Choosing a cricket team (real or hypothetical) is an exercise fraught with danger, for you and me as much as for the chairman of selectors. Where the chairman of selectors is interrogated by the media, you and me are chastised by our friends, an experience that is scarcely more pleasant for being more private.
In this column, I conduct an altogether safer exercise—that of choosing my five favourite sports books. Let me begin with the game most abundantly loved by humans—football. There are thousands of soccer books, these for the most part biographies or ghosted autobiographies of stars. Few would qualify as ‘literature’. There are some decent books written by professional football writers such as Brian Glanville. However, standing above them all is the Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
Galeano ’s book is written in a whimsical style, short chapters apparently unconnected with one another. Mixing numbers with myths, apocrypha with quotes from newspapers, retelling some old stories marvelously well and making up some new ones along the way, the book is impossible to classify as either ‘history’ or ‘literature’—perhaps it is both and none at the same time. But amidst the postmodernist lack of structure, one can discern a welcome empiricism, for each World Cup is covered, and almost all the great players saluted and honoured.
Turn, next, to the sport that most directly expresses man’s most elemental instincts—namely, boxing. Here too there is a profusion of biographies and autobiographies. Among the more literary works one of the best is, interestingly, written by a woman—Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing. But the best boxing book I have read is David Remnick’s King of the World, which uses the career of Muhammad Ali and his rivals to paint a larger picture of the civil rights movement and its impact on American society.
There are three main characters in Remnick’s story—Sonny Liston, who was the ‘bad’ black, Floyd Patterson, who was the ‘good’ black’, and Cassius Clay alias Muhammad Ali, who was unclassifiable in terms of the conventional categories of race relations. In the early 1960s, these three black boxers contended for the heavyweight title of the world. Remnick foregrounds their varying boxing styles and personalities, against the backdrop of the transformation of white-black relations as a whole.
I come now to that most graceful and gentlemanly sport, lawn tennis. Like my boxing book, my favourite tennis book is also set in the America of the 1960s. John McPhee’s Levels of the Game pits black against white rather than black against black. At one level, this is simply an account of a tennis match—a semi-final played between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner in the U. S. Open of 1968. Ashe and Graebner were close friends, but since one was born into a poor black family and the other into a rich white one, their ostensibly ‘sporting’ encounter bristled with political meaning. For earlier in that momentous year 1968, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been assassinated; before the year was out, Richard Nixon would be elected President of the United States. Like Remnick, and in far fewer pages, McPhee displays both a mastery of the technicalities of his sport and a deep understanding of social history.
My fourth choice deals with the greatest of all sporting tamashas—the Olympics. There are some fine books by ancient historians on Grecian Olympics, and at least one good account of the contentious Moscow Olympics of 1980. Above them I shall place Duff Hart-Davis’s Hitler’s Olympics, a briskly written and closely researched account of the 1936 Berlin Games. As Hart-Davis demonstrates, the Nazis hoped to use the games to project a more favourable impression to the world; instead, the world came to gain a better appreciation of the racist and totalitarian bases of their ideology. In a splendid thumbs-up to that ideology, the game’s greatest hero was the black American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens. (Our own Dhyan Chand did not do too badly either.)
My last choice, naturally, pertains to the most refined and sophisticated game invented by humans. C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary is not only the best book about cricket ever written, it is also quite possibly the best book written about sport. These statements I have made and previously defended in these columns, and I see no need to defend them again.
Five books about five different sports, by writers from four continents. Were I to rank them, after the James would come the Galeano, then the McPhee, then the Remnick and finally the Hart-Davis. About the first three choices my mind is made up; about the last two I am happy to invite disagreements.
Let me end by noting that none of these books were written by a professional sports writer. John McPhee is a long-time staff writer of the New Yorker whose other books have been on scientific themes; David Remnick is the current editor of the same magazine, and an acknowledged expert on Russian history and politics. Hart-Davis is an all-purpose writer who has also written biographies of the naturalist James Audobon and the explorer Peter Fleming. James was a once celebrated Marxist theoretician and historian. Galeano is a still celebrated novelist and social critic. That they could yet write these superb books says something nice about them, and something nicer about the sport that attracted them.