Sports writing: Your own personal time machine

Great sports writing can take you out of this world. SOPAN JOSHI lists his personal favourites

[Published in Oct-Dec 2019 issue of The Indian Quarterly magazine]

A teacher in our undergrad programme had a fondness for innovative pedagogic methods. One day, to get us to understand the English Civil War (1642-1651), she landed up with large prints of Oliver Cromwell and Charles I. Cromwell the republican looked pugnacious and blunt, a Roundhead of the warts-and-all ilk. The monarch, in contrast, looked every bit the Cavalier, adorned in refinement, an appeal to the senses and their pleasures. The two parties of the civil war were illustrated in an instant.

About the same time as this incident, the Australian cricket team arrived in England for the Ashes Test series. This was the early 1990s. Christopher Martin-Jenkins, cricket writer and commentator par excellence who went by the initials CMJ and worked at The Daily Telegraph of London, wrote a lead article on the editorial page. England’s demise as a sporting power, he wrote, began with the nation’s greatest sporting triumph: winning the 1966 football World Cup. The manager of that team was Alf Ramsey, whom CMJ characterised as a Roundhead; a man who preferred effectiveness and success over flair and joy. The 1966 success, CMJ wrote, had set England on the Roundhead path—not just in sports but in culture and politics too. Which is why, he argued, the utilitarian Graham Gooch, the most prolific English batsman, had been preferred over the charming, devil-may-care David Gower, one of the game’s most attractive batsmen ever. Gooch the Roundhead replaced Gower the Cavalier as England captain and, after a public fall-out, removed him from the team; Gower never played again for his country.

CMJ was uneasy that England had stopped caring for its amateurs, casting its lot with the professionals. To CMJ, the Cavalier-Roundhead rivalry represented the soul of England; it had shaped the nation’s history, its politics, culture and society. Citing examples of utilitarianism trumping joy in culture and across a range of sports, he argued that the English nation was losing one half of its soul. He ended his article with some advice for the prime minister at the time, John Major. He said the PM worked too hard and suggested that he take some time off to watch the Lords Test match; that he should do some things for fun; that he should recover the Cavalier sprit. One of the great English newspapers had turned to its cricket writer to comment on the state of the nation.

Just as sports has created some of the greatest theatres of drama, good sports writing has a way of holding us to a mirror. The best of writing on sports can come either from professional sports correspondents like CMJ or from more generalist writers who occasionally write on sports. I’m biased towards the latter. CLR James of Trinidad wore many hats—historian, journalist, inspirational political activist. But he found the time to write Beyond a Boundary (1963), often rated the best single book on cricket, nay, on any sport at all. James insisted his book was “neither cricket reminiscences nor autobiography”. Yet the social commentary it offers is deeply subjective. The observations come from astute eyes; the telling illustrates how sporting action inside the boundary relates to what happens in society, outside the cricket field. It produced one of cricket’s most famous quotes: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” (It riffs off Rudyard Kipling’s “…what should they know of England who only England know?”) One reason for the book’s popularity was the unprecedented, nearly two-decade-long domination of the game by the West Indies team from the mid-1970s. James appeared like the poet of the revolution.

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Michael J Elliott was born in Liverpool in 1951. He went on to become a famous journalist, occupying top editorial positions at The Economist, Newsweek and TIME, before joining U2 frontman Bono’s philanthropy in his later years. He was a die-hard fan of the Liverpool Football Club, often dipping into his passion and knowledge of the game to draw a metaphor. In the late 1990s, he wrote a column for Newsweek. His analyses of European politics often wandered into football tactics without so much as an allow-me-to-change-the-subject. One column on European unity began with how he began going to Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium, sitting on his father’s shoulders. One can imagine some readers raising their eyebrows at Elliott’s overreach, put off by the needless football references. I wonder if they could resist the charm, though. His similes worked because the seemingly dissimilar was reconciled in his mind. Elliott read as one of us, chatting politics in a pub after a game.

