20150826

A wonderful appreciation of the quintessential English summer game

Summer's Crown: The Story of Cricket's County Championship, by Stephen Chalke (Fairfield Books) £20.00


Available from Amazon, Waterstones and other retailers

Academic and cricket lover Stephen Chalke, the man behind Fairfield Books, has written some 16 books on his favourite subject.  Most - if not all of them - have won critical acclaim; four have won awards. Summer's Crown might be his best yet. 

Chalke's latest work is a history of the County Championship, the competition conceived in 1890 to serve the interests of eight founder members and, 125 years later, somehow still going, repeatedly defying the odds against its survival. It is a weighty volume, some 352 pages long.  As such, it might have been a pretty dull affair, a catalogue of facts and figures and turgid chronology.  But not in the hands of Stephen Chalke.

Beautifully written, as you might expect, it is also superbly well organised.  After an introductory chapter, there are a couple of pages on each of the counties, providing a brief history, a table showing Championship placings for each season, a list of grounds used and some basic statistics (most runs, most wickets, most appearances).  Then comes the history of the Championship, broken down into decades, with some statistics, but mainly stories, and wonderfully told stories, which enable the reader to delve into each decade and emerge with a real appreciation of how the game was.  There are stories of matches and of players, of events on the field and off it, all set in the context of the times; there are serious stories and quirky stories, recounting developments of significance as well as moments that capture the joy and pleasure that county cricket has provided throughout its existence. 

Finally, for the things that needed to be recorded but which did not fit neatly into the tale of each decade there is an appendix; and like the rest of the book it is a treasure trove of facts and figures, features and stories, crafted portraits and fascinating discourse.   And throughout there are some superb illustrations, contemporary and historic.

Chalke's strength has always been his ability to convey the character and personality of individual players, adding real colour to the facts and statistics of a career. A history of a monolith  institution such as the County Championship must have tested him yet Summer's Crown is a triumph, bringing out all the eccentric charm of a game that occupies a unique place in English social history.  For anyone who loves county cricket, and not only those who find pleasure in the warm glow of nostalgia, this book will be a joy. More awards await.

20150805

Usain Bolt, Kevin Keegan, Ingemar Johansson and English Leg Spin come under the spotlight in a quartet of new titles

NEW BOOKS

A selection of new sports books

The Bolt Supremacy: Inside Jamaica's Sprint Factory, by Richard Moore (Yellow Jersey) £18.99


Available from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith and other retailers

In nine of the last 11 years, the fastest time of the year for the men's 100m has been set by a Jamaican; seven times in the same period, the fastest time for the women's 100m has also been set by a Jamaican.  The latest phenomenon, Usain Bolt, is not only the fastest of them all but possibly the most recognisable sportsman or woman on the planet.

Sprinters define Jamaica. So what is the secret of this one island's incredible success?  Genetics? Diet? The island's love of athletics that sees crowds of 35,000 turn up for high school championships? Or something more sinister?

Richard Moore, who learned a good deal about success achieved by unfair means in previous books about cyclist Robert Millar and the banned Olympic 100m champion Ben Johnson, does not shy away from awkward questions in his quest to discover what lies behind Jamaica's extraordinary ability to produce the fastest human beings on the planet.

He is right to do so.  Since the 2008 Olympics, more than 20 Jamaican runners have tested positive for banned substances, including Bolt's training partner, Johan Blake, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price, the double Olympic 100m champion.  Bolt, it should be stressed, has been tested more than 100 times and always been clean.

Moore does not reveal any vast scandal, although inevitably there are not many willing to talk about such a possibility. Moreover, he does find is a history of chaotic drug testing procedures, which does not help in quelling suspicions.

However, this highly readable book should not be disparaged for the lack of career-ending evidence of the kind that some recent cycling books have been able to present.  Success on the track is not all about cheating and Moore outlines many quite plausible and yet entirely innocent possibilities behind the Jamaican phenomenon.

Touching Distance: Kevin Keegan, The Entertainers and Newcastle's Impossible Dream, by Martin Hardy (de Coubertin) £18.99.


Available from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith and other retailers

In February, 1992, facing relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in their history, Newcastle United were also on the point of financial collapse.  Were they to go down, the club would probably go out of business.  Sir John Hall, whose Magpie Group were gradually winning a long battle to take control of the club, took an enormous gamble by appointing Kevin Keegan as manager.

Keegan, twice European Footballer of the Year, had played for the club between 1982 and 1984, during which time he had become a talismanic figure for Newcastle fans, helping them win promotion in his second season.  Yet he had been out of football since and was completely new to management.

