Winning selection from SportsBooks

Finding a publisher for a sports book idea that does not immediately guarantee ringing tills or multiple internet sales has seldom been tougher, which is why fans of the more esoteric -- or at least less mainstream -- contributions to the genre should be grateful for the work of the Cheltenham-based outfit, SportsBooks.

Formed in 1995 by former Daily Express athletics correspondent Randall Northam, the original purpose of SportsBooks was to publish the yearbook of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, of which Athletics 2010 is the latest edition.

But it grew to become much more, each year giving a chance to titles that would not necessarily appeal to mass-market audiences but which nonetheless warrant a place on the bookstore shelves, books that in their own view “deserve to be out in the marketplace.”

The acquisition of the Nationwide Football Annual (formerly the News of the World Annual and the world’s oldest football book) has helped SportsBooks maintain this reputation and this year’s catalogue is no exception.

Football titles include Stan Anderson: Captain of the North, the autobiography of the only player to have captained Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough, which paints a picture of life as a professional footballer in the 1950s north-east, where the game offered some an escape from a life spent underground in the area’s massive mining industry.

Anderson, a midfield player known for his passing ability, was a member of the England squad at the 1962 World Cup in Chile. He went on to manage Middlesbrough, Doncaster Rovers and Bolton Wanderers in England and AEK Athens in Greece, retiring from full-time involvement in football in 1981 and devoting his next 20 years to caring for his wife, Marjorie, a victim of crippling arthritis.

He kept in touch with football through scouting, joining the company of (mostly) men who trek up and down the country checking out opposing teams and checking up on potential signings for their respective employees.

Their world is described in another SportsBooks title, Scouting for Moyes: The Inside Story of a Football Scout, an engaging and humorous account of the 2009-10 English football season as witnessed by Les Padfield, a scout for Premier League club Bolton Wanderers.

Padfield was himself a magnet for talent spotters as a schoolboy footballer. His dreams of playing for a living remained just dreams but, after establishing a career in teaching, he returned to the game to help unearth other young hopefuls, at first in the London area where he lived but ultimately around the world.  The witty title was inspired by his first assignment, back in 1996, to watch Crystal Palace play Tottenham on behalf of Preston North End, then managed by David Moyes.

The football list also offers The Boys from the Black Country, Mark Gold’s history of Wolverhampton Wanderers, which takes the reader through the rollercoaster story of the Molineux men with an entertaining lightness, even speculating on what sort of terrace chant the great English composer and devoted Wolves fan Sir Edward Elgar might come up with had he been alive today.

SportsBooks has also given an opportunity for cricket literature to gain a timely addition in the shape of The Victory Tests: England v Australia 1945, written by Mark Rowe, a journalist and historian, who has put together a detailed and fascinating story of the 1945 series between England and an Australian Services side containing most of the country’s cricketing greats.  Although not officially contested for The Ashes, the series attracted massive crowds, reflecting the atmosphere in a country desperate for a return to normal life after six years of conflict and hardly caring about the result.



High-rollers City not yet in the big league

Who is the most expensive signing in the history of the Premier League? 

Correct. Robinho at £32.5 million, signed in September 2008 from Real Madrid and symbolic of the age of excess into which Manchester City had been drawn by the arrival of Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi as a force in English football.

But is he really the costliest player, in relative terms, compared with those blessed -- or otherwise -- with the label previously? City may be the richest club in the world and their spending may have soared past £300 million but, in real terms, they have some way to go before they can be regarded as the biggest spenders in the Premier League.

So say the authors of a fascinating analysis of transfer spending since English football was elevated to a new financial status when the Premier League was born in 1992.

Using an innovative formula that converts transfer fees from any year to current values, Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era offers a whole host of data comparing the performances of clubs and managers in relation to expenditure so that judgments can be made over the relative merits of successes achieved in different seasons.

By the Pay As You Play formula, Robinho rates a mere 26th in the list of most expensive signings, well down on the previous record holder, Andriy Shevchenko of Chelsea, whose £30.8 million move from AC Milan in 2006 is reckoned to be worth £53.5 million at today’s values.

In fact, 11 of the top 12 most expensive transfers in Premier League history involve either Chelsea or Manchester United, the exception being Alan Shearer, whose £15 million switch from Blackburn to Newcastle in 1996 would be worth almost £40 million today.

Some of the data simply confirms what we knew anyway, that success tends to come to those with the biggest spending power, although it is interesting nonetheless to note that it is not always the costliest squad in any given year that comes out on top. Indeed, sometimes the biggest spenders do particularly badly, as Newcastle fans know to their painful cost.

Their massive expenditure in the late 90s meant that they twice assembled the most expensive squad in the Premier League but the 1998-99 collection finished only 13th and the 1999-2000 crop just two places higher.

Given the sheer volume of statistics assembled, Pay As You Play might have struggled to entertain the reader and at times the subject matter veers towards academic dryness, particularly in the section headed Competitive Balance.  If there are many football fans familiar with the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index or the Lorenz Curve, for example, they must have been keeping it to themselves.

Elsewhere, however, lead author Paul Tomkins does well to keep the tone bright and engaging and the club sections benefit from ‘expert view’ entries from bloggers and journalists.

Pay As You Play was clearly a mammoth project but it has been undertaken with sufficient care to become a significant work of reference for those involved in football.

Click on the link to buy Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era directly from Amazon.

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Sports Books for Christmas

Part Four -- Five from the Turf

Ruby: The Autobiography

Not unusually, Ruby Walsh is injured. The Irishman, winner of two Grand Nationals and two Cheltenham Gold Cups, has suffered 12 breaks or dislocations in his career. At different times, the occupational hazards associated with his sport have left him with an ankle, a leg, both hips, both shoulders, his left arm, both wrists, a collarbone and several vertebrae effectively in bits. For good measure, he had to have his spleen removed in 2008 after a horse kicked him in the stomach. At the moment, the tibia and fibula in his right leg are undergoing repairs. But Walsh is philosophical. He points out in this honest and revealing life story, co-written with Irish journalist Malachy Clerkin, that you can’t ride half-ton horses at 50kph and expect not to get injured. But he has also ridden more winners at the Cheltenham Festival than any other jockey in history.  He describes many of these, with fascinating insights into riding tactics, in an engaging autobiography.