An even superior craftsman of the subjective take on football is Nick Hornby. The two-page introduction to his first book Fever Pitch (1992) ranks with the most memorable prose on sport. “The truth is this: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron,” he wrote. “I would not wish to suggest that the contemplation of football is in itself an improper use of the imagination. David Lacey, the chief football correspondent for the Guardian, is a fine writer and an obviously intelligent man, and presumably he must devote even more of his interior life than I do to the game. The difference between Lacey and me is that I rarely think. I remember, I fantasise, I try to visualise every one of Alan Smith’s goals…None of this is thought, in the proper sense of the word. There is no analysis, or self-awareness, or mental rigour going on at all, because obsessives are denied any kind of perspective on their own passion…Fever Pitch is an attempt to gain some kind of an angle on my obsession.” Hornby tells the story of his life through Arsenal games and disconcerting football trivia. You get a ringside view of a fevered imagination, laid out in its rich vulnerability. Who wouldn’t fall for it!

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***

It is much easier to write objectively—a report on a game, a tactical analysis, an interview with a popular sportsperson. That’s the safe territory occupied by the professional sports writer. Inside every sports journalist, though, lies a sports fan who craves a personal take. Sports writing is littered with the debris of those who failed, their prose failing to carry the grand ideas they had conjured. The success of the few is built on the failure of the many.

In the manner of many sports-crazy kids in the ’80s, I began reading the back pages of newspapers for sports writing. Magazines like Sportstar, Sportsweek and Sportsworld brought international sports news to the pre-Internet world. Then TV came to us in the early 1980s. When the 1986 football World Cup took place, I’d already read enough about the exploits of a certain Diego Maradona to follow him like a fan from Argentina or Napoli (his club at the time). Long before I got to see a fuzzy video clip of the 1982-1986 Brazil team (Socrates, Zico, Eder…), I’d read reports and features syndicated by writers who followed them like their life depended on it. The Mohammed Ali circus had wound up by then and Mike Tyson was the boxing phenomenon of the time. But I had read a couple of beautiful pieces on the middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. I used to hunt down anything that told me more about the southpaw with a steel chin. I didn’t see videos of him in the ring till much later but the articles I had read made him my favourite boxer. The video footage arrived gradually in the shape of Doordarshan programmes. Every Sunday afternoon there was The World of Sport with Anupam Gulati. Each Friday, The World this Week by Prannoy Roy brought visuals of international sports.

I grew up in a sports-crazed family. My father had begun to report on cricket in 1960, before moving on to politics and editorial positions. Sports events were carnivals in our family. Friends and relations gathered to watch them together on TV; a favourite’s victory became an impromptu celebration, a loss led to collective gloom. We had a selection of sports books and videos, the tape scratched from ceaseless forwarding and rewinding on the VCR. When I followed a friend into journalism, my first friends in the newsroom were sports reporters. I helped them out with a match report or two but I did not become a sports reporter. The risk was too great. Sports was too much of a joy to be turned into work.

Which is why when I read about the Iniesta generation, I wasn’t surprised. In January 2010, obstetrics wards in Barcelona were jammed with a 50 per cent increase in birth rate. Nine months earlier, after a 2-6 mauling of arch rivals Real Madrid in their stadium, Andres Iniesta of Barcelona FC had scored a goal in the dying minutes of a Champions League semifinal against Chelsea in London (there’s an autobiography to read: The Artist: Being Iniesta, 2016). The celebrations were delirious, especially since Spain was in the midst of a serious economic crisis. The victory drove the Catalonian people to engage in happy procreation. Later that year, Iniesta scored in the final to win the World Cup for Spain.

The televised spectacle of sport is a monstrous affair, built along the lines of the Roman circus. Marketing executives now run sports; in business and marketing courses, sports segments are a must. As large football clubs acquire fans globally, local sports—the foundation of all sports—has all but disappeared from the media. Gone is the daily double column report in the sports pages rounding up the results from local competitions. Reporters do not cover local sports now. Sports fans are more aware of Italy’s league standings than of their local school tournaments. Which is why, to discover the first-person joys of sports, it’s profitable to read the giants of the pre-TV era.

Born in New York City in 1904, AJ Liebling studied medieval French literature at the Sorbonne, was an awarded war correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote a column of media criticism. He is best remembered for The Sweet Science, his 1956 collection of essays on boxing that is a leading contender for greatest sports book. Liebling applied his refined sensibility and craft to pugilism like no other. In fact, boxing has produced some of the most brilliant sports writing in the pre-TV era. Good writers need action. Boxing gives.

