A Subjective History of Sports Writing

By Merv Collins



I always look with interest to see who’s won the annual literary awards in Australia – sometimes I even read one. But to be honest, my guide to what to acquire next is the William Hill Sports Book of the Year (WHSY) not the Man Booker Prize. You can keep your Tim Wintons and Peter Careys – give me Duncan Hamilton or Gideon Haigh!


I was brought up on heroic stories: Horatio keeping the bridge; the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike; Robert the Bruce in the cave with his inspirational spider; King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. A good sports book contains similar noble elements: the triumph of the underdog and the eternal conflict between good and evil. As the old hymn says, ‘it’s the faith that brings the triumph when defeat seems strangely near.’


It crystallized, for me, in 1953 when Hillary and Tensing stood atop Everest; when England, my homeland till I emigrated, won back the Ashes, and Stanley Matthews, a folk hero, single-bootedly won the F.A. Cup for Blackpool over Bolton Wanderers with a magical 4-3 victory after being 3-0 down with half-hour to play.


Sport and chivalry and gallantry were all entwined to me, exemplified by John Landy going back to pick up Ron Clarke before galloping on to win the state mile championship and the Rugby League Trophy of two mud-covered warriors from opposing sides, one towering over the other, embracing at the end of a manful battle.


I was captivated – not by the facts and figures but by the romance of it all.


For Christmas gifts, all I wanted were sports annuals and sporting biographies.  Things haven’t changed much; all I want now is a book token from Readings. But I only want the best writers. I don’t need ghosted ‘autobiographies’ like Andrew Flintoff’s, who for three hundred pages, ‘took six for fifty made a hundred and got pissed with the lads’.


Luckily for me, many fine craftsmen have written about sport.  Americans like Damon Runyon, Hemingway, Paul Gallico, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace have elevated the genre but their major sports – baseball, gridiron and bullfighting – tended not to be mine.


Strangely, despite their popularity, none of the football codes, AFL, soccer, rugby, produced much laudable writing early on. That’s perhaps, a reflection on the working classes who played and watched it.  Rugby has almost nothing though the Mandela-inspired Springbok story Playing the Enemy by John Carlin is very worthy.


Soccer has come of age in a literary sense in the last 30 years or so. The book by Arsenal tragic, Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, (WHSY winner 1992) touched a chord with fans everywhere and is very well-known.


Recently I read Gary Imlach’s story, My Father and Other Working Class Heroes (WHSY 2005). Imlach writes of his father, Stuart, a journeyman soccer player.  Gary never saw him play and affectionately retraces his career and creates a social history of soccer at the same time.  I found it quite moving.


David Peace’s The Damned United is one out of the box. It’s the story of the colorful footballer and manager, Brian Clough. It’s based on fact but fictionalized with two contrasting periods of Clough’s career told in parallel.  It’s a wonderfully-written, original sports book.


There’s not a lot of good Aussie Rules books but it’s improving.  When I arrived in Australia, football writing was limited to the autobiography of Lou Richards, Boots ‘n’ All, and Jack Dyer’s Captain Blood.  Both were ghost-written which is probably just as well as Jack, on radio, was prone to say things like ‘he stretched his arms in the air like two giant testicles!’


Best on Ground is an excellent anthology and contains writing by David Williamson, Peter Corris, Don Watson, Sophie Cunningham and several others, even John Harms!.


My favourite football books would be Roseboys, Peter Rose’s beautifully-written tribute to his father and brother, and Martin Flanagan’s 1970 and other stories. The latter is the telling of the great Carlton triumph over Collingwood so my bias may be in evidence here.


But for many years the best sports writing came mainly from boxing and cricket.


The Americans wrote the boxing: Ring Lardner, Paul Gallico, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Joyce Carol Oates and A. J. Liebling.


Liebling’s The Sweet Science is a brilliant Runyanesque classic from 1954 with colorful accounts of the great fighters of the 1950’s: Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Randolph Turpin and Archie Moore. Still a highly-entertaining read.


But it’s cricket which has spawned the greatest body of writing.  Ronald Mason (Warwick Armstrong’s Australians) C.L.R. James (Beyond the Boundary) and R.C. Robertson-Glasgow all wrote memorably in earlier years.


In present times, both Gideon Haigh in Australia and triple William Hill winner Duncan Hamilton in England have been more than merely prolific cricket writers. Both cover other topics as well (Hamilton’s ‘For the Glory – a biography of runner Eric Liddell, and Haigh’s unsolved crime stories are excellent books) but their cricket writing is of the highest quality.


I have a large collection of Gideon’s books. Once, when he interviewed Mike Atherton at a book signing, while people lined up for the English captain’s autograph, I stood in front of Haigh with a bagful of his paperbacks. He signed the lot and wrote in one, ‘To Merv, who goes to the top of the class among Gideon Haigh readers’.