McCoy: A Racing Post Celebration

Ruby Walsh might have achieved even more had his career not coincided with that of his great friend, Tony (“A P”) McCoy, the winner of a staggering 15 jockeys’ championships, and whose Grand National victory on Don’t Push It in 2010 enabled him to achieve one of the few targets that had proved elusive to him, having already won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the King George VI Chase.  The Ulsterman is favourite to be named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award -- never previously won by a jockey -- and the Racing Post has trawled its archives to celebrate his career, aided by the excellent Brough Scott, whose words both introduce the story and set the various reports in context.

McCoy on Denman and Walsh on Kauto Star were both upstaged by Imperial Commander when the two met head-to-head for the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup in what was meant to be the ultimate turf showdown between two great jockeys on two brilliant horses. Nonetheless, despite this deviation from the intended script, Jonathan Powell’s story of this famous jump racing rivalry, which has been likened to Bjorn Borg’s epic struggle for tennis supremacy over John McEnroe and Seb Coe’s efforts to get the better of Steve Ovett on the athletics track, makes a strong contribution to the history of National Hunt racing.  Powell, who also helped Paul Nicholls -- trainer of both Denman and Kauto Star -- write an outstanding autobiography, Lucky Break, is a racing journalist of 40 years’ experience.

Frankincense and More: The Biography of Barry Hills

Robin Oakley may have made his journalistic name as the political correspondent of the BBC, where he occupied that position from 1992 to 2000 between John Cole and Andrew Marr, but he has a long-standing interest in horse racing and has written the Turf column for The Spectator magazine since 1994. His cleverly-titled biography of Barry Hills, who funded his establishment in a training yard at Lambourn in Berkshire with the proceeds of a gamble on Frankinsense in the 1968 Lincoln Handicap, charts the career of one of the sport‘s most enduring figures, describing the ups and downs of a career encompassing six decades and Hills’s 20-year battle with cancer.

Enemy Number One: The Secrets of the UK's Most Feared Professional Punter

Every horse racing fan at some point indulges thoughts of making a living off the backs of the bookmakers, exacting revenge on the gleeful retainers of incalculable losing bets and doing so not once but time and again.  Patrick Veitch, a former Cambridge University maths prodigy, has stung the bookies so many times there are virtually none left who are prepared knowingly to accept a bet from him.  Mind you, given that he has won more than £10 million in a mere eight years, it is hardly surprising that even the likes of William Hill and Ladbrokes tremble at the mention of his name.  In fact, he is still taking them to the cleaners, thanks to a network of agents employed to place his bets for him. His story reveals not so much his secrets as his incredible story, which involved being on the run for a year after a Cambridge gangster demanded a share of his winnings in exchange for not breaking his legs.

Click on the text or picture links to buy these titles.

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Sports Books for Christmas

Part Three -- An Independent selection

If you are looking for gift ideas for a sports-loving reader in your life, don’t just take The Sports Bookshelf’s word for which titles are likely to be well received from the choices on offer this Christmas.

At this time of year, book suggestions make popular subject matter for newspaper columnists.  For instance, UK daily The Independent devoted a whole section to the best books for Christmas across a range of genres, with sport put in the spotlight by Chris Maume.

Maume is intrigued by the idea, advanced by Mathew Syed of The Times in Bounce: How Champions are Made (Fourth Estate) that high achievement in sport is less down to God-given talent than sheer hard work.  “See that David Beckham? That could have been me,” Maume muses. “I could have become the most famous footballer in the world – if I'd put in 10,000 hours of motivated, high-quality practice.”

He is also impressed with the ever-insightful Simon Barnes -- another Times man -- as he names the 50 sportsmen or women he has most admired in A Book of Heroes: Or a Sporting Half Century (Short Books), which Maume describes as “a romantic selection,” in which “most of the consensually feted postwar idols are there.”  But, he adds, not all are obvious choices.

“Tim Henman, for example, never reached the summit of his sport despite his best efforts. Barnes is also generous to the tainted: Ben Johnson's in there, and Flo-Jo.”

Among the cricket books that caught Maume’s eye are Blood, Sweat & Treason: Henry Olonga, My Story (VSP), which tells the story of what followed after Olonga and his Zimbabwe team-mate Andy Flower took their lives in their hands by donning black armbands during the 2003 Cricket World Cup to signify the death of democracy in their homeland.

“A story engagingly told,” Maume writes, going on to praise the “beautifully crafted” A Last English Summer (Quercus) in which Duncan Hamilton weaves his thoughts on the state of the game into a journey around an English season, while “writing with intense feeling for an age that's sliding away.”

Maume joins the chorus of applause for the unlikely William Hill Sports Book of the Year contender Blood Knots: Of Fathers, Friendship and Fishing (Atlantic) in which Luke Jennings, dance critic and novelist, constructs a memoir of his English middle-class childhood around an obsession with fishing and which Maume says rivals Hamilton’s work as “the best-written book of this year’s bunch”.

He also nominates Catrine Clay's Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend(Yellow Jersey Press) for “fleshing out beautifully” the story of the Manchester City goalkeeper famous for winning the FA Cup with a broken neck and hails Brian Moore's autobiography Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All (Simon & Schuster) as a worthy winner of the William Hill award for being “a compelling read from the early revelations of child abuse onwards”.

Maume’s list concludes with We Were Young and Carefree (Yellow Jersey Press), the autobiography of Tour de France champion Laurent Fignon, who died of cancer in August at the age of 50, in which Fignon is “ruthlessly honest, about himself and about cycling, and provides a gripping insight into an unrelentingly hard world.”

