20170304

Six on shortlist for the 2017 Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year Award

Books 'reflect passion and knowledge' - judges' chair Vic Marks


The shortlist of six for the 2017 Cricket Society and MCC Book of the Year Award shortlist has been announced.

The list comprises books by cricket presenter Mark Nicholas and journalist Emma John, who both write about their love for and fascination with cricket, a couple of titles by ex-England players in Graeme Fowler and Alan Butcher, the latest from the brilliant Gideon Haigh and a portrait of Pakistan cricket by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller.

Chair of judges Vic Marks said: “There is some good writing here. All six books reflect passion for and knowledge about their subject matter.  I look forward to lively discussion at the judges’ final meeting; there is no doubt we will come up with a worthy winner."

The competition, run by the Cricket Society since 1970 and in partnership with MCC since 2009, is for books nominated by MCC and Cricket Society Members, and is highly regarded by writers and publishers.

Last year’s winner was Simon Lister’s Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to its Feet. Dan Waddell won in 2015 with Field of Shadows: The English Cricket Tour of Nazi Germany 1937.

The six books on the shortlist are:

The Good Murunghu (Pitch Publishing), in which former England batsman Alan Butcher writes about his experiences as a coach amid the wreckage of cricket in Zimbabwe.

Graeme Fowler’s Absolutely Foxed (Simon & Schuster), in which the ex-England opener recalls his career as a player, talks about his more recent time as a university centre of excellence coach and also opens up about his struggle to live with depression.

Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius (Simon & Schuster), a wonderful portrait of Victor Trumper, generally regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, the title of which draws on the iconic image captured by the English cricketer abnd photographer George Beldam in 1905, which appears on the cover, of Trumper striding forward to drive.

Richard Heller and Peter Oborne’s White on Green: A Portrait of Pakistan Cricket (Simon & Schuster), a enjoyable collection of stories about Pakistan cricket and cricketers, notably for the depth of background research and some remarkable interviews.

Emma John’s Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket (Wisden), in which the author, now deputy editor of the Observer magazine, goes back to the fascination with cricket that helped launch her career.  A fine writer, Emma was the first woman to win an award for sports journalism.

Finally, Mark Nicholas’ A Beautiful Game, My love affair with cricket (Allen & Unwin), in which the former Hampshire captain and accomplished cricket broadcaster looks back on how the game has shaped his life.

Eleven books – nominated by either Cricket Society or MCC members (not publishers) – were accepted for the long list.

They were whittled down to six by a panel of judges independently chaired by writer, broadcaster and former England and Somerset cricketer Marks.  The other judges are David Kynaston and Stephen Fay for the MCC, and John Symons and Chris Lowe for the The Cricket Society.  Nigel Hancock, chairman of The Cricket Society, is the competition’s administrator.

The five books that did not make the cut were Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day (Pan Macmillan), Keith and Jennifer Booth’s Rebel with a Cause, The Life and Times of Jack Crawford (Chequered Flag), Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket (Yellow Jersey Press), Andrew Murtagh’s Test of Character (Pitch Publishing) and Jonathan Trott's Unguarded: My Autobiography (Sphere Little, Brown), written with George Dobell.

The £3,000 prize for the winner, and certificates for all the shortlisted books, will be presented at an awards evening in the Long Room at Lord’s on Wednesday April 19 in front of an audience of 200 people, which will comprise members of the Cricket Society and MCC, the shortlisted authors and publishers, as well as some of today’s finest cricket writers and journalists.

The Cricket Society – www.cricketsociety.com and Twitter @CricketSociety – encourages a love of cricket through playing, watching, reading and listening.  It supports young cricketers, makes annual awards, holds regular meetings, publishes an acclaimed Journal and Bulletin and has its own cricket team.

MCC is the custodian of the Laws and Spirit of Cricket, an innovative independent voice in world cricket, and a passionate promoter of the game.  It is also the world’s most active cricket-playing club and the owner of Lord’s – the Home of Cricket.

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20161124

William Finnegan's surfing tour de force Barbarian Days adds the Bookie Prize to his Pulitzer Prize

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


The winner is announced


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

By William Finnegan (Corsair) £9.99

William Finnegan  (centre) shows off the 2016 William Hill  Sports Book of the Year Award, flanked by (left-to-right)  judges Graham Sharpe, Alyson Rudd, Hugh McIlvanney, Mark Lawson, John Inverdale and Clarke Carlisle.
William Finnegan  (centre) shows off the 2016 William Hill
 Sports Book of the Year Award, flanked by (left-to-right)
 judges Graham Sharpe, Alyson Rudd, Hugh McIlvanney,
Mark Lawson, John Inverdale and Clarke Carlisle.
Surfing memoir Barbarian Days, described as “compelling, elegiac and profound” by the chair of the judging panel, has won the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award for American author William Finnegan.

The book, which has already won a Pulitzer Prize for the veteran New Yorker magazine writer, tells the story of Finnegan life through the prism of his 50-year obsession with surfing, from his childhood days in California and Hawaii to the present day.

Barbarian Days beat a particularly strong field to land the £28,000 cash prize that goes with the award, which also comes with a leather-bound commemorative copy of the book, a £2,500 free bet with the sponsors and a day at the races.