But Hamilton and Haigh would both acknowledge that the greatest cricket writer of them all was Sir John Frederick Neville Cardus. In fact, only last year, Hamilton published a first-rate biography of the man himself which won the William Hill Book of the Year.


It was Cardus who took cricket writing from mere reportage to a higher level. Pre-Cardus, we might read: ‘Australia made 265 for 5, Bradman made a century.  The best bowler was Larwood who took three for 60.’  I call this the Bruce McIlvaney school of sports reporting. Cardus described the crowd, the personalities and the atmosphere. Only he could write of Ted McDonald, for instance: ‘He bowled at a hair-raising pace, endangering the thorax, breastbone and cranium but the onslaught was easy, effortless, silent;’ That says a lot more than ‘Larwood 3 for 60’.

Of the game, ‘There ought to be some other means of reckoning quality in this the best and loveliest of games; the scoreboard is an ass;’


and of a batsman. ‘His immense power is lightened by a rhythm which has in it as little obvious propulsion as a movement of music by Mozart’.


The analogy to music is very pertinent. Cardus, as well as being cricket writer was also chief music critic at the Manchester Guardian for many years. Cardus acknowledged his good fortune: ‘To be paid to watch cricket at Lords in the afternoon and to hear grand opera in the evening is nothing less than an act of Providence.’


He also claimed that he took the job so seriously that on his wedding day, he went to the opening overs of the annual Lancashire vs. Yorkshire match, left for the wedding ceremony but returned to the match before lunch.  He noted that the Lancashire batsman, Charlie Hallows, had added 17 runs to his score.


It wasn’t true – pedants have checked the scorecard. The batsmen he mentioned weren’t even playing on the day.


But that was the thing about Cardus: the facts less important than the ambience, the atmosphere, the personalities and the crowds.  In those few words, he tells us very little about his wedding but a great deal about the way Charlie Hallows played his cricket.


He would make up quotes claiming he reported what the player would have said if he could have articulated it!  He did this to such an extent that one aggrieved player wrote, ‘I’d lak to bowl at that booger sometime!’


Cardus wrote at least 18 books on cricket, 12 or more on music and two volumes of autobiography.


Some were tour books which is almost a dirty word to real sports reading fans.  But there are tour books and tour books.


Gideon Haigh reviewed one by the fast bowler Glenn McGrath and talks of ‘the stupefying tedium’ of McGrath’s apparently minute by minute account of Australia’s progress including relentless repetitions of what time his alarm went off and his ‘fetishistic fascination with the his luggage’ ‘We’re leaving for Port Elizabeth and our bags have to be in the foyer by 8 AM’ and so on ad nauseam.


In a Neville Cardus tour book, on the other hand, we could read: ‘On Christmas Eve I stood on the rocky edge called the Gap looking towards the sea.  I saw the Awatea sail through the Heads, glowing with rosy lights.  The moon was a feather, and the Southern Cross a symbol of the night and the season of the year.’  It’s a bit different you’ll agree but Cardus could write and his eulogist, Alan Gibson, says ‘All cricket writers were influenced by him.’  Perhaps we should amend that to all good cricket writers.  He was the father of literate sports-writing.


As a final example, let’s recall county cricketer, Emmott Robinson of whom Wisden, the cricketer’s Bible, said merely, ‘he was a noted all around professional.’


But Cardus painted this picture: ‘He was a grizzled, squat, bandy-legged Yorkshireman, all sagging and loose at the braces in private life, but on duty for Yorkshire he was liable at any minute to gather and concentrate his energy into sudden and vehement leaps and scuffles.  He had shrewd eyes, a hatchet face and gray hairs, most of them representing appeals that had gone against him for leg before wicket.  I imagine that he was created one day by God’s scooping up the nearest acre of Yorkshire soil at hand, then breathing into it saying, ‘Now lad, tha’s called Emmott Robinson and tha can do on with the new bowl at t’pavilion end.’


C.L.R. James, the great West Indian cricket writer once said, ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’ meaning, at its best, it’s much more than a game. I’d paraphrase that to something like ‘What do they know of cricket and sport who only know the score?’




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  1. John Butler says

    Merv, a pretty popular topic on this site, I suspect.

    For me, apart from the aforementioned, Christian Ryan’s writings on cricket are always refreshingly different.

    Another fave is an American who transplanted to England, Mike Marqusee.

    On Indian cricket, Ramachandra Guha.

    Of the older generation of Aus writers, Ray Robinson.

    Peter Roebuck’s newspaper columns were very influential on me at the time. Interestingly, I think they stand the test of time better than any book of his I’ve come across.

    I think Brent “Tiger” Crosswell would have been one of the great footy writers had he persisted.

