The global coronavirus outbreak has necessitated a lockdown in the country, and with all sporting action currently suspended, cancelled, or postponed, there are very few avenues for sports fans to engage. With more than usual time at hand, it might be a good opportunity to revisit your reading list and treat yourself to some high-quality sports writing.
At Firstpost Sports, we have made that job easier for you. Our in-house writers have curated a list of 15 sports books that you must read as staying indoors seems the only plausible solution to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here's the list:
(Author: Andre Agassi)
There are books, and then there's Open. Enough has been written about this colossal autobiography already, but Andre Agassi's epic retelling of his storied career never ceases to amaze to this day.
A precocious talent haunted by his demanding father, Agassi recounts his tortured childhood in great depth and detail ― an unmissable part of which involved hitting thousands of balls thrown at him from an improvised machine. The indigenous technique, one can safely assume, helped him become a legendary returner who would retrieve balls on the run and on the rise from impossible angles. Tennis, however, appears only as a giant backdrop in the book as Agassi (thankfully) chooses to talk on what shaped his personality more than the sport he was made to choose.
He dwells on his insecurities, pain, anguish, and loneliness. He calls his training camp in Florida a prison camp, and terms tennis the closest thing to solitary confinement. Rarely has an athlete so equivocally stated his/her hatred for the chosen sport, much less talked in length on the lack of confidence emanating from his baldness. There's no shame in admitting to having a mental block against Pete Sampras, and effusive praise is reserved for then-upcoming talents such as Roger Federer.
Agassi's life, with its numerous irresistible vicissitudes and a perennial bad-boy-who-loves-to-break-rules theme, was an apt reflection of his swinging temper, and the book does complete justice in laying it open threadbare with unabashed candour. A mighty fine book that reinforces the value of honesty in autobiographies, Open is a must-read whether or not you follow sports.
Miracle Men: The Greatest Underdog Story in Cricket
(Author: Nikhil Naz)
Nikhil Naz's Miracle Men is an anecdotal account of the Indian cricket team's journey to their maiden World Cup triumph in 1983 in England, and a very good one at that. The book celebrates the excellence of a cricket team, which was not expected to achieve the feat in conditions not particularly suited to them.
1983 remains one of the breakthrough moments for Indian cricket. Many veterans believe Kapil Dev's men changed everything for Indian cricket with that victorious campaign. What makes the book a great read are the unheard-of anecdotes and experiences shared by the cricketers who were part of the squad, added with a perspective of a journalist who covered the tournament. There are also accounts of Indian cricket fans based in England. And with so many information, anecdotes and experiences at his disposal, Naz does not try to fill everything with a bland and obvious writing but serves a fun-filled, action-packed account of the great triumph that '83 was.
Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning
(Author: Guillem Balague)
Pep Guardiola is, without doubt, one of the greatest managers in modern-day football. But it's not just success on the pitch that makes him the special figure that is.
It's the style. The stubbornness of the Spanish manager to stick to his principles no matter what. His lust for ball possession, and obsession for his teams to play passing football makes him stand out. But how was Guardiola moulded into the manager that he is. The answer to it can be found in Guillem Balague's 'Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning'.
The book came out after Guardiola's four years at Barcelona as a manager and while he has gone on to do greater things, the book remains highly relevant even today. After all, it's less about his Barcelona experience or his tactical style, but more about how he is as a person. A highly resourceful writer, Balague has added a lot of anecdotes, dressing rooms stories, and conversations to enrich the reading experience. The book will also give you details about Guardiola's learnings about football, his time at Barcelona B and his quests in Barcelona, including tussles with Jose Mourinho.
Fear and Loathing in La Liga
(Author: Sid Lowe)
When it comes to Spanish football, two clubs stand well ahead of the rest in terms of titles, in terms of revenue and in terms of history: Real Madrid and Barcelona. The two clubs were founded three years apart and at present have a different philosophy in terms of everything: their structure, the football they play, the way they function and how they form a bond with their respective cities.
And yet, the two super clubs have plenty in common as Sid Lowe, a British journalist covering Spanish football for decades, unravels in Fear and Loathing in La Liga. The clubs are both owned by the fans/members (socios) who in turn choose another socio to lead the club in the boardroom. Both have had a history of never dropping outside the top division (a record also shared by Athletic Bilbao) and using their might to influence decisions inside the city and across the country.
Much like many football clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona both have a history of association with the governments. Dictator General Franco had an association with Real Madrid while Barcelona, on the other hand, carry the hopes and aspirations of the people from Catalonia in their fight for independence.
The book focuses on the clubs from a perspective of their political affiliation, history, their progress through time and how they grew and most importantly ― the rivalry they shared. One of the most fascinating pieces of the mystery that the book looks at is the transfer of Alfredo di Stefano. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid laid claim to the legendary Argentine before he moved to the Spanish capital. Other pieces of controversial moves are that of Laszlo Kubala and Luis Figo.