Read the full article in The Independent.

To buy any of the titles listed, click on the pictorial or text links to purchase securely from Amazon.

For more sports books for Christmas, see The Sports Bookshelf selections for Football and Cricket or visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Why the 2018 World Cup may be a force for good in Russia

England might not find the subject too palatable right now but once the disappointment of failing to land the right to host the 2018 World Cup has worn off there will be an inevitable thirst for knowledge about football in the nation that did emerge from the FIFA vote as the winner, Russia.

There is probably nowhere better to start than the highly regarded Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game, written by the English-born, Moscow-based journalist Marc Bennetts.

It does not paint an edifying picture. Published in 2008, Football Dynamo makes no attempt to romanticise football in Russia, even though Bennetts finds much to admire about it.

There is a strong focus on the problems that beset the game in Russia, with stories of corruption, political interference, violence, racism and financial shenanigans.  We learn that corruption is so widespread as to be seen as “just another factor, like home advantage and recent form” in deciding games.

Bennetts argues that there are parallels between football and the state of the Russian nation, suggesting that hooliganism -- another scar on the game -- is merely a reflection of a violent society, that overt racism is hardly surprising in a country that has few black immigrants and that the prosperity enjoyed by the leading clubs mirrors the emergence of an oligarch class whose power lies in money rather than political dominance.

Prominent in this new Russian elite, of course, is Roman Abramovich, a man who Bennetts points out has split Russian opinion.  While some applaud Chelsea’s owner for having the financial muscle to wield such influence on football in a western nation, others believe his billions would be better spent on improving the lives of the less fortunate in his homeland, a country where extreme poverty exists alongside vast wealth.

It is not a book likely to convince those left with a sour taste by FIFA’s insistence that the country they chose for the 2018 venue is a fitting host but Bennetts believes the decision can be a force for good for Russian football and the nation itself.

Writing on the Sabotage Times website ahead of the bid decision, Bennetts suggested that to Russians “who have never been abroad (the vast majority)” and to whom black footballers are “truly and utterly alien” the World Cup finals will be a short, sharp shock.

“Russia will be forced to adapt to black fans and sides,” Bennetts said. “It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start.”

To buy Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game just click on the link.

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Beware of the Dog lands Bookie prize for rugby tough guy Moore

A sporting life with a darker side has again found favour with the judging panel for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, who have awarded the richest prize for sports writing to the ex-England and British Lions rugby star Brian Moore.

The former hooker, known as ‘Pit Bull’ in his playing days in the 1990s, scooped the £22,000 award for his harrowing, soul-baring autobiography Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hardman Reveals All.

Two years ago, the William Hill judges went for former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick’s autobiography, Coming Back to Me, which broke new ground in the sports book genre by discussing the depression that ended the Somerset batsman’s international career.

Moore’s memoirs are equally raw and revealing, in the most deeply personal and painful sense, bringing to light for the first time the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy at the hands of a trusted friend of his adoptive parents.

Beware of the Dog beat off competition from a strong field that included Andre Agassi‘s autobiography Open, the widely-acclaimed fishing-and-more memoir, Blood Knots, by Luke Jennings, and Duncan Hamilton’s A Last English Summer, with which the author was attempting to win an unprecedented  hat-trick of 'Bookie' prizes.

Moore was reduced to tears when he was presented with the award by broadcaster John Inverdale at the Waterstone’s store in Piccadilly, London.

"No rugby victory ever brought me to tears,” he said. “I'm astonished to have won having seen the quality of the authors.”

Bounce, Matthew Syed’s study of how champions are made, and Trautmann’s Journey, which details the story of the legendary Manchester City goalkeeper’s association with the Hitler Youth and support for the Nazi regime, were also deemed less worthy of the prize than Moore’s exploration of his troubled past.

Moore, who spent 17 years as a solicitor, has clearly gained from his more recent experience as a Daily Telegraph journalist, which has equipped him with the skills to write Beware of the Dog himself.  By contrast, Agassi’s confessional effort was ghosted by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer, J R Moehringer.

The rugby tough guy has described the writing as cathartic, helping him at least to begin to address the inner demons that drove him to relish violent conflict on the field as well as wreaking havoc in his private life.

His story begins at its most damaging moment, with a graphic account of his sexual abuse at the age of 10, on a school trip, by a teacher friend of his Methodist step-parents. He also describes the feelings of rejection he experienced when he learned that he had been given up by his blood mother and suggests that the self-destructive, nasty streak to which he freely admits probably has its root in those two events.

There is much in the book, too, about the rugby career that brought 64 England caps as well as three Grand Slams.  But it is the gritty honesty with which he recounts his private pain that sets Beware of the Dog apart.

Graham Sharpe, the long-time media face of bookmakers William Hill and co-founder of the prize, was unstinting in his praise for Moore’s tour de force.

“As a trained solicitor and a lover of opera, fine wine and Shakespeare, Brian Moore in no ordinary sportsman,” Sharpe said. “So it follows that this is no ordinary book. Candid and rigorous, it's a uniquely engaging book and a fascinating exploration of what lies beneath the tough exterior of one of England's greatest rugby players".

Waterstone's sports buyer Joe Browes added: "For a memoir to lift itself above the rest, the author must give something of themselves to the writing, as Marcus Trescothick did when he won the William Hill award.

“Moore displays the same honesty that made Trescothick's book so memorable and he thoroughly deserves this prize.”

Publishers Simon & Schuster responded to the news by  bringing forward paperback publication of Beware of the Dog to next week, two months ahead of the planned date in February next year.

The book reveals that Moore's years as a player were undermined by self-doubt and that acts of violence on the pitch were committed with a certain relish. In it, he further explains that retirement added a sense of loss to the other complications in his character and that he is still battling to an extent with his inner torment, although his third marriage is thankfully a happy one and his media career is flourishing.