Incredibly, Keegan saved them from relegation, Newcastle beating Leicester City away on the final day of the season to ensure their survival.  Yet it was only the beginning of an incredible era in the club's history. Exactly four years after Keegan's return to the north east,  Newcastle were top of the Premier League, nine points clear of Manchester United, having played a game less.

Now they were on the brink of a fairytale.  Keegan's team had thrilled the crowds with wonderful, exuberant attacking football.  Sky TV dubbed them The Entertainers.  They would take part in a game at Anfield that became widely recognised as the best the Premier League has ever seen.  Yet they lost that game and the season too would end in glorious failure as Manchester United, winning 13 of their last 15 games in that 1995-96 season, relentlessly chased them down.

Yet should such a memorable season really be recalled in terms of failure?  Martin Hardy, a north-east journalist, does not think so.  He believes some of the comments made about Keegan in the last 20 years, that his teams could not defend or that he crumbled in the face of Sir Alex Ferguson's mind games, are harsh and that going so close deserves to be celebrated.

Touching Distance, based on extensive interviews with Sir John Hall, with Keegan and other members of his coaching staff, and with many of the players, sets out to do that.   Hardy sets their recollections within a clever framework, with each chapter, more or less, based on a significant match, some historical -- it opens, for example, with Kevin Keegan's debut as a player in 1982 -- others providing a background narrative to the 1995-96 campaign.  For Black and White fans it will make compelling reading.

The Strange Death of English Leg Spin: How Cricket's Finest Art Was Given Away, by Justin Parkinson (Pitch Publishing) £12.99


Available from Amazon, WaterstonesWHSmith and other retailers

From the moment he delivered That Ball to Mike Gatting at Old Trafford in 1993, in every Test he played in thereafter it took only the announcement of his name over the public address to set off a murmur of anticipation: Shane Warne, the leg spinner, was coming on to bowl and anything could happen.

List the top 10 leg spinners of all time and, as well as being Australian or Asian, the majority are players from the last 20 or 30 years. Yet in the last half-century, England have used only seven specialist leg-spin bowlers, who have made just 24 Test appearances between them, even though, as Justin Parkinson explains, leg spin was originally the invention of an Englishman.

Between the wars, Yorkshire apart, every county had at least one proficient leg spinner, some more than one.  Parkinson theorises on what happened to change all that -- much of it down to lack of trust on the part of modern captains and coaches -- and comes up with some suggestions of his own as to how the trend might be reversed.  These include, intriguingly, compulsory participation in a game called twisti-twosti, without which the googly, it transpires, might never have been invented.

Ingemar Johansson: Swedish Heavyweight Boxing Champion, by Ken Brooks (McFarland) £27.50


Available from Amazon, Waterstones and other retailers

Ingemar Johansson’s right hand - dubbed “The Hammer of Thor” - was the most fearsome in boxing, and Johansson’s three fights with Floyd Patterson rank among the sport’s classic rivalries.

Yet most fans know little about the Swedish playboy who won the world heavyweight championship in 1959 with a shocking third round knock-out of Patterson.  He held the title for six days short of a year but during his brief reign he became a familiar figure in fashionable nightspots in New York and back at home.  He had a romance with Elizabeth Taylor and refused to kowtow to the mobsters who controlled boxing.

Ken Brooks's biography chronicles Johansson's rise to fame as a teenage prodigy in Gothenburg and how he had to be persuaded not to give up boxing after his humiliating disqualification in front of home fans at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when his tactics in a match against the American Ed Sanders were interpreted as not putting up sufficient fight.  It charts his professional career and his life after boxing, which suffered when he began to develop dementia in his early 60s, almost certainly the consequence of blows to the head.

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20150619

Gareth Thomas autobiography Proud is Sports Book of the Year after winning public vote

Proud, the book in which Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas describes the anguish that drove him close to suicide before he decided to end years of deceit and admit to his homosexuality, has been voted Sports Book of the Year for 2015 in an online poll.

Published by Ebury, Proud won Best Autobiography at the Cross British Sports Book Awards 2015 before all 10 category winners at the annual prizegiving event were thrown open to readers to name their choice for the overall top sports title of the last 12 months.

Written with journalist and sportswriter Michael Calvin, who also won last year’s overall prize for his book, The Nowhere Men, Proud has been described as a breathtakingly moving and inspirational story.

