England's Ashes triumph as seen by cricket's finest writer

Newspaper writers are an underrated breed.  Where the polished prose of a literary novelist might correctly be applauded, chances are it has been rewritten, rewritten and rewritten again before it was allowed anywhere near a publisher, whose editors will then have subjected it to their own revisions.
By contrast, the newspaper journalist generally files his (or her) first draft, which may have been tinkered with a little if there was time but essentially is the product of unprocessed thoughts, transferred from mind to screen in the time it takes to hit the relevant keys.
It should be seen as remarkable, then, that the serious newspapers -- and some deemed as less so -- offer much writing of extraordinary quality.  The sports pages, moreover, should not be regarded as an exception.  James Lawton, Hugh McIlvanney, Simon Barnes, Martin Samuel, Paul Hayward, Richard Williams…these names make an incomplete list.
It excludes, for example, Gideon Haigh, the Australian journalist who is widely regarded as just about the finest newspaper writer on cricket in the world.  Haigh, born in London but raised in Victoria, is the author of some 28 books, many of which doubtless had the benefit of considered reassessment before they appeared in print.  Yet if the writing is better than is contained in the raw copy he delivers under deadline pressure then the differences are minimal.
It is this talent for submitting flowing, rhythmical, perceptive analysis without the need for reappraisal that has newspapers in England and Australia bartering for his services each Ashes series.   In the past, The Guardian has enjoyed the privilege of publishing his analyses.  In the series just concluded, the lucky readers have been those who take The Times.
Haigh’s newspaper work on the Ashes has for the last four series provided the material, with no more than minimal amendment, for Aurum Press to be first to the shelves with a book of the series.   For obvious reasons -- in England, at any rate -- his account of the 2005 series attracted good sales figures, suggesting the idea might have legs and his instant record of the 2010-11 England victory, to be published next month, is likely to be similarly well received.

Ashes 2010-11: England's Record-Breaking Series Victory (Aurum Press) will be available from February 25.  Click on the link to pre-order.

Gideon Haigh is also the author, among other titles, of:

Ashes 2005: The Full Story of the Test Series
Downed Under: The Ashes in Australia 2006-2007
The Ultimate Test: The Story of the 2009 Ashes Series
Many a Slip: A Diary of a Club Cricket Season
Mystery Spinner: The Story of Jack Iverson
The Big Ship: Warwick Armstrong and the Making of Modern Cricket

For more details, and to buy, click on the title.



Publishers looking to Anderson too...

James Anderson
If England’s cricket team are looking forward to welcoming a refreshed fast bowler back into their dressing room when James Anderson rejoins them in Australia for tomorrow’s fourth one-day international, publishers Simon and Schuster will also be hoping the Lancashire player can inspire a change of fortune for Andrew Strauss’s side.

They have committed themselves to making the 28-year-old a £100,000 advance to publish his biography later this year, having gambled on their man emerging as one of the stars in an historic Ashes triumph by buying the rights on Christmas Eve, with the series then all square at 1-1.

Their judgment looked sound as England won the last two Tests by an innings, Anderson wrapping up his own brilliant series with seven wickets in the concluding match in Sydney.

Anderson managed to fly home between the second and third Tests to attend the birth of his second child and it seemed only fair when the England management rewarded his part in the Ashes victory by giving him a couple of weeks off so he could return home again to spend time with mum and the new arrival.

In his absence, however, England have managed to lose the first three matches in the seven-leg one-day international series and his experience could be vital if they are to stay in contention with a win in Adelaide.

For their part, what Simon and Schuster least want to see is some of the gloss taken off England’s Ashes glory by a heavy defeat in the one-dayers.

What they do want to see is England holding not only the Ashes but the ICC World Cup by the time Anderson’s memoir rolls off the presses.

Thanks to massive television contracts pumping cash into the game, today’s cricketers -- especially England cricketers -- are well rewarded compared with their forbears but Anderson’s jaw must have dropped, nonetheless, at the money Simon and Schuster have been willing to pay.