Finnegan's work was chosen from a shortlist that judges' chair and co-founder of the award Graham Sharpe dubbed "a ‘Magnificent Seven’ of sporting books".

The list comprised Diana Nyad's long-distance swimming memoir Find a Way,  Rick Broadbent’s Endurance, a biography of Czech Olympic runner Emil Zátopek, Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge’s Chasing Shadows, an investigation into the life and death of cricketer and journalist Peter Roebuck, Oliver Kay’s Forever Young, a biography of "football’s lost genius" Adrian Doherty, Rory Smith’s Mister, a study of how English coaches managers taught the world how to play football, and Christopher McGrath’s Mr Darley's Arabian, a history of horse racing through the lives of 25 horses united by one bloodline.

But it was Barbarian Days that impressed the judges the most.  In some ways a controversial inclusion on the shortlist, in that there is no element of competition either with other surfers or the record books, it won them over for the sheer brilliance of Finnegan's prose and the sharpness of his insights as he pursues a compelling quest to find the finest surf on the planet.

Broadcaster John Inverdale, who presented Finnegan with the award at a ceremony at BAFTA in central London, said that the decision of the judges had been unanimous.

“People thought this was a genuinely extraordinary book, about life – about a certain kind of life. It’s a bit hedonistic. It’s a bit reckless. A lot of people will identify with it. A lot of people will envy it.

"If you read it with an open mind, you will realise what an amazing thing life is and having some kind of engagement and passion for sport enables you to live life to the full.”

Another judge, the journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson, endorsed Inverdale's words, although he admitted that some on the panel had needed to be convinced that surfing should be considered as a sport.

"Although the author himself acknowledges the scepticism of some about whether surfing is a sport, the judges felt that Finnegan's account of the physical and psychological drive to achieve athletic perfection make Barbarian Days a worthy winner of the award.

"The autobiographical detail and precision of the writing also make it rewarding to those who might think they would struggle to get on board with surfing as a subject."

Finnegan, who now lives in Manhattan yet still surfs regularly off Long Island, has been a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine for nearly 30 years, often travelling to conflict zones and his previous books reflect that.

William Finnegan enjoys his triumph at the awards ceremony at BAFTA in central London
William Finnegan enjoys his triumph at the awards
ceremony at BAFTA in central London
Two have been rooted in his experiences in South Africa in the days of apartheid, another is about conflict in Mozambique and his most recent, Cold New World, shines a light into the bleak lives of disadvantaged American teenagers growing up hopeless and desperate in their own country.

Veteran William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe, who co-founded the award with the late John Gaustad, said of the winning entry: “Compelling, elegiac and profound throughout, Barbarian Days offers a revelatory and often dramatic study of the elegant art of surfing. As we follow William Finnegan’s story we see not just the maturing of a boy into a man, but of a rebellious soul coming to terms with society on his own terms.

"We also see, as we so often do, how sport reflects politics, economics and an ever-shrinking world, as surfers fight to protect their hidden beaches and continue their search for new waves to master.

"It’s a widescreen, technicolour winner. With a Pulitzer Prize and now the Bookie Prize to its name, surely Hollywood cannot be far behind.”

In addition to Sharpe, Lawson and Inverdale, the judging panel for this year’s award consisted of former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association chair Clarke Carlisle, broadcaster Danny Kelly, doyen of sportswriters Hugh McIlvanney, and Times writer and author Alyson Rudd.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

Read reviews of all the shortlisted titles:


Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game, by Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster), £18.99

Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life. Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray)


Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - Football's Lost Genius, by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, by Diana Nyad (Macmillan)

More reading:


And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

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20161123

The remarkable story of how long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad completed the Cuba-to-Florida epic challenge at the age of 64

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the Shortlist

Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life

By Diana Nyad (Knopf Publishing Group), £16.99

Review by Jon Culley

Diana Nyad, pictured earlier this year at a sports psychology conference in Phoenix
Diana Nyad, pictured earlier this year at a sports
psychology conference in Phoenix
This is the book that Hillary Clinton apparently said would remain by her side throughout her campaign to be President, as a source of inspiration.

Diana Nyad excelled at open water swimming. In 1975 she swam the entire 28 mile (45km) circumference of the island of Manhattan in a world record time and in 1978, on her 30th birthday, swam the 102 miles (164km) from the Bahamas to Florida.

This despite suffering abuse at the hands of both her stepfather and a swimming coach as an adolescent, and spending three months in hospital with a heart infection.

When she retired from competitive swimming, she pursued a successful career that combined journalism, broadcasting and motivational speaking among other things.

But all the time she was persistently nagged by the memory of something she had wanted to achieve but failed, which was to swim from Cuba to Florida Keys.

Strength of character


Among extreme distance swimmers, Cuba to Florida is like Mount Everest is to climbers, the ultimate challenge, a stretch of water possibly as intimidating as any on the planet, the point at which the Gulf of Mexico gives way to the Atlantic Ocean, prone to violent storms and unpredictable currents and home to shoals of deadly jellyfish and countless predatory sharks.

She had made an attempt in 1978, swimming inside a 20' by 40' shark cage, but had been forced to give up after 42 hours, having swum 76 miles (122km) but having been blown badly off course by winds so strong she was repeatedly slammed against the cage.

