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)