Thomas for many years seemed to epitomise the macho culture of rugby. Known by his nickname 'Alfie', Thomas had cultivated the image of hard-drinking hellraiser to which rugby players were almost expected to conform.  Ironically, the publicity accompanying his first biography, entitled Alfie described how he had reached the top of his profession 'simply by being himself'.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Thomas was leading a double life.  Aware of being gay from his late teens, he kept it a secret for years, even marrying Jemma, the pretty girl from a neighbouring village whose mail he would deliver when he worked as a postman. But after growing weary of the lies and cover-ups, of the moments of intolerable despair, he came out.  His bravery in doing so has led to Thomas being contacted for advice and support by many people within sport and beyond who have found themselves grappling with similar conflicts in their personal lives.

Thomas, who dedicated the award to the memory of his friend, Danny Jones, the rugby league player who died suddenly after collapsing on the field last month, said: “I’m proud, in so many ways, to win this award. The book means so much to me because I have discovered that it means so much to others.”

Co-author Calvin described winning the online vote as "a huge honour."

“It is uniquely important since it involves recognition from not just an eminent panel of judges, but also the support of our readers," he said. "Being named as Sports Book of the Year at the Cross British Sports Book Awards is a huge honour for us.

"From a personal point of view, winning for the second successive year is pretty humbling. But Gareth deserves greater credit for having the moral courage to tell his story with such fearlessness and emotional intelligence. We laughed and we cried in writing the book, and will probably do the same when we meet up to celebrate this win. Thanks to everyone involved.”

Buy Proud: My Autobiography, by Gareth Thomas from Amazon, Waterstones or WHSmith.

The other category winners announced at the awards ceremony at Lord’s earlier this month were:

Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry, by Bill Jones, (Outstanding Sports Writing)

Bobby Moore: The Man in Full, by Matt Dickinson (Biography of the Year)

Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan, by Peter Oborne, (Cricket Book of the Year)

Thirty-One Nil: On the Road With Football's Outsiders, by James Montague (Football Book of the Year)

Beyond the Horizon: Extreme Adventures at the Edge of the World, by Richard Parks with Michael Aylwin (Rugby Book of the Year)

Cheltenham et AL: The Best of Alastair Down, by Alastair Down, (Horse Racing Book of the Year).

The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, the Iron Curtain and the Greatest Cycling Race on Earth, by Herbie Sykes (Cycling Book of the Year)

Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport, by Anna Krien (New Writer of the Year)

The Age of Innocence: Football in the 1970s , edited by Reuel Golden (Illustrated Book of the Year)

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20150604

Gareth Thomas's Proud and Bobby Moore biography head the line-up of winners at the 2015 Cross British Sports Book Awards


  • Bobby Moore: The Man in Full is Biography of the Year

  • Thirty-One Nil is best Football Book

  • Cricket Book award goes to Wounded Tiger

  • Gareth Thomas's Proud is Autobiography of the Year



Gareth Thomas, Matt Dickinson, James Montague, Richard Parks, Peter Oborne, Alastair Down, Herbie Sykes, Bill Jones and Anna Krien were recognised for their outstanding contributions to sports literature at the 2015 British Sports Book Awards, sponsored by pen makers Cross.

They were the headline winners at a ceremony hosted by broadcaster and former cricketer Jonathan Agnew at Lord's cricket ground in London.

Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British and Irish Lions captain who played both Rugby Union and Rugby League in a glittering career, won the Autobiography of the Year prize for Proud (Ebury Press), written with the help of journalist and author Michael Calvin, which tells the story of how Thomas found the courage to admit to being gay in the macho world of rugby.

Thomas dedicated the award to Danny Jones, the Keighley Cougars rugby league player who last month died from cardiac arrest triggered by an undetected heart condition.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Co-writer Calvin was himself a winner in 2014 with The Nowhere Men, his study of football's vast army of talent scouts, which was named as Football Book of the Year and won the public vote for overall Sports Book of the Year.

Publishers Yellow Jersey and Bloomsbury both scored two wins each.

The 2015 category winners all now go forward to a public online vote to determine the 2015 Cross Sports Book of the Year.  More details...

Football Book of the Year this time is Thirty-One Nil (Bloomsbury), written by James Montague, a freelance sports writer who set out to discover what the World Cup means in some of the world's most remote football outposts, in the nations whose quest for a place in the finals begins long before the major players have even thought about their route to the showcase event.  The title commemorates the record scoreline in a World Cup qualification match, when Australia beat American Samoa 31-0 in April 2001.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Montague beat a strong field that included Bobby Moore: The Man in Full (Yellow Jersey), which instead won Biography of the Year for Matt Dickinson, chief sports writer at The Times.