There is plenty to go through in this book if you're a football fan or even a lover of history from a sporting perspective. Real Madrid vs Barcelona is one of the most fancied rivalries in world football and the book does a splendid job of working through it.
(Author: Norman Mailer)
A clash for the ages penned by a writer as much in love with himself as with the protagonists, Norman Mailer's The Fight is a masterclass in narration and narcissism. Mailer covered the famous 'Rumble in the Jungle' bout between a waning Mohammad Ali and a young George Foreman in Kinshasa, but the book is a lot more than a lookback at the sequence of events that transpired in the ring in the wee hours of 30 October, 1974. Interludes and interplays abound, and the looming themes of race and black pride blend with the ringside happenings to construct an unputdownable amalgam of prose and pride.
Mailer, decidedly, sets the ground rules in the first chapter itself: He is no narrator, he is a character. He addresses himself in the third person, sometimes as "our man", a style that irked seasoned writers back in 1975 when the book came out. In Chapter 3, Mailer goes, "Now, our man of wisdom had a vice. He wrote about himself." The self-aggrandising continues in Mailer's visits to Ali's training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania and the avoidable details of the hours spent in the library, reading up on the Bantu philosophy.
Mailer's groundwork, assisted in no small measure by his unparalleled access, is immaculate, and to his credit, the writer makes full use of his proximity to Ali to build towards a gripping crescendo. The enormous physicality of Ali and Foreman are explained in their full splendour, as is the bout itself. Amid resounding chants of "Ali, bomaye (Ali, kill him)," the former heavyweight champion allowed Foreman's brute power to punish him. Lying loosely on the ropes ― the now-famous 'rope-a-dope' was thus formed ― Ali took severe body blows, but also tired Foreman out. It was not until the eighth round that Ali, sufficiently aware that a spent Foreman was now at his mercy, took matters in his own hands and summarily dismantled his challenger, blow by blow, to become the first man to win the world heavyweight title after losing it once.
The account of the bout is a delightfully captivating play in itself, the use of imagery and the visceral, visual description makes it a treat to read. Mailer, not surprisingly, finds the perfect words for the perfect moments and while the end seems laboured, it goes well with Ali and Foreman's states of mental and physical exhaustion after going through hell. Safe to say, as the heavens opened up at the end of the fight, two heavyweight champions emerged from the arena ― and one of them used a typewriter to pack a punch.
(Author: Gideon Haigh)
A Gideon Haigh gem that perhaps deserves more recognition, On Warne is a gripping book on cricket's most successful leg-spinner by one of it's best writers going around. Divided in five sections, each dedicated to various aspects of Warne's multi-faceted persona, the book is a goldmine on the science of leg-spin.
Generous space is given to the art of landing the ball, on the proverbial right areas, on setting up the batsmen, on creating a theatre and eventually reaping from it.
The passage on Warne's partnership with fast-bowling legend Glenn McGrath is a treat, and less obvious details, such as fellow leg-spinner Stuart McGill's performance improved while Warne's dipped when the two played together, make for interesting insights. Warne's battle with Sachin Tendulkar is touched upon too, but one feels not enough was written on the showdown. Likewise, there is little or no mention of Brian Lara, another genius who held his own again Warne's guile. Haigh has written on Warne's misdemeanors too, but has steered clear from falling into tabloid trappings.
The book is not a biography, but a reflection on a storied career. Haigh has dipped into his vast knowledge from covering the sport over the years and has used his interviews with Warne, collected over a decade, to come up with a literary masterclass.
King of the World
(Author: David Remnick)
There are many legends in the sporting world but even the mightiest ones don't match to the aura of Muhammad Ali. Apart from being one of the greatest boxers of all time, the American changed the world of sports by crushing the stereotypes and making a big statement as a black activist in a nation divided along the racial lines.
In the King of the World, David Remnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and the editor of The New Yorker captures Ali's life through his childhood in Jim Crow-south, the Olympic gold medal, bouts against Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, and how he emerged as one of the prominent figures in the American civil rights movement.
In terms of objectivity, the biography shows the various sides of Ali, telling the readers why even the most extraordinary ones are not perfect. The book packs a punch just like the subject it covers, and Remnick comes across as a master storyteller, truly deserving to tell the story of a master.
Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics
(Author: Jonathan Wilson)
When is a book about football tactics not a book about football tactics? That’s a question you’ll likely find yourself asking, shortly after picking up a copy of Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid.
Sure, it contains multiple paragraphs praising the ingenuity of Herbet Chapman's W-M formation and the phenomenon that was Total Football, and yes, if you were to read it from cover to cover, you’d definitely walk away with a better understanding of the intricacies of football stratagems and manoeuvres. But that's not all it has to offer, because the book itself is not content with being confined to dusty blackboards and sweaty dressing rooms, choosing instead to imbue the inner workings of the game with a dash of colour.