Sports books have not exactly been flying off the shelves during the current recession and even the 2009 home Ashes win provided only a momentary fillip for cricket titles, with Andrew Strauss’s autobiography returning very disappointing numbers.

For a range of cricket books, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Merson tells it like it shouldn't be...

‘How to’ books regularly enjoy a New Year surge in popularity as resolutions focus on self-improvement.  Paul Merson, the former England and Arsenal footballer, is bucking the trend, however, with a ‘How NOT to’.
The 42-year-old, who also had four years at Aston Villa, is a self-confessed addict on three counts, having succumbed to the temptations of drink, drugs and gambling during his career as a high-earning player.
He admitted to being hooked on alcohol and cocaine in 1994, while supposedly at his peak at Arsenal, and spent time in a clinic in Arizona a decade later in his battle to control his gambling.  Although he once commanded wages of £35,000-a-week as a player, much of his wealth ended up in the bank accounts of bookmakers.
He is uniquely placed, therefore, to advise today’s generation of pampered young superstars wondering which indulgence they might try next to fill the hours of boredom between training sessions.  Merson has written about his problems before, his Rock Bottom and Hero and Villain delivering serious messages about the pitfalls facing young men with money and time on their hands.
Thankfully, How Not to Be a Professional Footballer, to be published on March 31 by HarperSport, takes a lighter approach, bringing together the deep fund of anecdotes that power Merson’s after-dinner speaking engagements under a range of ‘do’ and ‘do not’ headings in a tongue--in-cheek manual for the modern player.  Yet it promises to be poignant as well as funny.
The ‘do nots’ include

  • DO NOT adopt 'Champagne' Charlie Nicholas as your mentor (as he did after joining Arsenal as an apprentice in 1984, a year after Nicholas had moved from Celtic to Highbury as a 21-year-old intent on enjoying life in the capital to the full).
  • DO NOT share a house with Gazza (as he did when he and Paul Gascoigne played for Middlesbrough)
  • DO NOT regularly place £30,000 bets at the bookie's (as he did with a frequency that drove him to the brink of bankruptcy)
  • DO NOT get so drunk that you can't remember the 90 minutes of football you just played in (as he did more than once)
  • DO NOT manage Walsall (at any cost) (as he did at the end of his professional career until he was sacked in February 2006)

Merson retains his links with football through media work now as a popular member of the Gillette Soccer Saturday team on Sky Sports, where he engages in often hilarious banter with Matt le Tissier, Phil Thompson, Paul Walsh and a now authoritatively middle-aged Charlie Nicholas.
He also pops up on Asian, Arabic and US soccer shows.

To pre-order How Not to Be a Professional Footballer, click on the highlighted text to be transferred to the Amazon site.





New take on the Higgins legend

It is more than 20 years since Alex Higgins took part in his last World Snooker Championships and yet still there is no player to whom the popularity of that tournament -- and the game in general -- owes a greater legacy.

His flamboyant playing style and his chaotic life away from the table were the perfect combination as the sport sought to move away from dingy clubs into the nation’s front rooms in the latter half of the 1970s, when television viewers and tabloid newspaper readers developed a taste for sport laced with soap opera.

He gave the game its blueprint for success, encouraging countless young men not only to strive for brilliance with a cue but to live a little on the wild side, too, perhaps.

There have been better players (though it should not be forgotten that he won the world title twice) but no bigger character, no one to command the attention of the public in the same way, whether for his extraordinary skills or his volatile temperament.

Higgins destroyed himself ultimately with drink, drugs and tobacco, his uniquely bizarre life ending last July, when his emaciated body was discovered in his flat in Belfast. He was effectively homeless when he won his first world championship in 1972 and, having blown every penny of the £3 million he made from the game, he died with much the same status, living in sheltered accommodation.