Moore’s acceptance comments paid tribute to the support he has received from many friends in helping him through difficult times in his career and personal life.

"More than anything the fact that I'm still around to tell the story is a testament to people who helped me at times when I didn't necessarily deserve help,” he said.

“But they managed to stick with me and I hope in some way I have done them justice with the way I have covered them in the book."

For details of how to buy Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All, simply follow the link.

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Sports Books for Christmas

Part Two -- A Quintet on Cricket

Between now and December 25th, The Sports Bookshelf will provide a regular selection of sports books that might tickle your fancy or interest a son, daughter, friend or partner as you weigh up what to put under the tree this Christmas.  Click on the title or the picture to buy securely from Amazon.

Thanks, Johnners: An Affectionate Tribute to a Broadcasting Legend

Brian Johnston died in 1994 but to scores of Test Match Special listeners it is his name that comes to mind at the mention of TMS, even now.  Jonathan Agnew salutes his unique place in the history of the BBC’s iconic cricket commentary show in a warm and witty homage to a man alongside whom he worked for only three years but whose informal, mischievous style made Agnew the broadcaster he is today.  Those three precious years also produced the most famous moment in TMS history when Agnew’s description of the way Ian Botham “didn’t quite get his leg over” as he was dismissed ‘hit-wicket’ reduced Johnners to uncontrollable giggles.  That incident alone gets a whole chapter.

A Last English Summer

Duncan Hamilton’s roaming diary of the 2009 cricket season in England has been shortlisted for William Hill Sports Book of the Year, an award the author has captured twice in the last three years.  Hamilton, a self-confessed sentimentalist, worries about the state of the game, the diminishment of its core values, the assaults on its integrity and in particular the damage he sees as being done by Twenty20.  Nonetheless, he finds much to celebrate in an evocative journey and the quality of his prose, rich with anecdote and brilliant observation, sets him apart among modern writers about cricket.

Start the Car: The World According to Bumble

If Duncan Hamilton would sooner share a swimming pool with a couple of hungry sharks than spend an evening watching Twenty20 cricket, David Lloyd is an unapologetic fan of the shortest form of the game. He doesn’t see it as proper cricket -- rather “a form of entertainment using cricket equipment” -- but does see it as a lifeline for the sport he loves, and laments England’s failure to see the potential of their own invention before others had stolen their thunder.  Bumble’s argument in favour is among the more serious bits of Start The Car, in which the many less serious bits are probably what made it the summer’s best selling cricket book.

W.G. Grace Ate My Pedalo: A Curious Cricket Compendium

Alan Tyers, irreverent columnist for the Wisden Cricketer Magazine, combines with illustrator and cartoonist Beach in a wonderful piece of spoofery, presenting stories with the full flavour of 2010 in the format and style of a Victorian periodical. Tyers lampoons anyone and everyone, sparing few of the game’s principal characters, historical or contemporary, in the funniest cricket book of the year, interspersing stories with headlines such as “WG Grace: My Pedalo Shame” and “Barmy Army Invades Prussia” with adverts for “Warne’s World Renowned Barnet Bazaar and Wiggery” and “Boycott’s Finest Sticks of Rhubarb”.

The Victory Tests: England v Australia 1945

Historian Mark Rowe delves into every available archive source to present a vivid picture of the 1945 Victory Test series, a confrontation between England and Australia that drew massive crowds eager to celebrate sport for sport’s sake after the years of conflict.  Because the Ashes were not at stake, the series has attracted less attention than it merits, given than England had a largely full strength side and the team of Australian servicemen included Lindsay Hassett and Keith Miller.  The result was a 2-2 draw, with the mostly unknown Aussies playing above themselves. Miller, the Royal Australian Air Force pilot, is acknowledged as a fine cricketer but Rowe controversially questions Miller’s reputation as a war hero.

To buy any of these titles from Amazon, simply click on the links.

Sports Books for Christmas: Part One - Five on Football

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Trescothick recognised for helping to raise mental health awareness

Former England cricketer Marcus Trescothick has been awarded the Making a Difference award at the Mind Mental Health Media Awards 2010 in recognition of his decision to write and speak publicly about his personal experience of depression. 

The awards by Britain’s leading mental health charity identify the most effective portrayals of mental distress and reporting of mental health in broadcast and new media.  The Making a Difference award is presented to someone who has made a genuine impact on the way that mental health is viewed.

Trescothick, who continues to play cricket as captain of Somerset, was recognised for his involvement with the BBC’s Inside Sport documentary investigating depression amongst sportsmen, and for his candid autobiography Coming Back To Me, detailing what it is like to live with the condition.

He retired from international cricket because of his illness but has made efforts to raise awareness of mental health problems in the media, helping bring mental health to the attention of sports fans.

Trescothick said: “It means so much to have won Mind’s Making a Difference award. One of the worst things about having a mental health problem is feeling that you are alone and so to be recognised for helping to raise awareness, which will hopefully help others going through the same thing not to feel so isolated, is just the best feeling.”

Mind chief executive Paul Farmer said: “Marcus's decision to speak publicly about his experience of depression brought mental health problems to the attention of a generation of young people. He is an excellent role model who is an inspiration for young men experiencing mental distress and his actions have no doubt helped many to come forward and seek help.”

Follow this link to buy Coming Back To Me: The Autobiography of Marcus Trescothick

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The pleasures and indignations of forthright Frith

David Frith has probably put too many backs up and exposed too many raw truths to be held in quite the same affection among cricket writers as, say, Neville Cardus, or John Arlott.  His love for the game runs no less deep; indeed, his life has been one of slavish devotion to the game. Yet there has rarely been a mist of sentimentality obscuring his view.

As he explains in his preface to this collection of his writings, Frith’s ambition was “to share the pleasure and excitement as well as the recurring indignation at the bruises inflicted on cricket by the greedy and uncaring”.

