbers and acronyms matter so much more than traditional measuring sticks. In truth, sporting stats are like publishing sales figures — they help determine successes and failures, but they don’t always prove who or what is the best in the field.
Best Australian Sports Books of 2017
Joe Gorman: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer; University of Queensland Press
Konrad Marshall: Yellow & Black: A Season with Richmond; Slattery Media Group
Phil Jarratt: Life of Brine: A Surfer’s Journey; Hardie Grant Books
Ken Linnett: Tulloch: The Extraordinary Life and Times of a True Champion; Slattery Media Group
Jelena Dokic (with Jessica Halloran): Unbreakable; Ebury Press (Penguin Random House)
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, and I wonder why Richie: The Man Behind the Legend wasn’t mentioned, especially given how well the book has been received. I was 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)