Nyad's friends will testify that they never expected one attempt would be enough, such is her strength of character and unwillingness to accept defeat.  Yet they would not have anticipated just how she would get back in the water and pull it off.

She did so on September 2, 2013, when she emerged on to the sands of Key West after swimming 111 miles from Havana in an epic feat of endurance and indefatigable will, completing the passage in 53 hours.

Descriptive powers


It was her fifth attempt, the final four taking place from 2011 onwards.  She was 64 years old.  Along the way, escorted by her support team, equipped with a protective suit to protect her from the horrific, paralysis-inducing jellyfish stings that had been her downfall in previous attempts - but with no shark cage - she sang to herself and regularly revisited the messages of her mantra, the one that had driven her not only in the water but in life.

A map detailing Nyad's five attempts to complete the epic swim from Cuba to Key West
A map detailing Nyad's five attempts to complete
the epic swim from Cuba to Key West
She made it part of the triumphant address she gave to the crowd that greeted her as she stepped out of the ocean at Key West.  "One," she said. "Never, ever give up.  Two: You're never too old to chase your dreams. Three: It looks a solitary sport, but it's a team."

Some critics have felt the book reveals a somewhat needy side to Nyad's personality, seeing in it a constant craving for self-justification.  Others, though, will find it an inspiration.

There is much about her life and the experiences that helped develop her personality.  Whether it is a personality that appeals is a matter for the individual but it is hard to imagine many readers will not be gripped by her descriptive powers as they are taken, almost stroke-by-stroke, through the perils of swimming in a hostile ocean, or will not appreciate the inner resources that sustained her through the long days and nights of training, enabling her to face down her fears and ultimately overcome the force of nature.

Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, by Diana Nyad (Knopf Publishing Group), £16.99

Buy from AmazonWaterstones or WH Smith


The winner of the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, worth £28,000 to the successful author, will be revealed at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday.  There will a poignancy about this year's award ceremony in that it will be the first since John Gaustad, the award's co-founder and proprietor of the much-missed Sportspages book shop in central London, passed away earlier this year.

Also shortlisted: Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game, by Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster), £18.99

Also shortlisted: Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life. Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray)

Also shortlisted: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing)

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits - Main picture of Diana Nyad by Gage Skidmore; Route may by Froggerlaura; via Wikimedia Commons)

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20161122

Giving the game away - how England's coaching missionaries taught the world how to beat us at football

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the Shortlist

Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game

By Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster), £18.99

Review by Jon Culley

Alan Rogers during his days as coach of the Iranian team Persepolis
Alan Rogers during his days as coach
of the Iranian team Persepolis
Big-name interviews sell newspapers, we are always told.  But how often does a star player tell you anything you did not already know? Football is a micro-managed business these days, with minders and media advisers never far away.

It is why Times journalist Rory Smith admits the stories he most enjoys writing are often the less obvious ones, with interview subjects who may seem obscure on the face of it but frequently come with a fascinating back story waiting to be told.

So when a friend drew his attention to a story in Southport's local paper about a belated honour for a war hero his curiosity was instantly piqued.

The war hero was Alan Rogers, who had as a teenager served as a gunner on a Royal Navy destroyer assigned to protect the Arctic convoys from marauding German warplanes and predatory u-boats as they shipped supplies to the Soviet Union.  In a footnote to his description of the perils he faced in that role it was mentioned that after he had done with serving his country he had been a football coach, not in Britain but in a long list of other countries around the world.  Smith immediately wanted to know more.


Better appreciated abroad



He arranged to meet Alan Rogers, by then almost 90, in his modest Southport flat and learned that he had never played professional football and could not get a job as a coach at home yet met with such appreciation abroad for his ability to teach the game that he found work from Iceland to the Philippines.  In the Iranian capital, Tehran, whose Persepolis team he coached to four championship titles, he is remembered with particular affection.

Talking to Rogers gave Smith the idea for this book, which takes its title from the quintessentially English term of address that was adopted across the world to describe a coach. From the most famous 'Misters', such as Charles Miller, Jimmy Hogan and George Raynor - who won the 1948 Olympics with Sweden and a decade later took the same country to the World Cup final - to those like Rogers, whom celebrity largely passed by, Smith tells the story of how the football teams who dominate the game today, at club and international level, owe so much to the Britons who spread the gospel of the game around the planet.

George Raynor coached the Swedish national team in two spells, reaching the World Cup final in 1958
George Raynor coached the Swedish national team in two
spells, reaching the World Cup final in 1958
The book does much to explain how these pioneers and missionaries not only taught the rest of the world how to play football but helped them become better players than our own.

Often, the Misters were not merely good teachers but innovators, too, with a chance to put forward ideas that were all too often rejected at home, where training tended to be about fitness and muscularity rather than ball skills, and change was considered unnecessary.

Inherent gifts


Nowadays we tend to look at the Brazilians and Argentinians, the Spaniards and the Dutch as if they possess inherent gifts to which our players simply cannot aspire.