The pieces in Frith on Cricket, chosen by the author, include some extracts from 30 or more books but draw heavily from his magazine and newspaper writing, much of which will have been long forgotten.

The advantage this provides lies not only in offering Frith’s admirers access to work with which they may not be familiar but also in the unpolished honesty of the work, written under the pressure of deadlines and before hindsight can come into play.

It is not that he has not written well in admiration when he has felt it justified -- his eulogy on Ray Lindwall and Neil Harvey, for example, is beautifully crafted -- but it is his forthright, damning pieces that resonate the loudest.

His opposition to the boycotting of South Africa, which he felt exposed hypocrisies in virtually all corners of the game, was consistently well argued, as is his support for technological aids for umpires.

And he never lets convention blunt his criticism, even when the targets are his journalistic colleagues, whom he rounded on almost as a collective over the “dirt in pocket” affair in which the England captain, Michael Atherton, was effectively accused of ball-tampering in 1994.

Frith wrote in Wisden Cricket Monthly that “the avidity with which the majority of English cricket writers fell upon the England captain made one’s stomach turn.”  He said that they demanded Atherton’s resignation “without a shred of unquestionable evidence of misdemeanour” and went on to suggest some of his fellow writers would “be bent on savaging their prey further” after Atherton, hitting back, made reference to ‘the gutter press’.

Spanning more than half a century, beginning with the high school essay in which he set out his intention to become a journalist, Frith on Cricket leads the reader through a history of the game during that period from a viewpoint that seldom fails to stimulate.

Frith on Cricket is published by Great Northern Books, whose other cricket titles include Sweet Summers: The Classic Cricket Writing of JM Kilburn and Play Cricket The Right Way, the new issue of Geoff Boycott’s classic coaching book.

First published in 1976, Boycott’s instructional manual, in which the acknowledged master of technique covers all the game’s disciplines, has been updated for 2010 with new illustrations and sections on new skills, such as the spin bowler’s ‘doosra’ delivery and the batsman’s ‘switch hit'.

Frith on Cricket

Geoff Boycott: Play Cricket the Right Way

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Zoning in on where motor racing takes the mind

Sebastian Vettel’s timing could not have been better.  With the Formula One drivers’ championship still open to four contenders as the cars lined up on the grid for the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, Vettel produced the perfect drive at the perfect moment.

With pre-race points leader Fernando Alonso unable to finish in the first four, which would have denied Vettel the title, the 23-year-old German became the youngest F1 champion, his victory putting him in front for the only time in the championship.

By consensus, he drove a superb race.  But did he find himself in the zone? 

It is not a phrase often recognised as carrying profound meaning.  Indeed, in most sports it would convey nothing more than a sense of focus or concentration, a basic prerequisite to success.

In motor racing, however, to be in the zone is to reach an almost mystical place, or a state of mind in any event, in which the driver and car effectively become one entity, the occupant of the cockpit as much part of the machine as the vehicle is an extension of its pilot.

It is a phenomenon that first prompted wide discussion after Ayrton Senna described his qualifying laps for the Monaco Grand Prix in 1988 and spoke about something akin to an out-of-body experience, in which his McLaren-Honda car went faster and faster until the Brazilian began to believe he was above the car, looking down at himself at the wheel.

It transpired he was not the first to have encountered such feelings during a race or qualifying but it was only after Senna had vocalised the experience in such startling terms that others admitted that they too had known disturbing moments similar to the one Senna described.

The phenomenon is explored by the motor racing writer Clyde Brolin in a book entitled Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone, in which more than 100 interviewees -- not all of them racing drivers -- explain what they understand the phrase to mean and how their experiences compare with Senna’s.

Senna risked ridicule with his public admission, or at least the murmured suspicion that he was slightly bonkers.  Yet many of those quizzed by Brolin could recall moments in their cars when normal conscious thought processes gave way to something else.

Jenson Button, for example, said that he sometimes would drive a qualifying lap in which he could later remember not a single detail, whereas normally he would be able to replay the lap in his mind in exact detail. Usually, the laps in question were especially quick.

And Vettel described moments when everything about the way the car was set up was perfect but that there was something extra. “That’s the magic and it can make a big difference… it is the best feeling in driving. You are always fighting to reach this.”

Brolin touches on a number of possible explanations, or theories about explanations, for the phenomenon, from the neurological and the technical to the astro-physical or spiritual.
He does not attempt to resolve the question by offering his own answer.  Then again, so far there really isn’t one.

Overdrive: Formula 1 in the Zone.  Click on the link to reach the Amazon website for details on how to buy.

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Sports Books for Christmas

Part One -- Five on Football

Between now and December 25th, The Sports Bookshelf will provide a regular selection of sports books that might tickle your fancy or interest a son, daughter, friend or partner as you weigh up what to put under the tree this Christmas.  Click on the title or the picture to buy securely from Amazon.

John Giles: A Football Man - My Autobiography

Johnny Giles, brilliant midfield craftsman of the Don Revie era at Leeds United, hits back at what he considers the myth of ‘Dirty Leeds’, suggesting that the image of the club has been tainted by repeated distortions of the truth, the worst of which have come about since David Peace’s fact-into-fiction account, The Damned United, was turned into a film, which Giles described as “a misinterpretation of the misinterpretation of the book”.  Those Leeds supporters of a certain age who have to scratch their heads to remember Giles as the sly psychopath of recent reinvention will see this as a welcome revision.

Kenny Dalglish charts his 33-year love affair with Liverpool Football Club in a second tranche of autobiographical recollections, as told to his ghostwriter, the Daily Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter, who was congratulated by one reviewer for “discarding the needless pomposity prevalent in his [newspaper] writing” and not interfering with Dalglish’s voice, which Winter may or may not take as a compliment.   Must-have reading for Liverpool fans.