Dickinson's portrait of the 1966 World Cup winning captain was notable not only for the depth of research but for its lack of sentimentality, delving behind the golden boy image to discover the true identity of one of football's greatest icons, not with any malevolent intent but simply to find the real person behind the caricature.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Richard Parks, another former Wales rugby player, won Rugby Book of the Year for Beyond the Horizon: Extreme Adventures at the Edge of the World (Sphere), in which Parks tells the story of how he moved on when injury ended his career prematurely to take on extreme challenges such as climbing the highest mountain in every continent and visiting both the North and South Poles, all in the space of seven months.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Peter Oborne's expansive Wounded Tiger: The History of Cricket in Pakistan (Simon & Schuster) won the Cricket Book of the Year award, turning the tables on Dan Waddell's Field of Shadows, the story of an English cricket tour of Nazi Germany, by which it was pipped for the Cricket Society-MCC Book of the Year.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith


Alastair Down, the horse racing writer and bon viveur, won the Horse Racing Book of the Year for Cheltenham Et Al (Racing Post Books), a collection of his witty and colourful journalism for the Racing Post.


Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Cycling Book of the Year went to The Race Against the Stasi (Aurum Press), in which journalist and author Herbie Sykes tells the incredible story of Dieter Wiedemann, the East German cyclist and a poster boy for the athletic supremacists of the communist Eastern Bloc and the Peace Race, the cycling stage event dubbed the Tour de France of the East.  Wiedeman, though, abhorred his country's ideology, fell in love with a girl from the other side of the Berlin Wall and, in defiance of the Stasi secret police who sought to control his life, defected to the West.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Bill Jones, the writer and television producer who was Best New Writer in 2012 for The Ghost Runner, won the Outstanding Sports Writing award for Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry (Bloomsbury), which explores the troubled life and early death of the former Olympic figure skating champion.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Anna Krien took the Best New Writer award this time for Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport (Yellow Jersey) which began as the reporting of a rape case involving a young Australian rules football player and developed as an eye-opening expose of a culture of abuse towards women in Australian sports.  Night Games was the winner of the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

Available from: Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith

Other awards went to Reuel Golden as editor of The Age of Innocence: Football in the 1970s (Taschen), a photographic history that won Illustrated Book of the Year, to Elizabeth Allen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion) and Jane Beaton (Kew Publicity), who co-ordinated the Publicity Campaign behind Roy Keane's The Second Half, and to Waterstones as Retailer of the Year.

Sir Michael Parkinson, the journalist and broadcaster, received a special award for his Outstanding Contribution to Sports Writing.

Each of the individual category winners will be entered into an online public vote to determine the overall Cross British Sports Book of the Year.

The winners:

Autobiography Proud: My Autobiography (Ebury Press), by Gareth Thomas with Michael Calvin.

Biography Bobby Moore: The Man in Full (Yellow Jersey), by Matt Dickinson.

Football Thirty-One Nil: On the Road with Football's Outsiders (Bloomsbury), by James Montague

Rugby Beyond the Horizon: Extreme Adventures at the Edge of the World (Sphere), by Richard Parks.

Cricket Wounded Tiger: The History of Cricket in Pakistan (Simon & Schuster), by Peter Oborne.

Horse Racing Cheltenham et AL: The Best of Alastair Down (Racing Post Books), by Alastair Down.

Cycling The Race Against the Stasi: The Incredible Story of Dieter Wiedemann, The Iron Curtain and The Greatest Cycling Race on Earth (Aurum Press), by Herbie Sykes.

Outstanding Writing Alone: The Triumph and Tragedy of John Curry (Bloomsbury) by Bill Jones.

New Writer Night Games: Sex, Power and a Journey into the Dark Heart of Sport (Yellow Jersey), by Anna Krien.

Illustrated The Age of Innocence. Football in the 1970s (Taschen), edited by Reuel Golden.

Publicity Campaign Elizabeth Allen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Orion) and Jane Beaton (Kew Publicity) for Roy Keane: The Second Half (W & N), by Roy Keane and Roddy Doyle.

Retailer of the Year Waterstones

Outstanding Contribution to Sports Writing Sir Michael Parkinson

More reading: The full shortlists for the Cross British Sports Book Awards

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20150520

Fotheringham on Bernard Hinault, David Gower on his 50 best cricketers and Norman Giller on Muhammad Ali among latest titles

NEW BOOKS - SOME HIGHLIGHTS


Cycling

Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling, by William Fotheringham (Yellow Jersey)

The striking from the record of Lance Armstong's seven wins reinstated Bernard Hinault as the champion of multiple Tour de France victories, jointly with his French compatriot Jacques Anquetil, the legendary Belgian Eddy Merckx and Spain's Miguel Indurain, all of whom won the race five times.

