We may be heading towards the last days of summer, and with it the final opportunity to enjoy a good book whilst lying in the English sun, but with September holidays and long commutes to work back on the agenda, there is no better time to immerse yourself in a great book about sport. Here are a selection of the best.
5. Ed Smith – Luck
Ed Smith is not your typical cricket writer. Test Match Special’s most recent addition certainly ticks the box by having had a successful county cricket career (albeit a less fruitful International one), yet unlike the majority who frequent the Sky Sports commentary box, his columns are neither ghosted, nor rely predominantly on outlandish overstatement. He is very much from the scholarly, analytical school of journalism, which makes much sense since he holds a Double First from Cambridge University.
His book ‘Luck’, which follows his work on baseball (Playing Hard Ball), and his diary of the 2003 season (On and off the Field) is a fascinating account of what makes people successful. It is in depth yet very readable, persuasive yet balanced, and draws on a whole range of Smith’s personal experiences, as well as accounts of the rise of numerous successful sportsmen. As the title suggests, the overriding message is that the majority of success comes down to luck; yet he offers a fascinating view on the myth of hard work being the key to all success as well as challenging the idea that individuals have control over making their own luck. There are inevitably areas which provoke some disagreement, however this merely serves to strengthen the book – it begins as a work on sport yet incites the reader to consider his own life and luck.
Of the best modern works on the topic of success, Smith’s sits alongside Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and Matthew Syed’s Bounce, as the best, yet it is his personal experiences which gives the former Kent and Middlesex batsman the edge.
4. David Walsh – Seven Deadly Sins
When Lance Armstrong was banned for life by the World Anti Doping Authority last year, and subsequently confessed to having taken performance enhancing drugs in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, relief was Irish journalist David Walsh’s overwhelming feeling. Relief that the days of torment were over, relief that he would no longer be chastised, blackmailed or threatened by Armstrong, relief that neither he nor his courageous sources would be intimidated, sued and referred to as ‘trolls’ by the Texan.
Seven Deadly Sins is Walsh’s account of the downfall of Lance Armstrong. It recalls his fifteen-year pursuit of the cyclist, his obsession with revealing the truth, and his unflinching desire to remain strong and committed to his beliefs in the follow up to some of the nastiest tactics in sport. Inevitably, Armstrong does not come out of this story well, yet the work is about far more than Armstrong. It is a bible for journalists across the world, and inadvertently displays one of the biggest problems of the industry – the conflict of interests surrounding that of access in the journalistic world. The ‘criticise me, and don’t expect to get that exclusive interview for your newspaper’ problem.
When the issue of journalistic freedoms and Leveson laws next enters the public domain, politicians would do well to read Walsh’s account. They would quickly realise that freedom of the press, when used responsibly, should be triumphed, not trashed.
3. Marcus Trescothick – Coming Back to Me (Written with Peter Hayter)
It seemed a fairly regular occurrence to turn on the Ashes coverage this summer at 11.15am to find England with a batsman back in the hutch already, crawling along at a snail’s pace. On more than one occasion my mind cast back to the early noughties, to the days of Marcus Trescothick, where the Somerset skipper so often ensured England flew off the mark. Trescothick is undoubtedly one of the great batsman of his generation yet his autobiography sees the importance of cricket diminish to little more than a game.
Trescothick was in many respects a landmark case – a professional sportsman who suffered from depression, who courageously went public. Gone are the days when those suffering from mental illness in the game are branded as pansies as a result. When Michael Yardy returned home early from a one day international tour a few years back, the support he received both from within and outside the game was notable. When Geoffrey Boycott made some disparaging remarks about his mental state, those in the game rapidly jumped to the defence of the Sussex man. Much of this is thanks to Trescothick.
Coming Back to Me may not be the best book you’ve ever read, yet it is one which has proved hugely important. In the same way that injury deprived another 2005 Ashes hero Simon Jones a fuller career with England, illness deprived Trescothick of the same. That is clearly extremely sad, yet his response to it has been nothing less than heroic.
2. Michael Lewis – Moneyball
Billy Beane had all the natural talent. He was fast, strong, had a great eye for the ball, but for whatever reason, he never fully succeeded as a professional baseball player. At the age of just 28, he quit playing baseball to find out that reason. To the astonishment of the hierarchy of the club, he swapped a place on the playing roster for a job as a scout for the Oakland Athletics and quickly progressed to General Manager. He then rewrote the laws of baseball.
Previously scouts, managers, and pundits across the country had focussed on genetic ability and average runs scored as a means to judge players. Beane tore up the script, and with Assistant GM Paul DePodesta, focussed on statistics that were undervalued in the game. He calculated that getting players on base was far more important than batting average. People scoffed when he assembled a roster of perceived nobodies on one of the lowest budgets in the league. They reached the playoffs.
Never mind the subsequent effect Moneyball has had on sport across the world, Michael Lewis’s account of Beane’s original success is enthralling. It has and will continue to inspire people to challenge old orthodoxies and fundamentally change the way we look at statistics.
1. Peter Oborne – Basil D’Oliveira. Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story
The controversy surrounding the Sochi games in recent weeks has ensured that the story of Basil D’Oliveira has never been more relevant. Brought up in the coloured district of Cape Town, South Africa, during the Apartheid era, ‘Dolly’ excelled at club cricket, before captaining the country’s non-white cricket team. With his path blocked by the racist agenda promoted by the country’s government, he seized an opportunity given to him by broadcaster John Arlott, who championed his cause.
D’Oliveira made the move to England, at first without his family, overcoming homesickness to progress to the Worcestershire first team, where his sheer weight of runs and frugal medium pace ensured it was not long before England came calling. This alone would provide more than enough content for a fascinating book, yet it was the events of 1968 which ensured D’Oliveira’s name became indelibly etched into diplomatic history. Scoring a magnificent 158 against Australia in the final test of the summer, Dolly was extraordinarily dropped for the subsequent tour of South Africa. When he was called up as a replacement for Tom Cartwright, South African PM John Vorster announced that the England side would no longer be welcomed. The MCC subsequently cancelled the tour, and South Africa did not host another official Test Match until the 1990s.
Peter Oborne expertly tells this astonishing story. His account is superbly researched, drawing upon interviews with many of the key protagonists, as well as D’Oliveira himself and his family. What is particularly impressive is that for all his courage, Oborne paints the man from the Cape Coast as an ordinary human being. He is adept at identifying his weaknesses as well as strengths, and the story is all the more rounded as a result.
The book contains an underlying, inadvertent message of the hope that sport can offer, and the good that it can do. It also reflects on sport’s ability to help to display the most cruel, and unjust inequalities. The story of Dolly is an astonishing one, brilliantly told, and with distinction far beyond its boundaries.