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Among the Fans promises a dream debut for Collins and for Wisden's sports writing showcase

Apart from ghosting an autobiography of cricketer Pat Pocock and assembling a collection of his best newspaper columns, Patrick Collins had managed to negotiate almost half a century in sports journalism without ever writing a book until Matthew Engel, seeking to secure his first commission as editor of the newly-formed Wisden Sports Writing imprint, approached him with an idea.

In Engel’s words, Collins, the chief sports correspondent of the Mail on Sunday, “batted the idea away with utter contempt” but did respond with one of his own to which Engel, delighted that the discussion had yielded a positive outcome after all, eagerly gave the go-ahead.

The result is Among the Fans, which has not only turned Wisden Sports Writing from a concept to a reality but has also confirmed Collins as a sports writer of considerable merit by being short listed for the 2011 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

“This is our first title and to make it on to the shortlist is very encouraging,” Engel told The Sports Bookshelf.

“The aim of Wisden Sports Writing is to publish a particular type of book under a definition determined by three criteria -- that it would be beautifully written, would have a resonance beyond the sport it was ostensibly about, and that it would say something about life and not just about sport.

“Pat’s book meets all of those aims and the response we have had to it has been terrific.

“I was thrilled when he agreed to write it because he is possibly the most admired sports writer in the country, certainly among his peers.  In some ways he is not a big name -- you do not see him on television or anything -- but he has enormous respect among his fellow sports journalists and is an absolutely terrific writer.”

As the name suggests, Wisden Sports Writing hails from the same stable that produces Wisden Cricketers' Almanack , which Engel himself edited for 12 years during a career that included 25 years with The Guardian, many as cricket correspondent.

It came into being after Wisden became part of Bloomsbury Publishing in 2009, enabling Engel to pursue a lifelong desire to see quality sports writing recognised as a literary genre of genuine merit.


“There has always been that sense that sport in general was somehow inferior,” he said. “There was a certain amount of snobbery on the posh papers, who regarded sport as akin to the toy department.  I go back to the time when sport on the Guardian amounted to two pages, effectively one and a bit when you took out the race cards.

“Subsequently, there was a huge swing in the other direction with massive space devoted to sport, not all of it of great quality.  But I have no doubt that the best sports writing can compare favourably with any other kind of writing and I hope Wisden will be able to prove that.”

Future titles carrying the Wisden Sports Writing imprint will, like Among The Fans, reflect Engel’s personal view of what amounts to good sports writing.

“What is so interesting about sport is the way it relates to life,” he said.  “I always remember that people would say about John Arlott that they loved listening to him on the radio because he didn’t talk about the cricket.

“There is an obsessional kind of sports follower these days, the kind of person you might say so much Sky Sports coverage is aimed at, who is willing to watch football 24 hours a day because he thinks it is hugely important.

“It is hugely important but it is also part of life and the kind of reader I set out to appeal to is the kind of reader who would recognise that and maybe who even might think they are not all that interested in sport.

“When I was cricket correspondent I tried to write pieces I thought my mum might read and though she is not around anymore I’d like these to be books she might like, that would appeal to people who aren’t just interested in runs and goals.

“You might say that the informal definition of books that would meet the Wisden Sports Writing criteria is ‘books I might want to read.”

Titles planned for next year include We’ll Get ‘Em in Sequins, written by the Daily Telegraph journalist and commentator Max Davidson, which looks at the changing nature of masculinity and manliness through a series of portraits of Yorkshire cricketers.  The title is inspired by Darren Gough’s triumph on Strictly Come Dancing.

“It is a cracking book, a book that’s sort of about Yorkshire cricket but isn’t -- precisely the kind of book I’m talking about.  It is so original.  It says a lot about Yorkshire cricket but a huge amount about life."

Also planned is a book about the 100 metres final at the Seoul Olympics, in which the gold medal was awarded to Carl Lewis after Ben Johnson was disqualified as a drugs cheat, to be written by the Guardian sports journalist, Richard Moore.

Engel’s writing career has broadened considerably since he completed his stint as the Guardian’s man in Test match press boxes around the world.  He written about politics and world affairs and is currently a columnist for the Financial Times as well as working on his second book about England and the English, following on from his acclaimed Eleven Minutes Late which, in keeping with the principles of Wisden Sports Writing, was both “a book about trains and a book not about trains.”

But he retains an enthusiasm for sport and sports writing.  “I learned to read by reading Desmond Hackett in the Express and Peter Wilson in the Mirror,” he said.  “I always read sports pages and sports books.  The tradition of Neville Cardus was the one I grew up in and always aspired to and that is what I would hope we would be attempting to develop in fields beyond cricket.”

Buy Among the Fans: From Ashes to the Arrows, a Year of Watching the Watchersdirect from Amazon.

Max Davidson is also the author of Fields of Courage: The Bravest Chapters in Sport and It's Not the Winning That Counts: The Most Inspiring Moments of Sporting Chivalry as well as Sorry... The Hardest Word.

Richard Moore also wrote Sky's the Limit: British Cycling's Quest to Conquer the Tour de France and Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France among other cycling titles.

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