Yet go back in history and it was Jack Greenwell, an amateur player from Crooks in County Durham, who laid the foundations for Barcelona's attacking philosophy.  And the Total Football with which the Netherlands came so close to conquering the world in the 1970s can be traced back to Vic Buckingham's time in charge of Ajax.  It is something of an irony that in today's Premier League only four teams have English coaches and only seven British.

Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game, by Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster), £18.99

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith


The winner of the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, worth £28,000 to the successful author, will be revealed at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday.  There will a poignancy about this year's award ceremony in that it will be the first since John Gaustad, the award's co-founder and proprietor of the much-missed Sportspages book shop in central London, passed away earlier this year.

Also shortlisted: Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life. Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray)

Also shortlisted: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing)

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

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20161121

Will this fast-paced history of horse racing's greatest bloodline turn out to be the 'bookie prize' favourite?

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the Shortlist

Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses.

By Christopher McGrath (John Murray) £25.00

Review by Jon Culley

Chris McGrath's book covers 300 years of racing history
Chris McGrath's book covers
300 years of racing history
In the early part of the 18th century, when the landscape and politics of the Middle East was rather different from today, a gentleman merchant by the name of Thomas Darley, working for the Levant Company in Aleppo, acquired a horse.

It was a bay colt, taller than the average Arabian horse.  In a letter to his brother in 1703, Darley noted that it was strikingly handsome and "with an exceedingly elegant carriage". He bought it for his father, Richard, with plans to take it back to the family's country seat, Aldby Park, not far from the village of Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

In some accounts, it has been suggested that Darley came across the animal after reviving his interest in hunting and thereby coming into contact with Bedouin tribesmen but little is known about the precise circumstances in which he acquired it.  Hailed for its speed across the ground, it had been given the Arabic name "Ras el Fedowi" - "The Headstrong One".

What is known is that the deal would become arguably the most significant piece of horse trading that ever took place.

Powerful bloodline


Aldby Park in Yorkshire, the country estate that became home to Mr Darley's Arabian
Aldby Park in Yorkshire, the country estate that became
home to Mr Darley's Arabian
The colt was duly shipped to Yorkshire, spending the larger part of an arduous journey suspended in a kind of hammock in the hold of a merchant ship.  It was never raced but spent 14 years covering mares at Aldby Park, its genes introducing speed to the traditional strength of the English breeds, and in doing so created the most powerful bloodline in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.

All thoroughbreds, in fact, are descended from just three stallions, all imported to England at around the same time. Ras el Fedowi, who became known as the Darley Arabian, was one.  The others were the Godolphin Arabian and the Byerley Turk but the Darley line was so powerful that over time the influence of the other two has dwindled.

Today, according to author Chris McGrath, the lineage of an incredible 95 per cent of the participants in any thoroughbred race, anywhere in the world, "from Royal Ascot to the Melbourne Cup to the Kentucky Derby" will be descended from Mr Darley's Arabian.

It was from this starting point that McGrath, a fine writer who was for a number of years the horse racing correspondent of the Independent newspaper, decided to write a history of the sport with the lineage of the Darley Arabian as its central thread.

Frenetic pace

A simple idea, it is one that works admirably.  Beginning with Thomas Darley and Ras el Fedowi and ending with the brilliant Henry Cecil-trained Frankel, winner of the 2011 Two Thousand Guineas and a record nine consecutive Group 1 races, it tracks more than 300 years of horse racing, essentially through the careers of 25 horses but touching upon pretty much every champion in that time.

There is an enormous cast of human characters, too, from rogues to Royals (which some falling into both categories), from which McGrath draws some wonderfully engaging tales, all told at a frenetic pace that compels the reader to turn page after page with scarcely time to draw breath.

The champion racehorse Frankel in action at Doncaster
The champion racehorse Frankel in action at Doncaster
Thoroughly researched and clearly an enormous project, Mr Darley's Arabian perhaps suffers a little for containing perhaps such an enormity of detail and so many stories, taxing the brain's ability to take it all in, although far better to provide too much information than too little.

In any case, there is no law against reading a book twice, or many more times.  And one of the joys of a book with such a broad scope is that a second exploration of its pages often finds previously overlooked gems nuggets that make it an even more fulfilling experience.

Mr Darley's Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life: A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray) £25.00

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

The winner of the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, worth £28,000 to the successful author, will be revealed at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday.  There will a poignancy about this year's award ceremony in that it will be the first since John Gaustad, the award's co-founder and proprietor of the much-missed Sportspages book shop in central London, passed away earlier this year.


Also shortlisted: Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing)

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits: Aldby Park by Gordon Hatton; Frankel by RacingKel. Via Wikimedia Commons)

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20161115

Will it be third time lucky for Times man Rick Broadbent with his wonderful story of the magnificent runner Emil Zátopek?

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the Shortlist

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek

By Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing) £16.99

Review by Jon Culley

Emil Zatopek in action in the  5,000 metres in London in 1948
Emil Zátopek in action in the
5,000 metres in London in 1948
Rick Broadbent comes to the table with a bit of form, having been shortlisted twice before without convincing the judges he was worthy of the prize.  Having been unlucky with Ring of Fire in 2009 and That Near Death Thing in 2012, he switches from sport on two wheels to two legs, swapping motorcycle racing for distance running.