Wilson recounts a story spanning generations in exquisite, exhausting detail, racing down every rabbit hole like a crazed dog in a park, with not the slightest hint of empathy for those expecting the tedious play-by-play narrative that most books about sport fiercely cling to.
Each strand of this masterfully knit tale attempts, in its own way, to help us understand how football evolved from a bit of tomfoolery on muddy playgrounds to the living, breathing, sponsorship-riddled behemoth it is today.
Readers are introduced to character after character on an ever-turning conveyor belt of perfectly packaged anecdotes, leaping between seedy South American slums and cultured Central European cafes at will, patiently fleshing out the times that inspired the sport’s greatest innovations.
It’s a challenging read, and you’ll probably have to take a break every now and then to Google obscure trivia that is unlikely to be mentioned ever again in everyday life, but for the average football fan looking to expand their horizons, this is a journey well worth taking.
(Author: Shoaib Akhtar and Anshu Dogra)
Shoaib Akhtar’s autobiography lives up to its title. Controversially Yours is an in-your-face, tell-all account of all that went down in Akhtar’s stop-start 14-year career for Pakistan, ravaged by injuries and often compromised by fall-outs with the equally ‘controversial’ Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB).
From admitting to ball-tampering to denouncing Indian greats Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid as batsmen who didn’t know how to finish matches, Akhtar doesn’t hold back. Hence, the book is a gold-mine for ardent cricket fans who watched Akhtar in his prime, when he earned the moniker of ‘Rawalpindi Express’ and bowled the fastest delivery ever at 161.3 kilometres per hour.
More heartening than his ceaseless tirade against the overseers of cricket in Pakistan is the book’s first few chapters, where the focus is on Akhtar’s childhood. Born in a poor household in a ramshackle neighbourhood of Rawalpindi, Akhtar details his financially strained upbringing and his mother’s resolve which carried the family through trying times. When Akhtar was three years old, he was stricken with whooping cough, a disease that was fatal in the 1970-80s.
His relatives advised his mother to give up on treatments and instead, save money for Akhtar’s funeral. However, his mother Hameeda Awan would carry her weak child to the biggest hospital in the area. Akhtar recovered from the illness and in his own words, “the coughing expanded his lungs and he seemed to be able to take in a lot of oxygen. From not being able to walk, one day, I got up and started to run.”
Mid-wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar
(Author: S Giridhar and VJ Raghunath)
The book is a happy marriage between cricketing nostalgia and insightful analysis, interspersed with statistics and snippets from the different eras of the sport. Anecdotes abound as two cricket romantics combine together to weave a wonderful compilation of short essays, taking the reader for a convivial ride.
The several essays celebrate a cross-section of cricketing skills, from close-in catching to left-arm wrist spin, while the writers also commemorate the great batting line ups and outstanding captains. In terms of insights, the exploration of some topics like Kapil Dev’s impeccable ability to rotate strike and Australia’s weakness against left-arm spin provides a different prism that even the connoisseurs of the game might have missed.
The two authors also add their personal experience as fans or as keen ‘students’ of the game, from bumping into international cricketers to watching local competitions like Moin-ud-Dowlah. A recommended read if one wishes to put their feet up and delve into the legacy of cricket and celebrate, both the cult and the mainstream heroes of the sport.
A Shot at History
(Authors: Abhinav Bindra and Rohit Brijnath)
This is possibly the best sports book to have come out of India. And why not? It’s penned by one of the best sportswriters of the country, Rohit Brijnath, and tells the tale of Abhinav Bindra, who, by courtesy of winning an individual Olympic gold medal at Beijing 2008, is literally a one-in-a-million athlete. Bindra’s gold ended a jinx that had hung over Indian athletes at the modern Olympic Games for nearly a century.
The book gives you a glimpse into the method behind the madness that the 10m air rifle shooter was known for. Bindra was one of the most reclusive Indian athletes. But it was his obsession with winning that made him do unusual things in training: be it hiring a marriage hall to train in ahead of Beijing 2008, or drinking yak’s milk, or dry firing in a darkened room, or replicating the Rio Olympics shooting range in his house.
As Bindra puts it in his book, “Between 2004 and 2008, I experimented like a hippie from the 1960s.”
Playing It My Way
(Authors: Sachin Tendulkar and Boria Majumdar)
Written by Sachin Tendulkar and co-authored by Boria Majumdar, the Master Blaster’s autobiography Playing It My Way is the perfect retelling of his playing career.
From his early days of cricket training under Ramakant Achrekar, his love for music and his admiration for John McEnroe, Tendulkar revisits every aspect of his life.