  2. Here’s an odd coincidence. In the last couple of days I’ve written two pieces: the one above about sports books and the other a tribute to a recently deceased RAAF mate and world class tuba player, John Butler. This morning I get a response to the first apparently written by the second. Gave me quite a start to get a note from a departed friend! Then thought I must have sent the wrong piece to the wrong publisher and the musician Butler tribute was on Footy Almanac. All became clear quite quickly – and thanks for your thoughts, John Butler No.2!

  3. John Butler says

    Merv, I usually get asked where ‘the other two’ are?

    Still as funny the thousandth time as it was the first.

    Sorry to give you a start. :)


  4. Thanks Merv.
    I mostly agree with much of what you say here.
    And Cardus is a big favourite of mine.

  5. Kevin Densley says

    Wonderful, Merv! Much food for thought here – and your menu is a rich, delicious one in which nothing is half-baked!

  6. Colin Ritchie says

    Love the writing of Neville Cardus. Interesting life as well. Here’s a link to reviews of a book about NC I posted on the site last year. https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/the-great-romantic-cricket-the-golden-age-of-neville-cardus/

  7. Always interesting and helpful to be recommended books. Thanks Merv. A deeper look into footy books would be well-received by readers on this site.

  8. Adam Muyt says

    Must question the notion that there aren’t many good AFL books. Have read some terrific ones over the years. Favourites – in no particular order – include:
    The Coach. John Powers wonderful ‘year-in-the-life’ account of Barassi’s 1977 premiership winning efforts at North.
    You’ll Only Go in For Your Mates. An early 1990s collection of Barry Dickens’ ‘Sentimental Roymance’ columns from the Melbourne Times, a once great freebie newspaper covering the inner city. Classic Royboy tales of love and woe, as seen through a fuzzy glass of beer (or three or four).
    The Footy Club – Inside the Brisbane Bears. Ross Fitzgerald’s interesting account of a club finally finding credibility (1995).
    Local Rites. Paul Daffey’s journeys through grassroots footy.
    The Short Long Book. Martin Flanaghan’s compact exploration of his journey (physically and otherwise) to understand Michael Long. Enigmatic and fascinating.
    Black & Proud. Klugman and Osmond’s background account of THOSE Winmar photos from 1995. Love the insights into all the main protaginists, particularly Gilbert McAdam.

  9. Adam Muyt says

    That should have read ‘1993’ for THOSE photos.

  10. Appreciate your thoughts, gentlemen; any one who enjoys good sport writing can’t be all bad! Thanks for pointing out some of my omissions – I did say it was subjective. AFL books are getting better but I’d still say it lacks the depth of soccer, cricket and boxing.That could have something to do with populations, of course, and the fact the market is small . The pool of players who might write a decent autobiography and professionals writing about the game is limited, too. I still think the definitive footy book is still to come! Perhaps one of us should be writing it!

  11. Ken Thompson says

    Thanks Merv, a very interesting read. A serious omissions to your list of excellent writers is Dave Edwards, former football columnist in the Melbourne Times. By your worthy criteria, oneof the better, if not the best, AFL writer.

  12. Enjoyable and thoughtful piece. Thanks Merv. I generally agree with your thoughts but you are way better read than me. My limited attention span tends towards longer form journalism rather than books. Lived in America in the late 80’s and have some collections of Red Smith newspaper pieces. “Strawberries in Winter” is a wonderful title and his collection of obituaries “Absent Friends” influenced me a lot. He famously said “writing is easy – you just open a vein and bleed”.
    As a golfer I enjoyed Lawrence Donegan’s “Four Iron to the Soul” about a year caddying for a journeyman on the nascent European Tour in 1996. Very Hornby influenced.
    I listen to a lot of podcasts this days. I thoroughly recommend Between the Lines https://backpagepress.co.uk/category/podcast/ which highlights the writing process and back story rather than regurgitating the contents. Always asks authors about their influences and favourites. Hugh McIlvaney is a favourite among soccer writers and Joe McGinniss’s “The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro” gets frequent recommendations. About a small Italian team that earns promotion to play against the big teams/towns – but full of corruption, colourful characters and tragedy.

  13. Rulebook says

    Merv yes my garage is full of a lot of those autobiographies a huge chance they will never get looked at again,love the Roseboys a brilliant book agree with,Adam The Coach is compelling tho.thanks,Merv

  14. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Some great gets in there Merv.

    Adam – yep, that Bears book is worth seeking out.

    One of my baseball favourites is Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer

  15. Peter Fuller says

    You’re probably on the mark in your assessment of the relative paucity of soccer books, but I’d add Brian Glanville, who has written some quality fiction as well as non-fiction. He seems to be the go to in the Guardian for obituaries for soccer players. Geoffrey Green also wrote some splendid accounts of the beautiful game, and like Peter Baulderstone, I am a fan of Hugh McIlvaney. “My Favourite Year is a fine collection edited by Nick Hornby, which might well have been the inspiration for “Best on Ground”.