Emil Zátopek's world records have all been overtaken now but his status as the world's greatest long-distance runner, possibly the greatest athlete across all distances, remains intact.

Long before the cheats came along to rob athletics of its innocence and purity, Zátopek was causing crowds to look on with wide-eyed incredulity at what he was able to do.  At the peak of his powers, between 1949 and 1955, he set 18 world records at distances from 5,000 metres to 30,000m.

At the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 he won gold at 5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon, a treble unlikely ever to be matched.  His times in all three events were Olympic records.

Ungainly running style

He was the first to run 10,000m in less than 29 minutes, achieving that particular feat in Brussels just 48 hours after becoming only the second to complete 5,000m in less than 14 minutes in Paris. He was also the first to run 20,000m in under one hour.

All this despite a running style that was visually bizarre and made him an instantly recognisable figure on the track even from the very back of the deepest grandstands.  His head rocked, his arms flailed, his tongue hung out of his mouth; yet in contrast with his ungainly top half, below the waist his legs were like rhythmic pistons, working as hard and as fast as he commanded them.

The Emil Zátopek story would be a compelling one for his achievements alone yet there is another thread to it, one that has not been explored fully until now, surrounding the politics of revolution and suppression of Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, the liberalisation movement known as the Prague Spring that was eventually halted only by a Soviet invasion.

Zátopek was a member of the Communist party and a soldier in the Czech military and as such was sometimes accused of being a puppet of the Czech government yet after protesting against the arrival in the capital of Soviet tanks he was arrested, stripped of his ranks and sent into exile, obliged to take a succession of physically demanding and dangerous jobs in the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the country.

Extensive interviews

He disappeared essentially for two decades, dismaying those for whom he had become a political hero by renouncing the beliefs he had stood for in 1968, although it seems likely he was coerced into doing so under the threat of imprisonment.  Only when communism collapsed in 1989 was he allowed to return home and begin again a normal life.

Zátopek's widow, Dana, now aged 94, pictured in 2014
Zátopek's widow, Dana, now aged 94, pictured in 2014
Times journalist Broadbent attempts to find the missing elements of the story in a compelling, superbly written narrative, drawing on extensive interviews with many whose lives he touched, including his widow, Dana, an Olympic champion javelin thrower he married in 1957 yet from whom he spent so many years apart.

There is considerable eye-witness evidence, too, that Broadbent has pulled together from the documented accounts of contemporaries long departed, which he uses with great skill to paint a picture of Zátopek as a man as well as an athlete.

Endurance survived the cut where another book about the same subject, Richard Askwith's Today We Die a Little, did not progress from longlist to shortlist.  Some say it must have been a close-run thing but having made the final selection there is no arguing that Rick Broadbent does not deserve his chance to be third time lucky.

Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden Sports Writing) £16.99

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

Also shortlisted: Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair)

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation (Quercus)

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Picture credits: Emil Zátopek courtesy of the Swedish Olympic Committee; Dana Zátopková by David Sedlecky via Wikimedia Commons)

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20161108

Barbarian Days: A brilliant story of a life that evolved alongside an enduring obsession with surfing. But can it be judged as a sports book?

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the Shortlist

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

By William Finnegan (Corsair) £9.99

Review by Jon Culley

William Finnegan won a Pulitzer Prize for Barbarian Days
William Finnegan won a Pulitzer Prize
for Barbarian Days
Award-winning books have often been contenders for more than one prize and sometimes arrive in the hands of the judges having already impressed another group somewhere else, with their stamp of approval staring at them from the cover.

In those instances, rival authors might feel disadvantaged, understandably.  This year, the six others on the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year may well feel they have to clear a particularly high bar given that William Finnegan already has a Pulitzer Prize under his belt for Barbarian Days.

His memoir of a life spent chasing waves around the world won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.  The Pulitzers, first awarded in 1917 to recognize outstanding journalism, now has 21 categories and none is won by anything that is not extraordinarily good.

Finnegan is an exceptional journalist, as it happens, a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1987, best known for writing substantial pieces on deep and dark subjects, often from the parts of the world riven by war or poverty or famine.  His previous books include two about South Africa in the days of apartheid, another about conflict in Mozambique and, most recently, Cold New World, which shines light on the bleak lives of disadvantaged American teenagers growing up hopeless and desperate in his own country.

Childhood days in California and Hawaii

Barbarian Days is somewhat different.  It is a book about surfing but to describe it with such a simplistic phrase is hardly adequate. More, it is about an obsession, an addiction. Finnegan has lived with it all his life, from his childhood in California and Hawaii, and then beyond.  Indeed, well beyond, given that a large part of the story concerns the expedition he embarked on with a kindred spirit to comb the planet in search of the perfect wave.

Finnegan doubts, in fact, whether the surfing about which he writes can even be called a sport, which is something else for the judges to ponder.  He shares the competitive surfer's fixation with wind directions, changes in the shape of sandbank formations and all the other strands of knowledge a surfer has to accumulate to read a stretch of coastline, yet has no interest in being better than anyone else.

He and the surfers with whom he hangs out do not do it to compete.  There is no sense of wanting to be better than anyone else, or wanting to achieve anything no one has done before, although in the course of his quest he inevitably does so.