And just as the seedier side of his fellow Ulsterman, George Best, retains a fascination for the reading public, so too the more tawdry, seamier aspects of the Higgins story continue to have an irresistible draw.

A new collection of Higgins stories will hit the bookstores next month when John Blake Publishing releases Let Me Tell You About Alex: Crazy Days and Nights on the Road with the Hurricane, by John Virgo, the former UK snooker champion whose career coincided with that of Higgins and who numbered himself among his friends.

Virgo was one of a number of former snooker stars who turned out in Manchester last May at a fund-raising dinner held in his honour, with the sad aim of helping to drum up £20,000 so that Higgins, down to six stones in weight and living on baby food as a result of throat cancer, might have implants to replace the teeth he had lost through aggressive radiotherapy.  Sadly Higgins was never well enough to undergo the surgery necessary.

The book is described as “an affectionate portrait” but the publishers’ synopsis promises something more than a sycophantic attempt to bathe the Higgins story in more palatable light.

“Whatever else he was,” it reads, “Alexander Gordon Higgins wasn't nice. Unpredictable, wild, demonic and obsessive for certain. John Virgo knew Higgins as well as anyone. He made no apologies for his friend and was frequently driven to despair by his antics -- the gambling, the drug-using, the sheer, uninhibited madness of the man.”

It will have to be good, though, to match the account put together by the journalist Bill Borrows in 2002 after his attempts to stay onside with Higgins long enough to write an authorised biography ultimately collapsed over the player’s financial demands.

The Hurricane: The Turbulent Life & Times of Alex Higgins was hailed as not only one of the best books written about snooker but one of the most compelling sports biographies, drawing on painstaking research and countless interviews, as well as starkly enlightening times spent with his subject.

Click on the highlighted link to buy Bill Borrows's book or here to pre-order Let Me Tell You About Alex: Crazy Days and Nights on the Road with the Hurricane

For more on snooker and more sports biographies, visit The Sports Bookshelf Shop.



Booth lands role as Wisden editor

Cricket journalist and author Lawrence Booth has been appointed to succeed Scyld Berry as editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, traditionally one of the most prestigious jobs in cricket.
Booth, 35, will become the youngest Wisden editor in 72 years.
Berry, editor since 2008, is set to declare after his fourth almanack – the 148th edition – is published in April. Booth will take charge of the 2012 edition.
Wisden, the game’s yellow-jacketed bible, has been at the heart of cricket since it was first published in 1864.  Selection as one of its Five Cricketers of the Year has become recognised as a major honour and the annual Notes by the Editor have long been regarded as a uniquely influential voice on the state of the game.
Booth, cricket writer for the Daily Mail, studied modern languages at Cambridge and has been associated with Wisden since he sought work experience there in 1998. Quickly identified as a writer of talent, he subsequently worked for the almanack, Wisden Cricket Monthly (now The Wisden Cricketer) and wisden.com before leaving to go freelance in 2002.
Since then he has cemented his reputation, writing for the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian, where he pioneered the much-admired Over-By-Over web coverage and the online column The Spin, which became Top Spin when Booth joined the Mail in 2009. It was voted Best Online Column in the 2010 Sports Journalists’ Awards.
Booth's eye for the funnier side of the game is one of the strengths of his column-writing and his humour comes to the fore also in his books. He is the author of Arm-ball to Zooter: A Sideways Look at the Language of Cricket (Penguin) and Cricket, Lovely Cricket?: An Addict's Guide to the World's Most Exasperating Game(Yellow Jersey) and compiled a marvellous collection of cricket quotations under the title "What are the Butchers For? (A & C Black).

His other achievements include umpiring a televised game of horseback cricket, and (thanks to his skill in German) giving Wisden the only known cricketing interview with the Slovakian handball player, Maros Kolpak, the man who inadvertently revolutionised cricket by securing a European court ruling on the eligibility of foreign players.