    There seemed a hint of apology in your response to some comments. By its nature anyone’s list will reflect idiosyncratic tastes. That said, it’s striking how many of us share preferences. I particularly endorse Adam Muyt’s list, but note that he is too modest to include his own fine book “Maroon and Blue”. Likewise our esteemed leader should be included for his wonderful trilogy “Play On” and an excellent biography of Steve Renouf “The Pearl”. James Gilchrist is another Almanac alumnus whose “Tortured Tales of a Collingwood Tragic” might well be worth a guernsey.
    Garry Linnell’s “Football Ltd.” is an interesting account of the latter days of the VFL and the evolution to the AFL and the chicanery involved. Rob Hess & Bob Stewart edited “More than a Game which gave a useful summary of the history from earlier times.
    I realise that horse racing is probably a minority taste but Les Carlyon’s collection “True Grit” is superb.

  16. For anyone above who may be interested, here’s a list of books I intend to buy shortly. I’ll bear the suggestions in mind though, despite the exceptions below, I don’t do American sports nor horse racing. Winx and Black Caviar leave me cold.

    You know me, Al, Ring Lardner tales of illiterate baseball player

    Addicted, Tony Adams (EPL drug addict)

    In Sunshine or in Shadow, Donald MacRae (Good writer – recommended)
    Blurb: ‘an inspirational story of triumph over adversity and celebrates the reconciliation that can take place when two fighters meet each other in the ring, rather than outside it. ‘[An] outstanding and important book’

    Semi Tough, Dan Jenkins,
    Blurb: ‘follows the outsize adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett, recently named number seven on Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Sports Books of All Time, Semi-Tough is Dan Jenkins’s masterpiece and considered by many to be the funniest sports book ever written

    Among the Thugs, Bill Buford,
    The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence is a 1990 work of journalism by American writer Bill Buford documenting football hooliganism in the United Kingdom.

    Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer
    The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, a 2009 book written by Jon Krakauer, is a biography of Pat Tillman, an American football player who left his professional career and enlisted in the United States Army after the September 11 attacks.( Krakauers’ Into Thin Air very highly recommended – disaster on Everest climb)

    Commander in Cheat, Rick Reilly
    Reilly is a hilarious sportswriter, and Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump is a funny book, even though it’s hard to enjoy the humor because the subject matter—Donald Trump’s lying and cheating—is so pathetic and actually kind of frightening. When it comes to golf, Donald Trump always cheats

    The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Joe McGinnis,
    American embedded in small football club Andrew. (Had intended to buy this even before Peter B’s recommendation above!)

    The Wrong Line, Andrew Ramsay,
    following the Aus cricket team around the world (Anyone know anything about this one?)

  17. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ve read The Wrong Line Merv, thought it was ok, but not essential. At least it showed some of the Australian team in a different light.

  18. Dan Jenkins is the most colorful and engaging golf writer. Died only last year. “Dogged Victim of Inexorable Fate” is the best collection of his golf pieces in the age of Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus. “Semi Tough”. is a novel but supposed to be very funny.
    Jenkins was a very good scratch amatieur golfer who only aspired to be a newspaper journalist. His great good fortune was to start work as the same time another Fort Worth native Ben Hogan started winning majors. He and Jenkins were great friends and Jenkins was often asked if he ever got lessons from the great man. He said only once when Hogan invited him to partner him in a charity exhibition match. Expecting only a few hundred spectators Jenkins went to work in the morning and turned up to play in his work shirt and pants only changing into golf shoes. He got to the first tee to find 3,000 spectators lining the first fairway 10 deep. He promptly topped his drive; fatted his second and skulled the third into a bunker.
    Expecting a bollocking – Hogan walked over cigarette in mouth and said “I don’t suppose you could swing it any quicker”.
    Jenkins’ one and only lesson from the great man but they remained drinking buddies for life.

  19. bernard whimpress says

    Interesting to do the rankings of sports writers. Hamilton and Haigh are certainly the greatest on cricket in the modern era while Hamilton has also written a couple of wonderful books on soccer. My favourite sports historian is Eric Midwinter (cricket, soccer) who at 88 continues to produce wonderful work. All, of course, write brilliantly on a wide range of subjects. On Australian sports biography I used to rank Haigh’s Mystery Spinner as tops but feel it might just be shaded by Greg de Moore’s bio of Tom Wills.

  20. dan hoban says

    VFL/AFL – Playing God; the rise and fall of Garry Ablett deserves a mention.
    Jim Stynes/Warwick Green “My Journey” interesting story about an Irishman who made his mark prior to his premature passing.
    Horseracing – Michelle Payne’s story as told by John Harms; “Life as i know it. “

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