AT CHRISTMAS TIME FOR the past five years, I have produced a fairly lengthy study of the best sports books published in Australia during the previous 12 months. This year, I am going to simply offer my view as to the best five Australian sports books of the year. They are:
After the Count: The Death of Davey Browne, by Stephanie Convery (Viking/Penguin Random House)
Golden Daze: The Best Years of Australian Surfing, by Sean Doherty (Hachette)
The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries?, by Ashley Gray (Pitch Publishing)
The Big O: The Life and Times of Olsen Filipaina, by Patrick Skene (Mower/Upstart Press)
1989: The Great Grand Final, by Tony Wilson (Hardie Grant Books)
The best of these, in my view, is The Unforgiven, an extraordinary study of the rebel West Indies cricket teams that toured South Africa in 1982–83 and 1983–84. The book was published in the UK by Pitch Publishing, but the author, Ashley Gray, to borrow a line from the back flap of the book, ‘grew up fending off bouncers and sledges in Newcastle, NSW’. That makes it an Australian sports book in my eyes. It’s unquestionably one of the most absorbing cricket books written in recent times, and edges out Stephanie Convery’s harrowing account of a boxing tragedy for my Australian sports book of the year.
The other three titles aren’t too far behind. Tony Wilson’s fond recall of the 1989 Hawthorn-Geelong VFL Grand Final was the most engaging of several excellent AFL books in 2020. Patrick Skene’s story of a true rugby league pioneer, a man who led the way for all the Maori and Pasifika footballers who have starred in the NRL in the last 25 years, is the best rugby league biography since Paul Kent’s study of Sonny Bill Williams from 2015. Sean Doherty’s entertaining tale, told though a succession of short well-illustrated bios of some of our greatest surfers, is the latest in a run of excellent surfing books produced by Australian publishers.
There were, of course, many more than five excellent sports books published in Australia this year. For women’s sport, a list that includes some good books — though, weirdly, not Anna Meares Now, which I’m sure is better than any of them — recently appeared at the excellent Siren: A Women in Sport Collective website (sirensport.com.au). A week earlier, the Footy Almanac published a list of recently released books by ‘friends of the Almanac’ that includes Mike Coward’s intriguing biography of the great all-rounder Frank Tarrant and titles by a few other cricket writers who have been mentioned in some of my previous annual reviews, such as Michael Sexton, Gideon Haigh and Bernard Whimpress.
These lists and my top five confirm there are some excellent sports books being published in Australia, even if sales figures suggest otherwise. The challenge remains to convince booksellers, readers, reviewers, administrators and the media that Australian sports publishing is a business worth saving.