Booth will work alongside Hugh Chevallier who has been promoted from deputy editor to co-editor. Chevallier will have prime responsibility for production and publication and also for the almanack’s core content of match reporting and statistics.

In the past month Wisden has joined Twitter, and Booth will take a lead role in plans to further develop Wisden’s digital presence.

Matthew Engel, Berry’s predecessor as editor of the almanack, will become editorial director of John Wisden and Co in addition to his role as editor of the company’s new imprint for sporting books, Wisden Sports Writing. Engel will be responsible for guiding long-term editorial strategy and will help plan the 150th edition in 2013.

Berry, the longest-serving and most respected member of the cricket press corps, will concentrate on his role as cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.

“Scyld has been a terrific editor,” Engel said. “He brought to the book an authority and knowledge of the game that perhaps only John Woodcock has ever matched. Lawrence has big shoes to fill but he is a great talent. We hope the Lawrence–Hugh combination will take the book into a new era.

“Cricket is changing very fast, too fast for some of us. Wisden’s job is to reflect those changes without ever losing sight of its own values, and those that should be at the heart of cricket. I have great faith that the new team will continue to do that.”

Among Berry’s achievements are the creation of the Wisden City Cup for inner-city youngsters, the introduction of Wisden’s Schools Cricketer of the Year and, in the forthcoming 2011 edition, the Cricket Photograph of the Year (entries close on January 17th). His choice of Claire Taylor as one of Five Cricketers of the Year in 2009 was the first time a woman has been honoured by Wisden.

John Wisden and Co, the publishers of Wisden, is now owned by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc which also publishes Who’s Who and Whitaker’s Almanack.

Haddon Whitaker, whose family founded the other almanack, was only 31 when he became editor of Wisden in 1940, Booth will be 37 when his first Wisden is due to be published – the same as both Charles Pardon in 1887 (the edition that established the book on a firm footing after some difficult years), and John Wisden when he brought out the famous first volume in 1864.

Click here to pre-order Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2011, due out in early April.

Books by Lawrence Booth



Giles memoir a surprise success

The appetite among sports books fans for more tales of Leeds United shows no sign of being satisfied.

At least six notable additions to the biggest single-club genre after Manchester United appeared during 2010.  The failure of Anthony Clavane’s excellent Promised Land, a superb personal history of the Elland Road club, to make the William Hill prize contenders suggested the appeal of the subject might be in decline but the chart of the year’s best-sellers contradicts that theory.

Trailing behind only Kenny Dalglish’s latest memoirs and Patrick Barclay’s biography of Sir Alex Ferguson is the life story of the former Leeds midfield supremo, Johnny Giles.

Giles, of course, was the lynchpin of the Don Revie team that continues to divide opinion and which by doing so has kept interest alive for so long.  The little Irishman who partnered Billy Bremner in the ‘engine room’ of the Leeds team at its peak himself has had to live with two reputations, remembered by some as one of the finest midfield orchestrators the game has seen but by others as the cynical on-field agent for Revie’s desire to win at all costs, a footballer who would wreck an opponent’s ankle ligaments as readily as he would hit a pinpoint 50-yard pass.

John Giles: A Football Man - My Autobiography is an attempt to set the record straight, at least in terms of how he sees himself.  It is written with honesty, not pretending that the darker side of his game is entirely a myth but pointing out that Revie’s Leeds team evolved at a time when every successful club had its enforcers, from Ron Harris at Chelsea and Jimmy Gabriel at Everton to Arsenal’s Peter Storey.

So much has been written about the Revie era that much of the ground Giles covers is familiar but his recollections are relevant as coming right from the heart of the story. He is particularly strong on the Brian Clough episode, railing against at the fictionalised account of Clough’s 44 days as manager that brought so much kudos to novelist David Peace but revealing a certain sympathy for Clough’s insecurity.

Click on the link to order John Giles: A Football Man - My Autobiography.

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