George Best & Me: Waggy's Tale: GEORGE by the Man Who Knew Him BEST

Fresh tales of the Fifth Beatle as Malcolm Wagner, who was Best’s closest friend, minder and Mr Fixit during the glory years and beyond, shares his personal memories of life with George.   Known also as the Village Barber -- his hairdressing business was nextdoor to Best’s boutique -- Wagner was the central character in the Best entourage known as ‘the Chaps’ and his stories from the glitzy and the murkier sides of Manchester nightlife in the 1960s and 70s -- from the 24-hour drinking club run by Thin Lizzie star Phil Lynott’s mum to Best’s relationship with the infamous Quality Street Gang -- will appeal to Life on Mars fans as well as Manchester United supporters.

Please Don't Go: Big John's Journey Back to Life

The story of former Arsenal, Celtic and Wales striker John Hartson’s remarkable battle against cancer has won plaudits not only for its harrowing candour but also for the quality of the narrative, which intersperses the player’s account with the thoughts of his then-pregnant wife, Sarah, and extracts from a diary kept by his sister, Victoria.  In this respect, Please Don’t Go clearly benefits from the skill of ghostwriter Rachel Murphy, a former Daily Mirror journalist who also runs a thriving community website in Kent, www.tonbridgepeople.co.uk.

Pay As You Play: The True Price of Success in the Premier League Era

If Manchester City become Premier League champions, most football fans would take it as confirmation that football success always comes to those with the richest owners or most generous bank managers.  But is that necessarily the case? Pay As You Play attempts to measure the correlation between success and transfer spending by converting all Premier League transfer fees since 1992 to current-day prices using a price index based on ‘football inflation’ figures.  The findings suggest which managers have excelled in the transfer market, which clubs punched above their financial weight and which players proved good or bad value for money.

Sports Books for Christmas: Part Two - A Quintet on Cricket

For more sports books for Christmas, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Sydenham's League champions the best of all time

Here’s an interesting poser.  Were you to canvass the opinions of 100 of the greatest players in cricket history, from the late Sir Alec Bedser to Shane Warne, and ask them to name which players from the last 100 years or so would merit selection for an all-time world XI, which England cricketer do you suppose would win the most votes?

The answer might surprise you a little, as it possibly did journalist Richard Sydenham, who has had the patience and staying power to track down 100 players willing to name their best XI and then painstakingly record and classify their choices in a new book.

In a League of Their Own: 100 Cricket Legends Select Their World XI lists 108 different nominees for places in these 100 fantasy elites, of whom 25 were England players.  Only Australia, with 30, had a stronger representation.

So which of the 25 was the most popular choice?  Ian Botham? Geoffrey Boycott? Or, going back a little further, perhaps Len Hutton?

In fact, it was none of those.  Neither was it Jack Hobbs, Denis Compton or Jim Laker.   And it certainly wasn’t Andrew Flintoff or Kevin Pietersen.

No, the man who made it into 34 of the 100 teams selected -- with 13 more votes than his nearest challenger among England players and eight more than his closest pursuer in his own specialist position -- was wicketkeeper Alan Knott.

Interestingly, Knott earned his place in the all-time XI without the support of any of the 15 Australians among Sydenham’s 100.  Their vote tended to be split between Ian Healy, Rod Marsh, Adam Gilchrist and Don Tallon.  Gilchrist polled 26 votes, although only four from fellow Aussies.

The next most popular England player was Hutton, with 21 nominations, followed by Botham (18), Hobbs (14), Laker (12), Compton, Godfrey Evans and Sydney (S.F.) Barnes (10 each), Fred Trueman (9) and Aled Bedser (7).

Flintoff earned one vote -- from South African all-rounder Jacques Kallis -- while Pietersen apparently did not impress anyone, at least not enough to displace another choice.

Sport is all about opinions and comparing notes on the relative merits of players down the years is an enduring pastime.  Sydenham admits that his idea is hardly new, but he is probably right to claim that no one has documented the chosen best XIs of 100 players who would qualify to be nominated themselves.

He admits it took him years to complete the task. “The reasons are varied,” he said. “Several publishers initially rejected the project and it took time to reach hard-to-contact players -- and there are other commitments in one’s life that make it hard for an author to dedicate himself to a book that is not backed by a publisher.”

In Sydenham’s case, the latter comment is particularly pertinent.  Whereas some journalists might devote days off to writing books, in his branch of the profession -- working as an agency writer for Reuters and Associated Press -- days off can be little more than an aspiration, especially during a busy cricket season.

In fact, by the time he had interviewed the 100th of his chosen “legends”, some selections had lain so long in his notes he felt obliged to check they were still valid.  Indeed, Knott would have had 35 votes had Botham, whom Sydenham interviewed on a TV gantry at Edgbaston during a Test match, not changed his mind two years after making his original choice and gone for Gilchrist instead.

Sydenham ultimately found his publisher in Derby Books, which continues to maintain a catalogue similar to its predecessor, Breedon Books, which went into administration a year ago.  Breedon, founded in 1982, built its name on taking up good ideas for niche audiences as well as projects with wider appeal.

If cricket fans are a niche audience, a League of Their Own certainly falls into the former category but given an impressive list of participating “greats” it surely qualifies on the second count, too.

For information on how to buy In a League of Their Own: 100 Cricket Legends Select Their World XI simply follow the link.

Richard Sydenham is also the author of In the Line of Fire: The Great Opening Batsmen of Test Cricket, and worked with Mushtaq Mohammad on his autobiography, Inside Out.

He has also written an as-yet unpublished biography of the movie career of Steve McQueen.

For more on cricket visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Agassi's Open secret makes biography a prize contender

There is a lot to be said for a good collaborator, which may explain why Open, the soul-baring autobiography of American tennis star Andre Agassi, is in line for a second award in Britain.

Open, which was voted Best Biography’ at the British Sports Book awards in March, has made the shortlist of six for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year 2010.