The motivation is not be lauded by taking ever bigger risks but more to harness the power and violence of the ocean, vast and beyond the control of mere humans, to make all the assessments correctly, and experience the profound satisfaction of becoming one with the wave.   Finnegan started surfing when he was 10 and remains hooked in his 60s, living in Manhattan, and surfing not in shorts as he did in the heat of Hawaii but in a wetsuit off Long Island, where weather patterns dictate that surfing is a winter pursuit and the quick, low breakers offer a different, arguably more difficult challenge than the towering waves of surfing's traditional image.

Reluctance to write about surfing

Moments of fulfilment are still to be had, though, if fleetingly.  The split-second before the pop-up, the moment the surfer rises to stand on the board, the moment at which he senses how much power lies beneath his feet is beyond compare, in Finnegan's assessment.

The whole experience is deeply subjective, deeply personal.  The paucity of surfing books other than those that are highly technical is probably because it is so difficult to describe. Historically, it is not a pursuit readily associated with anyone of high intellect and even Finnegan, gifted though he is, was reluctant to write about it, fearing that it might damage his credibility with editors.  He eventually wrote a two-part feature for the New Yorker about a small group of hard-core surfers in San Francisco, which he rewrote as part of the book.

Tavarua, the remote island in the South Pacific, where Finnegan was among only a handful of people to have surfed
Tavarua, the remote island in the South Pacific, where
Finnegan was among only a handful of people to have surfed
Barbarian Days is essentially a book for non-surfers, holding their attention with vividly incisive portrayals of the characters that make up Finnegan's surfing world, a disparate community united by their secret obsession, but with enough technical detail to satisfy those who already share it and, therefore, a surfer's book too.

Then again, in the surfing world, at all levels, Finnegan is a revered figure.  Many of today's great surfing destinations were scarcely known before he began scouring the planet. Lagundri Bay and G-Land in Indonesia, for example, or Tavarua, in Fiji, where Finnegan estimates that he and his travelling companion were among the first nine people to ride a wave there, an uninhabited location where their accommodation was a tent on a snake-infested beach. Nowadays, it is an exclusive resort and a stop on the professional world circuit.

As you might be entitled to expect, Barbarian Days is superbly written, wonderfully descriptive and unpretentiously accessible, the story of a life defined by a career as a writer but definitively shaped by this love affair with the surf.  Whether or not it is actually a sports book might be debatable. Either way, the rest of the field has something to beat.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair) £9.99

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith

Also shortlisted: Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation

And then there were seven - the full shortlist for the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: the longlist in full

(Photo of William Finnegan from YouTube; photo of Tavarua by Tavyland via Wikimedia Commons)

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20161027

Chasing Shadows: who was the real Peter Roebuck and what happened to make him fall to his death from a hotel window?

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the shortlist:

Chasing Shadows: The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck.

by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Review by Jon Culley

Peter Roebuck: Journalist and  former cricketer was being  questioned by police
Peter Roebuck: Journalist was
 being questioned by police
On November 12, 2011, Peter Roebuck returned to his hotel in Cape Town, having watched Australia humbled by South Africa in an extraordinary Test match at Newlands, which he had been reporting for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

According to witnesses, Roebuck, a brilliant writer and commentator but as an individual something of an enigma, was reportedly in good spirits.  Waiting for him in the lobby of the hotel, however, were two police officers.

They were investigating an accusation of sexual assault made against Roebuck by a Zimbabwean man whom he had supposedly met at the same hotel a few days earlier.

The officers accompanied Roebuck to his sixth-floor room to talk to him about the allegation. During the course of the interview, the 55-year-old Cambridge-educated former Somerset captain fell to his death from a window.  The officers said that he had committed suicide but many questions remain unanswered about what happened in the room and in the preceding days.

Australian journalists Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge have attempted to fill in some of the gaps. Given that the real Roebuck was a mystery to many even close acquaintances, they have not done a bad job, although they still do not manage to penetrate far beneath the surface of his character.

Feud with Viv Richards and Ian Botham 


Roebuck's stance over Viv Richards and Joel Garner caused a rift at Somerset
Roebuck's stance over Viv Richards and
Joel Garner caused a rift at Somerset
The book covers Roebuck's career with Somerset, for whom he scored more than 25,000 runs, which provided controversy enough in the feud with Viv Richards and Ian Botham that developed following Roebuck's role in the county's decision not to renew the contracts of either Richards or Joel Garner, which prompted Botham to leave for Worcestershire.

Most interest, inevitably, will focus on the nature of Roebuck's private life and his work with disadvantaged young African men.

In 2001 he was convicted of common assault following allegations that he caned three such men who were living at his home in Taunton, after which he became increasingly estranged from the country of his birth.  An Australian citizen, he subsequently divided his time between homes in Sydney and Pietermaritzburg, where he provided shelter and education for many of the young men, mostly Zimbabweans, who he set out to help.

Lane -- a colleague at ABC for many years -- and his co-author have assembled an impressive cast of character witnesses, including ex-cricketers Mike Atherton, Jonathan Agnew, Steve Waugh, Ian Chappell and Rahul Dravid, his broadcasting colleague Jim Maxwell, and the journalist Matthew Engel.

