“I hope you enjoy this, John! Fond regards, Judith.”
I’d been living in Connecticut for three months. New England, forested by trees of red, gold and amber foliage, was wrapped in Autumn’s melancholy. Back in Oz, the semi-finals of the footy season would be kicking off. I was homesick.
‘Hooked on League,’ the autobiography of Penrith hooker Royce Simmons (co-written with Alan Whiticker) a
rrived on the doorstep like a ray of distant Pacific sunshine. The note on the flyleaf from Judith, my agent in Sydney, was completely unnecessary.
Simmons will always hold a place in my heart for the words he uttered after leading the Panthers, for so long the whipping boys of rugby league, to their first premiership in 1991. “We’re somebody now,” he said humbly. I teared-up.
Loaded with sinsights and goss
I devoured the book in one sitting. Dostoyevsky or Proust it might not have been, but it was loaded with the insights and goss that footy tragics love so much, and I am yet to read a more evocative recollection of growing up in the bush, the son of a butcher. Of killing a bullock, Roycie was as visual as he was blunt; “they got a huge pin out of a winch and hit the best behind the ear and dropped him cold as a maggot.”
In any bookshop or library, the section devoted to sports writing – if you are lucky enough to find one (it’s 793-799 in the Dewey System) – is always the smallest. Traditionally, the cashing-in memoirs of retiring cricketers and footballers have their brief surge of popularity during a family’s last-minute shopping for a Christmas or Father’s Day present, when nobody can think of anything else to get for the Old Man. Lord knows how many Dads have been lumbered with the dreary Ashes diaries of S. R. Waugh, R. S. Ponting or M. J. Clarke. As my own preferred quality controller, I have continued to separate the wheat from the chaff and maintained a shelf in my office that is home to what I consider to be classics of the sports-writing genre.
I have no excuse for being absorbed by such trivia
Cricket is probably the most written about of all sports, and it is well represented in my collection. As rare items, I have in hardback the first two editions (1998, 1999) of the short-lived Australian Wisden Almanac, either of which I am happy to sit and browse through for half-an-hour over a glass of Kanga Rouge and packet of salt-and-vinegar chips. South Africa, led by the disgraced and ill-fated W. J. Cronje, played three tests here in ’98, with M. E. Waugh topping the batting averages for the home side and the not yet svelte S. K. Warne taking the bowling honours. I have no excuse for being absorbed by such trivia.
A collection of Neville Cardus’s test-match reports and essays is next to them (I find him too florid), as are Jack Fingleton’s bio of Trumper and Rosenwater’s of Bradman (a grind to get through). Viv Richards’s ‘Hitting Across the Line’ was signed for me by the Master Blaster himself after I’d stood in the rain outside of Sydney’s Angus and Robertson to purchase a first edition.
‘The Complete Who’s Who of Test Cricketers,’ compiled by the late Christopher Martin-Jenkins, I still refer to for its B/W photographs of batsmen and bowlers in full flight – so many of them have found their way into my paintings – while nearby is C. L. R. James’s lauded ‘Beyond a Boundary,’ which has held my full attention beyond the captivating introductory chapters that paint a picture of the author’s youth in Trinidad.
Of my cricket volumes, however, there is none I would recommend more highly than a peculiarity written by a Dutchman. Born in The Hague in 1951 and now editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma’s story of the legendary K. S. Ranjitsinhji is unique. ‘Ranji,’ the Maharajah of Nawanagar, went in to bat for Sussex and the MCC at the turn of the century (and was apparently involved in a hushed-up indiscretion with a jockey at the Randwick races), but Buruma goes beyond the dry facts and stats to find the man inside, and the man outside of the white society by which he strove to be accepted.
As a feat of ‘factual imagination’ and as a recreation of a distant age, it is matched only by ‘The Book of Fame,’ through whose pages Lloyd Jones invites the reader to be part of the All Blacks’ 1905 rugby tour of Europe. The cold and wet of wintery England, the raw-boned, wide-eyed colonial boys’ visit to Paris as ‘strangers in a strange land’ – it so cinematic, so saturated with visceral realism.
Surprisingly (or maybe not), as somebody who could not fight his way out of a wet paper bag, the jewel of them all I consider to be A. J. Liebling’s iconic ‘The Sweet Science.’ A regular contributor to The New Yorker from 1935 until his death in 1963, Liebling wrote mostly about boxing and boxers, and he saw what he was looking at with rare clarity. His account of the build-up to and the fight in 1951 between the reigning heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, and challenger, Rocky Marciano, remains a textbook example of the inside-man’s appreciation of what he has been privileged to witness. And towards the end of the book is Liebling’s lament for those men he so admired; “The fighter is as reluctant as the next artist to accept the evidence of his disintegration, even though it is presented to him so much more forcibly.”
Paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling, C. L. R. James asked, “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” Buruma’s portrait of Ranji, Liebling’s grasp from ringside of the human condition and the Royce Simmons paperback that re-connected me with Australia on a cold Connecticut afternoon all those years ago were a joy not only because of their subject matter, but because they spoke directly to me about life. They helped me understand it better, and they made me treasure it even more. Like all good writing, that is exactly what the best sports books do.
If you love great sports writing, you will love JF Campbell’s novella too. Check it out!
Phillip has returned to the south of India after eighteen years. But who is the young girl staying in his hotel? And what will he learn about his estranged brother through Inez, the Spanish backpacker?
To buy The Bangalore Test, John Campbell’s new ebook novella, just click the link.