It is a strong story, one in which Agassi confesses not only to using the recreational drug, crystal meth, and lying about it to avoid being banned from his sport, but to hating tennis after being forced into it by a controlling father, so much so that he likened much of his early life and career to being imprisoned in an existence over which he had no control.

Agassi chose his own ‘ghost’ but none of the tennis writers of his acquaintance fitted the bill, apparently.  Instead, he contacted John Moehringer Jnr, better known by his byline, JR Moehringer, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist whose own memoir about growing up fatherless in suburban New York, The Tender Bar, captivated the winner of eight Grand Slam tournaments to the extent that he allowed himself to read only a few pages in one session, rather than finish in too quickly.

Moehringer, then working for the Los Angeles Times, was reluctant at first, having spoken to colleagues whose own experience of working with sports stars had been unfulfilling, but Agassi was insistent and,  in time, the journalist became so absorbed in the project he moved to Las Vegas, Agassi's home town.  Naturally, he taped every interview with his subject. At the end, he had some 250 hours of material.

The product of their relationship is a book that carries the stamp of an accomplished writer but which also drills deeply into Agassi’s mind in a way that has clearly enthralled tennis fans but has also through its psychological insights found a wider audience.

The William Hill list also includes Duncan Hamilton’s musings on English cricket, A Last English Summer, with which he is in contention to complete a hat-trick of William Hill awards following the success of Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, which detailed his reporter-manager relationship with the late Brian Clough, and his superb biography of Bodyline fast bowler Harold Larwood.

The other titles in the final six are Trautmann’s Journey, Catrine Clay’s story of the Hitler Youth member and Nazi soldier turned legendary English footballer, Bert Trautmann, Beware of the Dog, the autobiography of England and British Lions rugby star, Brian Moore, Blood Knots by Luke Jennings, the first book with an angling theme to reach the shortlist, and Matthew Syed's Bounce, which challenges the belief that champions are born, not made.

The winner will be announced in a lunchtime ceremony at Waterstones in Piccadilly, London, on November 30th, broadcast live on the Gabby Logan Show on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Charged with deciding who scoops the £22,000 first prize are broadcasters John Inverdale and Danny Kelly, journalists Hugh McIlvanney and Alyson Rudd, and Graham Sharpe, who is media director for William Hill. They make up the judging panel under the chairmanship of John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and one-time owner of the deeply-missed Sportspages bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London.

Click on the links for details of how to buy any of the six shortlisted titles.

Open: An Autobiography
A Last English Summer
Blood Knots
Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All
Trautmann's Journey: From Hitler Youth to FA Cup Legend
Bounce: How Champions are Made



How a defeat for England on the football field was a metaphor for national decline

A review by Anthony Clavane

When I was a history teacher, I would have killed for a contemporary historian like Dominic Sandbrook. Or a contemporary history book like State of Emergency. The likes of Eric Hobsbawm and Arthur Marwick would often produce great masterpieces, but they failed to engage with popular culture. And they particularly failed to engage with the sporting events that shaped people's lives.

So three cheers for Sandbrook who, entirely predictably, has been labelled "middlebrow" by that breed of earnest, high-minded academic who once dismissed the mighty AJP Taylor as a populist. AJP, of course, would never have dreamed of viewing popular culture through the prism of sport. Nor of describing an England football defeat, as Sandbrook does, as summing up the country's "wider economic and political decline".

The defeat in question was the first leg of the 1972 European Championship quarter-final against West Germany. The following year's home draw against Poland, which cost Alf Ramsey's side a place in the World Cup, would have been a more obvious emblem of decline. But Sandbrook has no great love for the obvious. Every page is full of original insights and telling detail. Did you know that Tory prime minister Edward Heath supported Arsenal? Or that he nursed a secret ambition to run a hotel? Or that Carry On star Kenneth Williams thought Don Revie would "make a better impression" as PM than either Heath or Harold Wilson? No, neither did I.

When lazy contemporary historians are not airbrushing the much-maligned Revie from history, they are gleefully casting him as the devil incarnate. A bit like the Thatcherites' treatment of poor old Ted. I remember one study of the era declaring that Revie's Leeds were, "in part responsible for everything bad about British sport and sporting attitudes" during this low, dishonest decade. In this brilliant third instalment of his ambitious social history of modern Britain, however, the Wolves fan sticks up for The Don. 

The dour, sinister Revie portrayed in the film The Damned United might appear to be a perfect fit in an age of miners' strikes, tower blocks and political corruption. Sandbrook, to his credit, challenges the dominant view, hailing him as a pioneer, a flawed revolutionary. So, as a Leeds United fan, I salute him. And as an ex-history teacher, I congratulate him for repeatedly looking at the bigger picture. Like Heath, Revie was a neurotically-insecure social climber. Like Ted, he was a product of the Depression years. Both were awkward misfits who rose from humble origins and were often crippled by self-doubt. It is fashionable - as, say, Alwyn W. Turner argues in 'Crisis? What Crisis? Britain In The 1970s' - to attack 'Don Readies' for his greed. "But the key factor," writes Sandbrook, "was surely not avarice but anxiety." The same thing could also be said of the Trade Unionists who were ritually accused of bringing the country to its knees.

The Heath-Revie era was a time of transition, an age of both anxiety and affluence. The post-war settlement had collapsed and the Thatcherite service economy had yet to take shape. "The old is dying and the new cannot be born," as Antonio Gramsci remarked of an earlier time. "In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears." 

One man's Morbid Age is another's Golden Age. As Sandbrook points out, this was an egalitarian moment, a period when unfashionable, provincial football teams could come from nowhere to win trophies. "Between 1970 and 1981," he tells us, "seven different clubs won the league title, while ten different clubs won the FA Cup." Contrast this with the post-Sky era -- and weep. Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have won every championship since Blackburn Rovers' triumph in 1995. 