They reproduce, too, in graphic detail, the testimony of his Cape Town accuser, Gondo Itai, which was included somewhat controversially while the Roebuck family's lawyers were still pushing for an open inquest to take place, the only ruling at that time on cause of death having taken place in private.

An unlikely romance


Peter Roebuck in his playing days
Peter Roebuck in his playing days
The most moving and illuminating chapter, though, concerns Roebuck's two-year romance with Julia Horne, a young Australian woman, the daughter of a prominent author and academic, whose recounting of their relationship is handled with great sensitivity by the authors and shows a side to Roebuck many might not have guessed existed.

The only love of Roebuck's life, it seems, Julia met him in Sydney in 1981 when she was studying at the University of New South Wales. It took him two years to invite her to dinner, after which he returned to England to continue his career. They wrote to one another often, Roebuck apparently eager for the relationship to continue, explaining his wish to settle down.

For a while, when he was next in Australia, they blossomed as a couple.  But complications were never far from the surface with Roebuck and after Horne made a return visit to England during the cricket season, the relationship ended.  He had made a decision, for one reason or another, to withdraw into the closed world he occupied previously.

The book has not been immune to criticism.  Some feel there is a lack of attention to cricket itself, to the way Roebuck played, to the players he admired and what that might have said about him, and also to his writing, the character of which is said to have changed the way the game was presented, particularly in Australia, making other writers feel more free to express themselves, and taking cricket journalism to a new level.

There is no arguing with the depth of the authors' research, however, and if fails ultimately to reach as deeply into Roebuck's psyche as they doubtless hoped they could, the book offers as much as anyone was able to unravel even among those closest to him.

Chasing Shadows: The The Life and Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant)

Buy from Amazon or WH Smith

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Also shortlisted: Oliver Kay's Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - lost genius of Manchester United's golden generation

And then there were seven - full details of the shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016

William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016: The full longlist



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20161023

Adrian Doherty - the story of the lost genius who was tipped to be the brightest star of Manchester United's golden generation

WILLIAM HILL SPORTS BOOK OF THE YEAR 2016


On the shortlist:

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - Football's Lost Genius.

By Oliver Kay (Quercus)

Review by Jon Culley

Tales of rising stars robbed of the chance to fulfil their potential are not new but Oliver Kay's story of the fame that fate denied to Adrian Doherty stands out from the crowd.

Doherty, a former apprentice at Manchester United, was a genuine phenomenon, even among a clutch of young players as gifted as those United were nurturing in the late 1980s.

The names that would become known as United's golden generation - Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers - were united in their awe of him, a player whose natural ball skills were allied to lightning pace and a fearless attitude that belied his rather shy persona.

Sir Alex Ferguson knew within 15 minutes of first setting eyes on him that he wanted to sign him.  He offered him a five-year contract before he was 17, a show of faith in an unproven player that was without precedent.

Adrian Doherty was possibly the most talented young footballer any of them could remember, before or since.

Ferguson's masterplan


Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs
He became part of Ferguson's masterplan for United, part of the team he envisaged would grow up to be English football's dominant force. During the 1989-90 season when Ferguson's job was supposedly on the line, a United team featuring Adrian Doherty on one wing and Giggs on the other reached the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup with Docherty their star.

He was due to have made his senior debut in March 1991 on the same day as Giggs, against Everton at Old Trafford.  Instead, he was sitting in the Main Stand, nursing a knee injury sustained in an A-team match. The knee was sore and he feared he might be out of action for a few weeks.

In fact, it was the beginning of the end for a career that had barely begun.  Two years later, aged only 20, after rehabilitation programmes and surgery and a number of attempted comebacks, United let him go.

After his football career ended, he naturally faded from view, only for his name to re-emerge in tragic circumstances. On May 7, 2000, he fell into a canal in Holland.  A month later, the day before his 27th birthday, he died.

Kay's interest with his story began a decade or so later, when Doherty's name came up while he was researching a feature about Giggs to mark the 20th anniversary of the Welshman's debut.  He admits it became an obsession.

A unique personality


Adrian Doherty
Adrian Doherty
He soon discovered that Doherty could not be more unlike what some would imagine to be a typical footballer. He was a young man whose approach to life set him apart, an individual who was not only a brilliantly gifted player, but a unique personality, at least among his football contemporaries.

Brought up in Strabane in Northern Ireland, a town described as being on the frontline of the Troubles, Doherty was different, a non-conformist, a boy for whom football was just one of many fascinations.

He played the guitar, read books and wrote poetry.  He wanted to be a musician as much as to be a footballer. Famously, while he was playing in United's A team, he would give away his complimentary match tickets for the senior team and instead catch a bus into Manchester city centre, not to buy clothes or play snooker, the ways in which his teammates might spend their spare time, but to stand on a street corner, strumming his guitar and singing Bob Dylan songs.

Kay visited the family in Strabane.  They were unhappy about several aspects of the way he was treated at United both before and after his injury but did not want to be drawn into a war of words.  They were reluctant to become involved but in time agreed, on condition that in his book Kay leaned towards celebrating Adrian's life, rather than raging against injustice.

He respected their wishes.  The somewhat sordid tales of how apprentices were treated at the club in that time and the shortcomings in the way United dealt with his injury are rightly explored but with others as witnesses.