The forgettable 2007 World Cup, his remarkable turnaround from then till the 2011 World Cup triumph, facing Shane Warne in India and more ― this book, though, might also act as more of a throwback to most of its readers, with match scorecards of important games of his career also printed.
Apart from being a chronological recollection of his international career which started in 1989 up until 2013, Tendulkar also gives his take on some of the dark times in Indian cricket ― his rift with former coach Greg Chappell being one of them. He explains in the book about the incident where Chappell visited him at his home just a few months before the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2007 asking him to take over captaincy from Rahul Dravid, where Chappell told Tendulkar that they could ‘control’ Indian cricket for years.
Rahul Dravid: Timeless Steel
(Authors: Multiple authors)
Rahul Dravid’s illustrious cricketing career, spanning nearly 16 years, has been marked by commitment, consistency and class. As someone who has mostly lived under the shadow of ‘The God’ and ‘Dada’, Dravid has been the lone warrior for India in some of the most testing times, thus earning the ‘Mr Dependable’ tag.
Timeless Steel, an anthological biography of the legendary Rahul Dravid makes for a well-structured and nostalgic ride. A compilation of 24 articles about 'The Wall', the book, through accounts of those he came in contact with during his cricketing career, family and peers (notably Aakash Chopra, Suresh Raina, Greg Chappel, Vijeeta Dravid, John Wright, and ESPN Cricinfo's Sambit Bal), documents his journey both on and off the field.
Some of the striking accounts are the ones from Bal (who establishes his aura as a 'regular, everyday superstar'), Chopra (who highlights his technical superiority and evolution), and Sanjay Bangar (who narrates the tale of Jammy's 148 against England at Headingley).
Along with being a sincere student of the game and a selfless servant of Indian cricket, the way he carried himself off the field was particularly remarkable. In this regard, the account by Dravid's wife Vijeeta makes us dive right into the family man that he is or some of the anecdotes regarding him such as how he felt bad about dropping just one catch or how he would have difficulty in changing the nappies of his child.
Besides, for a trip down the memory lane, the book incorporates some of the interviews that he had given at different stages of his career along with some of his pictures that portray his life and cricketing journey. The book ends with the speech that he delivered at the Sir Donald Bradman Oration in Australia before his retirement, and certainly, Dravid’s ideas about the prevailing cricketing scenario, including Indian cricket and the status of fans, will resonate with many, even till date.
The last chapter, Numbers, takes a comprehensive look at many of his astounding records and if you’re a fan, you have all the more reason to be proud of the man.
Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven village cricketers take on the world
(Author: Harry Thompson)
Over the course of this list and countless others made across the world in an attempt to distill the world of sports writing down to a handful of 'bests', it's frequently the gritty, bloodstained, revelatory, warts-and-all tomes that pick up mentions. Seeing out the second-half of a critical football match with a broken leg, batting through the fifth day of a Test with a mouthful of blood and Chiclets — that were once teeth — or coming to terms with the grip cocaine and gambling had on one's life are are the staples of such books.
Every now and then, however, comes a book that eschews this style in favour of a more tongue-in-cheek and dare-I-say humorous tone. And by humorous, we don't mean the "Ha ha ha! Oh my God, A Century is Not Enough is so damn awful!" type of humorous.
Over the course of a little under 250 pages, English radio and television producer, comedy writer, novelist and biographer (thank you, Google!) Thompson tells the tale of the Captain Scott Invitation XI — a ragtag cricket club with one simple mission: Play a match on every single continent.
The culmination of the club's voyage takes place at Cape Evans in Antarctica, where "for the first time — surely — in history, a cricket match would have to be cancelled because penguins had stopped play". The Captain Scott XI's nearly-two-decade-long journey to play cricket on every single continent sees them travel to Delhi, Pietermaritzburg, Barbados, Buenos Aires and a whole lot more cricketing destinations — conventional or otherwise.
More than the scope and audacity of this quest to feel the sound of leather on willow all over the world, it's the often self-deprecating, frequently hilarious, sometimes frustrating, but rarely dull narration of events ranging from the mundane to the unfortunate and all the way to the glorious that makes Penguins Stopped Play a must-read particularly in these times.
Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion's Life
(Authors: Viswanathan Anand and Susan Ninan)
Mind Master is a retelling of the journey of India’s finest chess exponent, Viswanathan Anand. Having been a poster boy and a trailblazer for India at chess, the 50-year-old Anand still remains somewhat of an enigma for many Indians who cannot grasp the complexities of the sport he played.
Anand was a man who sparked a chess revolution in India by taking it from a hobby to a mainstream sport. Moreover, he did it by himself, at a time when the sport was the domain of Soviet Union-backed chess players like Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik or players like Veselin Topalov who were bankrolled by countries like Bulgaria.
As Anand writes in the book, “At best, I was an oddity on the world chess scene.”
Updated Date: Apr 01, 2020 21:15:11 IST