There is also the sports biography and its satellite, autobiography. Most are trite because access to a sports star comes at the cost of independence. Still, there are some honourable mentions. Andrew Downie, foreign correspondent in Brazil, wrote Doctor Socrates in 2017, six years after the footballer’s death. Socrates remains football’s most romantic figure. A doctor with a philosophical bent of mind, he led the 1982 Brazil team (often called its greatest team) to not win the World Cup. He is football’s Che Guevara. Yet Downie’s biography reveals more a Greek tragedy than a modern fairy tale. It shows how a talented hedonist became a counterculture emblem. The opposite is true for tennis player Andre Agassi’s 2010 autobiography Open. Agassi was infamous as the Las Vegas playboy. The book shows the human underneath. It can be read just for the quality of the prose, which owes largely to Agassi’s collaboration with journalist JR Moehringer. Likewise, Italian footballer and midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo collaborated with journalist Alessandro Alciato to write his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play (2014). It’s written with the same wit and surprising insight that Pirlo employed to spray deadly accurate passes across the pitch.

***

No sport can match football for popularity and power. Ryszard Kapuściński, the Polish exponent of long-form reportage, wrote The Soccer War in 1978 about the conflict that erupted between Honduras and El Salvador over a double-legged qualification tie. If you truly wish to get up close and personal with how football drives the continent of South America, you end up reading Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano. His best known work is the 1971 Open Veins of Latin America, a passionate telling of the continent’s history that has sold over a million copies. In 1995, he wrote Football in Sun and Shadow. “The ball turns, the world turns. People suspect the sun is a burning ball that works all day and spends the night bouncing around the heavens while the moon does its shift, though science is somewhat doubtful. There is absolutely no question, however, that the world turns around a spinning ball,” he wrote.

A completely different approach to football and history can be found in British writer Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics (2008). Author of 10 books, Wilson is perhaps the best informed man on the history and development of the game. He can tell you that the origins of the passing skill lie in Scotland and that the Argentine football psyche is divided between the cynical Carlos Bilardo and the idealistic César Luis Menotti. But if I had to choose one person to watch a game of football with, it would not be Wilson, who belongs in an archive. The most astute reader of a game of football for my money is Michael Cox, who runs a website called ZonalMarking.net; it offers hyper-detailed tactical analyses of games in a fresh idiom. In 2017, he produced The Mixer: The Story of Premier League Tactics, from Route One to False Nines. His perceptiveness is matched with pared-down prose that delivers a lot more than it shows.

Among the sports writers active currently, six make me wait for their next offering. Barney Ronay, senior sports writer at The Guardian, is an illustrious summoner of compound adjectives that have made me laugh in awkward situations. It’s like having your personal Rabelais covering and commentating on a wide variety of sports. He once described an English striker as “seeming to arrive in the penalty area from some improbably thrilling height, mane flowing, nostrils flared, like a horse hurled from a speeding helicopter”. Richard Williams, former chief sports writer for The Guardian, matches a range of sports with a range of sensibilities; his musings on music match his sports writing. He has the rare ability to make grand observations using simple metaphors. As does Rohit Brijnath, former sports editor of India Today magazine who now works at The Straits Times in Singapore. Among his more memorable articles is a 2017 one titled ‘Letter to my granddaughter: I hope you have a Federer too, when you grow up’.

Three long-form writers bring me to the end of my current list. Two are Australian. Christian Ryan can be read without your having the slightest interest in cricket. Try his 2015 feature titled ‘The thirty-ninth summer of DK Lillee’. “Christian Ryan is cricket writing’s most exquisite miniaturist, capable of revealing whole worlds with a knowing glance,” wrote Gideon Haigh, who himself is capable of writing three good books a year, juggling cricket and business in his writing. Try his 2004 article ‘Bowling’s dark age’.

American journalist Wright Thompson has a knack for chasing a subject in the manner of Santiago, the old Cuban fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, who chases a giant marlin. His 2014 profile of Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez, titled ‘Portrait of a Serial Winner’, is a visceral account put together after months of research. How does Thompson cover the Balkan violence and genocide? He follows Bosnian forward Vedad Ibišević when he returns to his homeland after two decades (‘Nothing Can Stay Buried’, 2014). When Thompson writes about someone or something, he becomes a resident of that space.

That’s what Michael Elliott meant when he said, “Being a (sports) fan is like having your own personal time machine.”

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Categories: Sports

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