Yet three decades on from his retirement, Hinault remains the last Frenchman to win the Tour. His victory in 1985 marks the turning point when the nation who had dominated the first eight decades of the race they had invented suddenly found they were no longer able to win it.

Hinault was a larger-than-life character from a working-class background.  Nicknamed the 'Badger' for his combative style, he led a cyclists’ strike in his first Tour and instigated a legendary punch-up with political demonstrators who brought the 1982 race to a halt.  Hinault's battles with team-mates Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond provide some of the greatest moments in Tour history.

In Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling, the author and journalist author William Fotheringham, whose back catalogue includes a best-selling portrait of Eddy Merckz, unravels this fascinating character and explores the reasons why the nation that considers itself cycling’s home has found it so hard to produce another champion.

Fotheringham, who covers cycling for the Guardian and Observer, is the author of Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike as well as Fallen Angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi and Put Me Back On My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson, plus Roule Britannia: Great Britain and the Tour de France.

Cricket

David Gower's 50 Greatest Cricketers of All Time (Icon Books)

David Gower, the former England captain and batting stylist, attempts to name his 50 greatest players of all time, a task he confesses what much more difficult even than he imagined.  it was, he says in the introduction, subject to several revisions, which should at least reassure the reader that he took the process seriously.

The list covers every era, not only his own, although his descriptions of his contemporaries benefit from some illuminating first-hand recollections and anecdotes. Who was the best of the great West Indian quicks? Have England heroes like Geoff Boycott, Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff made the cut? Who has been the greatest Australian batsman, post-Bradman? All is revealed in this lively and contentious celebration of cricket's true greats.

Pietersen does make the list, coming in somewhat further down the pecking order than some would put him.  Gower admits there were grounds for leaving him out over his behaviour but reckons it would have been unjust to do so, not least because the outrageous talent that many assume was a gift was actually developed through endless hours of practice.

Gower's top 10 reveals, not surprisingly, a bias towards batsmen.  It also contains four West Indians, three Englishmen, two Australians and one Indian. but that's where the clues end.

Boxing

The Ali Files: His Fights, His Foes, His Fees, His Feats, His Fate, by Norman Giller (Pitch Publishing)


Although it is more than 30 years since Muhammad Ali last threw a punch, he remains probably the best-known sportsman of all time.  A whole generation now only know the legend of The Greatest, never saw him fight, and yet are in awe of the man, his fantastic feats and his unique character.

Norman Giller, the British journalist and author, became friends with Ali when he worked as his European publicist, and he has gathered many other intimate eyewitnesses, among them opponents, referees, trainers, sparring partners, celebrity fans and ringside reporters, to recall Ali's astonishing adventures in and out of the ring.

Millions of words have been written about ringmaster Ali, but few books have concentrated on the 61 professional contests that turned him into a sporting legend. The Ali Files will give you a ringside seat to the greatest boxing career of all time.

Athletics

Athletics 2015: The International Track & Field Annual, edited by Peter Matthews (Sportsbooks)

Now in its 129th year, the 2015 edition of the athletics bible features French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie as its front cover star, following his 2014 achievement that many thought was impossible, namely to break the great Sergey Bubka’s world record. 

Not only that he had the nerve to better it in Bubka's hometown of Donetsk, Ukraine. He also claimed his third European title, won the overall Diamond League title and extended his unbeaten streak to 21 competitions before he failed to clear a height in Stockholm. As usual the annual is packed full of essential information for the track and field enthusiast, with results and reports from all major championships.



Motor Racing

Stirling Moss: My Racing Life, by Sir Stirling Moss with Simon Taylor (Evro Publishing)

In a book published to mark the 60th anniversary of Moss' famous win in the 1955 Mille Miglia road race in a Mercedes 300SLR, Stirling Moss guides the reader through his motor racing life with a fascinating, insightful and often amusing commentary to an unrivalled collection of over 300 photographs, many of which will be unfamiliar to even his most ardent fans.

He takes us from his childhood to the height of his fame as 'Mr Motor Racing' and then to the sudden end of his career with that crash at Goodwood in 1962. Along the way, the reader can dwell on his finest moments as well as the setbacks, including that 1955 Mercedes season and its twin highlights a winning the Mille Miglia and the British Grand Prix and his two brilliant Formula One seasons with the British team Vanwall, as well as his two celebrated Monaco Grand Prix wins for Rob Walker.

There is a foreword by 2014 Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton.

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