Paul Thomas

My Favourite Sports Books

May 3, 2009 | Essay, Sports

Back in the days before all sporting events of any significance and some of no significance at all were accorded live television coverage (or, in my case, before television itself), the young sports fan had to make do with books.

This was the hey-day of the tour book. Most were formulaic and pedestrian; some were little more than recycled, padded-out newspaper reports. But I was fortunate enough to come across two notable exceptions which not only cemented my relationship with the respective games, but also sparked an interest in and appreciation of the art and craft of writing.

One was Australia 63, an account of the 1962/63 Ashes series, which I found in a little bookshop in Newmarket run by a stately European lady. I was familiar with the subject having spent many hours in close proximity to what was known in my family as a transistor radio although it was the approximate size and weight of our cutlery drawer. The dust-jacket insisted the book was an ‘exciting and well-informed account’ which was good enough for me. I handed over my birthday takings and hurried home to relive the exploits of Richie Benaud and Ted Dexter and their respective supporting casts.

It soon became apparent that Australia 63 didn’t conform to the conventions of the tour book sub-genre. Large chunks of it were, in fact, cricket-free zones. There was even a poem. Entitled Watching Benaud Bowl, it began:

‘Leg-spinners pose problems much like love,
Requiring commitment, the taking of a chance.’

The flyleaf shed some light, revealing that, in addition to being The Observer’s cricket correspondent, the author Alan Ross had published four volumes of poetry, three travel books and in his spare time edited a literary magazine.

My initial reaction was a resentful feeling of having been sucked in by false advertising. Only a reluctance to risk offending the stately European lady dissuaded me from demanding my money back. Seeing I was stuck with it, I ventured into the cricket-free zones where I learned there was a type of writing which did more than just convey information (‘Her eyes were an unnaturally pale shade of blue’) or tell a story (‘Carruthers took a deep breath and flung himself into the path of the charging rhino’).

I also learned a few things about that vast land mass squatting over the western horizon, at the very edge of our mother country-fixated consciousness. How lucky we were to live in a temperate land without lethal insects or sinister reptiles, a land whose inhabitants co-existed in relative harmony with nature.

‘Weekend in Sydney,’ wrote Ross. ‘The Sydney Morning Herald records deaths by redback spider, snake and shark, a reminder that nature in Australia, moving violently from drought to flood, is essentially hostile. On the surf beaches beyond Manly, the dumpers thunder in and rips whirling the unwary out have life savers in continual action. Half-a-dozen are drowned in New South Wales over the two days.’

Mind you, it didn’t sound all bad: ‘With darkness, Sydney becomes magical, the headlands and bays flickering with reflection and the electric blue lights of the bridge arching over the estuary. The sky is like black velvet inlaid with diamond, the night an illuminated Cartier’s window. At Kings Cross the espresso bars and night clubs give off an aroma of coffee, buried jazz and foreign accents far into the dawn.’

As for the cricket-writing, it brought a drawn series already fading from the collective memory vividly back to life, as in this description of a match-winning innings by the Reverend David Sheppard, an amateur who’d emerged from semi-retirement for one last hurrah before devoting himself to higher matters:

‘For four hours Sheppard played with the assurance of one who had heard an old nostalgic tune, its melody as it made itself familiar recalling forgotten and delightful associations. His stroke-play acquired a dream-like smoothness, all angularities and awkwardnesses smoothed away. When it was over he was near collapse, but the song’s echoes were of the kind that linger indelibly.’

The other book, pilfered from my father’s study never to be returned, was Kings of Rugby by T.P. (later Sir Terry) McLean, the doyen of New Zealand sports journalism and arguably the finest rugby writer yet to grace the game.

Kings of Rugby is his account of the tour of the New Zealand by the 1959 British Lions, a richly talented group who, had they enjoyed better luck with injuries, might well have been as successful as the 1971 vintage. I saw them play the South Canterbury-Mid Canterbury-North Otago combined team at Fraser Park, Timaru, and remember my father, a proud Welshman, being uncharacteristically bitter on his return from Dunedin where he’d watched Don Clarke’s six penalties trump the Lions’ four tries.

McLean, a proud Kiwi, was similarly unimpressed, his stern judgement evoking a time when defeats didn’t prompt outbreaks of self-lacerating analysis and talkback radio rabble-rousing: ‘Shall one ever forget the cry of “Red! Red!” which burst from 40,000 throats when D.B. Clarke had placed his sixth and what proved to be the winning penalty of the match? Here was an expression, from a community which had always honoured forward play, of a distaste for forward play supplemented by goal-kicking, which had produced so fortuitous and distasteful a result. Not one person in the crowd, perhaps not one true lover of rugby in New Zealand, would have been in the least distressed or dismayed if the Lions had scored the try the tremendous chants so much encouraged them to attempt.’

His artfully crafted pen portraits reveal a shrewd observer with a deep appreciation of the quirks and foibles of his fellow men.

Of the Welsh prop Ray Prosser he wrote: ‘Though comparatively ill-educated, he had a dramatic fluency in both the Queen’s and Billingsgate English; his descriptions of the effect upon the human frame, especially the male frame, of various types of excavator and/or bulldozer driving were classical in the bare, terse phrases.’

(Prosser later became a celebrated coach of his beloved Pontypool club. His emphasis on hard-nosed forward play did wonders for the Welsh national team but appalled those who subscribed to the myth of Wales as the spiritual home of dashing back-play. Prosser enjoyed stirring the pot by claiming he had two tactics: “Up and bloody under.” Nor did the years dim his command of the vernacular. The night I attended Pontypool training, he told one of his less athletic forwards, “You run like the hairs in your arse are tied together.”)

Of the glamorous 23-year-old Irish wing Tony O’Reilly, McLean wrote: “At a long-range guess one felt reasonably sure that he would in time become president or premier of the Irish Republic.” O’Reilly did indeed go on to great things but as a businessman whose holdings, including the New Zealand Herald, and influence extended far beyond his native land.

I met McLean once, in a Cardiff television studio where I’d gone to meet Carwyn James, the coach of the victorious 1971 Lions. T.P. politely but firmly deflected my praise and James’ invitation to join us for lunch. I put his wariness in the first instance down to his innate modesty and, in the second, to inside knowledge, gleaned from research in the field, that the great coach’s idea of lunch was several large gin and tonics.

This essay originally appeared in My Sports Hero, edited by Wynne Gray & published by Trio Books in 2009.