But Sandbrook is no nostalgist. Nostalgia is airbrushing of the mind. It sucks away at the deep and jagged lines of a country's divided and fraught history. Back in the Seventies, Britain was ripping itself apart. Football, like politics, was in ferment. Fans chanted "We hate humans" and hooliganism became "out of control". The optimism of the 60s had dissolved and the classless, meritocratic experiment was about to implode. "As is so often the case," wrote the Daily Mirror's Peter Wilson after the Poland game, "we have been content to dwell in the past and rest complacently on past triumphs until events - and other nations - overtake and surpass us."

You could argue, what with our present penchant for all things Seventies, with the success of novelists such as David Peace and Jonathan Coe, and with the popularity of TV series like Life On Mars and films like The Damned United, that we, today, are stuck in the past. There is a pining for the good-old-bad-old-days when clubs spotted footballers in local schools rather than imported them from Estonia, Serbia and Mexico. When British, not foreign, talent dominated the top flight. When teams outside the top three had a chance of glory.

"Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?" asked Sam Tyler in Life On Mars. "Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet." Sandbrook's stunningly rich narrative transports us back to a world of the three-day week, IRA atrocities and muddy sport. There are at least fifty references to football, most of them reminding us what the 'beautiful game', with its galactic wage bills and overpaid primadonnas, has lost. 

Planet Seventies has a bad reputation: part joke, part nightmare; economic decline, poor industrial relations and Jason King's "extraordinarily effeminate attire". For those of us who came of age during the era, however, it was an age of affluence and social mobility. State Of Emergency is a reminder of this lost, disappearing world.

Anthony Clavane is a sports writer with the Sunday Mirror and author of Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United.

Read more about Promised Land.

Follow the link to buy State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974

For more sports books, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop. 


As an Ashes series beckons, England's greats recall The Toughest Tour

Having broken Australia’s stranglehold on the Ashes with two consecutive home wins, England’s cricketers will board the long flight Down Under this Friday confident they can return in the New Year with the famous urn still in their possession.

Much newspaper space will be given to assessing the relative strengths of the rival nations between now and the first Test in Brisbane on November 25th but in terms of raw statistical history England’s prospects are easily measured.

Based on results in the 16 Ashes series completed in Australia since the war, England’s chance is one in four.

Four wins in 16 attempts -- an uncomfortable record that demonstrates why the title chosen for Huw Turbervill’s history of England’s post-War adventures in Australia is only too apt.

The Toughest Tour, published on October 26th by Aurum Press, charts the story of all 16 Ashes series -- as well as the extra non-Ashes Tests of 1979-80 -- through the eyes of those who took part.

As is inevitably the way, the book is the culmination of many hours of labour by the author, albeit pleasurable ones. For Daily Telegraph journalist Turbervill, whose fascination with Ashes history is matched by his love of writing, it was a welcome opportunity.

“In my present position, I don’t get the chance to write about cricket as much as I used to so,” he said.

“I always enjoyed doing interviews with players, past and present. Indeed, much of my writing for the Telegraph, Express and Wisden Cricket Monthly had been pieces about players.

“No one had really done a book about every Ashes tour in the way I had in mind and I knew I would enjoy tracking down and talking to players about their tour memories. I still had the numbers of many players I had interviewed previously and I decided I’d see where I could go with the idea.”

One of those precious numbers belonged to Sir Alec Bedser and his decision, logically taken, to start at the beginning was timely. Bedser was the only survivor from the 1946-47 series and passed away in April this year at the age of 91, shortly after becoming England’s oldest living Test cricketer.

“I’d interviewed him three years earlier when he had still been quite sprightly,” Turbervill said. “This time he had some health problems and he was fairly frail, although mentally he was still incredibly sharp and had clear recollections of that tour, as well as the 1950-51 and 54-55 tours.

“Given that, sadly, he passed away only six months or so later, I was so glad I caught him. I think it was the last interview he gave.”

With Bedser’s memories in the bag, Turbervill presented his sample chapters to publishers Aurum Press and was delighted to be given the go-ahead to write the remainder.

By the end of the project, he had interviewed 23 players, from Trevor Bailey and Frank Tyson of the early touring parties to Nasser Hussain and Ian Bell of the more recent England sides. Finding current players with time and inclination -- not to mention contractual freedom -- to talk about teammates, was one of the more difficult parts of the process but the England and Wales Cricket Board allowed access to Bell.

“It meant a six-hour round trip for a few minutes with him at Loughborough (home of the National Cricket Performance Centre) but it was worthwhile in the end,” Turbervill said.

Imposing deadlines on himself to complete each 3-4,000-word chapter, Turbervill wrote for three to four hours each day before going to work at the Telegraph. Working on the production side of a daily newspaper at least means that his day job is effectively a night job, with shifts starting in the late afternoon.

“I loved doing it,” he said. “The ex-players who agreed to speak were very good. Brian Close, who is 79 now, remembered things that happened when he was 19 with remarkable clarity.

“Geoff Miller (England’s chief selector) was excellent. So too were Dean Headley, John Crawley, Angus Fraser… and Chris Broad was superb on the 1986-87 tour, which was the last time England won.

“And it was not just talking about cricket where their memories were so fascinating. After the war, for example, players were amazed at how plentiful food was in Australia compared with at home, where rationing was still in force.

“And while modern players think nothing of long flights, there were deep reservations when the tourists travelled the full distance by air for the first time in 1965-66.

“It was thought that the long sea passage the players had to embark on previously was important in allowing them to acclimatise more gradually to warmer conditions and there was a mistrust of aeroplanes as posing a risk to health.

“A number of maladies suffered by the players in 1965 -- colds and stomach upsets, for example -- were grandly labelled as ‘virus diseases’ and blamed on the flight.

“There were several tours I did not really know a lot about, so the research was a learning process for me. I hope that people who read the book will have a similar experience.”

Follow the link information on how to buy The Toughest Tour: The Ashes Away Series Since The War.