A tragic accident


The Derry Journal's report of Doherty's death
The Derry Journal's report of Doherty's death
Yet we learn as well that Doherty's years after football were happy ones.  In terms of a career, it was a life without structure but he continued to play music and write and dream and follow his adventurous whims.

When he died, predictable rumours did the rounds.  He had been in Amsterdam, the stories said, and had fallen into a canal late at night. Assumptions were made, with no basis in fact, that drink or drugs were involved.

In fact, as Kay established by checking with Dutch police reports rather than trusting speculation, Doherty had tumbled into a canal not in Amsterdam but in The Hague, where he had taken a job with a furniture manufacturer.

It had happened early in the morning and there was no trace of drugs or alcohol in his body. He had simply had an accident, probably as he made his way to work.  Perhaps he was distracted by a daydream. No one knows.

Forever Young is a painstakingly researched and outstandingly well written book, with a sad end and some dark moments along the way.  Yet in a way it is an uplifting one, the story of a carefree and likeable young man, a free spirit with a zest for life who took adversity in his stride and enriched the lives of those around him.  Oliver Kay tells it with sensitivity and skill.

Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty - Football's Lost Genius, by Oliver Kay (Quercus)

Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith


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(Photo of Ryan Giggs by Gordon Flood CC BY-SA 2.0)


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20161018

And then there were seven - shortlist revealed for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016

The shortlist for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award – the world’s richest and longest-running prize for sports writing – has been revealed following the deliberations of the judging panel, who have whittled down a longlist of 17 to a shortlist of seven.

Six sports are represented on the list, the majority sharing a common theme in that they dig deep into the psyche of their subjects, showing how their strengths and weaknesses helped and hindered them in the pursuit of their dreams.

This is demonstrated in two memoirs set against the backdrop of the sea - Barbarian Days, by journalist William Finnegan, and Find a Way, by swimmer Diana Nyad.

Barbarian Days, surfing’s first appearance in the 'Bookie Prize' field and already a Pulitzer Prize-winner, tells the story of a restless young man whose sport both anchors him and takes him around the world as he becomes an adult.

Diana Nyad’s memoir is a testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit: a world class swimmer at a very young age, Nyad first attempted to swim the 100 miles between Havana, Cuba and the coast of Florida without a shark cage aged 28 and achieved the feat - the first person to complete the treacherous crossing - over three decades later, aged 64.

Oliver Kay’s Forever Young investigates the short life of eccentric football prodigy Adrian Doherty, who was offered a five-year contract with Manchester United on his 17th birthday, yet died in unexplained circumstances having never realised his true potential.

The unpredictable character of former cricketer, writer and broadcaster Peter Roebuck, another figure who died tragically young, comes under the microscope in Tim Lane and Elliott Cartledge’s Chasing Shadows.

Rick Broadbent is on the shortlist for the third time with Endurance, which looks at the life of Olympic track legend Emil Zátopek. The greatest runner of his generation, Zátopek’s character was sorely tested as he fell from favour with his country’s Communist rulers, suffering countless indignities before coming in from the cold following Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.

Rounding off the list are Rory Smith’s Mister, which looks at how pioneer Englishmen helped export football to the world, and Christopher McGrath’s Mr Darley’s Arabian, which tells the story of horse racing by following the bloodline of twenty-five thoroughbreds, from a colt bought from Bedouin tribesmen over 300 years ago, to the modern champion, Frankel.

The seven titles in the running to be crowned the winner of the £28,000 prize are:


  • Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zátopek, by Rick Broadbent (Wisden). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan (Corsair). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius, by Oliver Kay (Quercus). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Chasing Shadows: The Life & Death of Peter Roebuck, by Tim Lane and Elliot Cartledge (Hardie Grant Books). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Mr Darley’s Arabian: High Life, Low Life, Sporting Life – A History of Racing in 25 Horses, by Christopher McGrath (John Murray), Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Find a Way: One Untamed and Courageous Life, by Diana Nyad (Macmillan). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith
  • Mister: The Men Who Taught the World How to Beat England at Their Own Game, by Rory Smith (Simon & Schuster). Buy from Amazon, Waterstones or WH Smith


William Hill spokesman, judges' chair and co-founder of the award, Graham Sharpe, said:

“From an incredibly strong longlist a ‘Magnificent Seven’ of sporting books go forward, but from here on in the race is wide open.

"What is striking in this year’s selection is how the authors uncover the inner sportsman and sportswoman, revealing their hidden souls and proving that they are not just great athletes but also complex, driven people. These are brilliant, revelatory stories that our panel of experts will have a tough time judging.”

The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world’s longest established and most valuable sports writing prize. As well as a £28,000 cash prize, the winning author will receive a free £2,500 William Hill bet, and a day at the races.

The judging panel comprises journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson; ex-player and former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle; broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and The Times columnist and author, Alyson Rudd.

Graham Sharpe succeeds the late John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop, as chairman.  John retired following the 2015 Award and sadly passed away earlier this year.

The winner will be announced at an afternoon reception at BAFTA, in central London, on Thursday November 24.

More reading:


Longlist announced for William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2016


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