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This week marks one hundred years since the beginning of the First World War. The war impacted virtually every segment of society, including sports, and few – if any – athletes or sports organizations remained unscathed.
Sport plays an important role in how the War is remembered and commemorated. In particular, the now infamous Christmas Truce football match has become a focal point for how we understand the War (Ross Wilson’s excellent article about football and the the heritage of the Great War outlines these contemporary uses in greater detail) While different authors and sports organizations have looked at the sport history and heritage aspects of the First World War from different regional or national points of view, the War’s impact on cricket in England, in particular, seems to have attracted a great deal of attention.
The third test match between England and India in Southhampton this week was one of the focal points for cricket’s commemoration of the First World War. Both the England (above) and India (below) test teams paid their respects to the cricketers who fought and died in the War. The War’s impact on England’s test team, as well as first-class county cricketers, was immense. Hundreds of cricketers enlisted, and many – including four from England’s test team (basically, a quarter of the “national” cricket team) – never came home. July 29th’s Test Match Special podcast from the BBC featured a discussion about the players who served and died, as well as the impact the game had on domestic competitions and county cricket clubs. Many clubs nearly went bankrupt in the War, while competitive cricket was largely abandoned, only resurfacing for occasional charity matches to help fund various wartime causes. Other recent publications have looked at cricket and the First World War in England and, though I have not read them yet due to North American release dates, I look forward to reading books like Wisden on the Great War and The Last Over.
The interesting aspect of India’s part in this week’s commemoration is less about remembering Indian cricketers who died in the First World War, but reminding the wider world the immense role that India played in the war effort. By 1918, nearly 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the War with nearly 130,000 casualties, 75,000 of which were deaths. Despite the contribution India played in the war, the country’s role is often overlooked, diminished, or ignored entirely in official commemorations. Part of this, as is suggested, certainly has racial overtones, but also points to another heritage issue, that of whose heritage gets remembered, by whom, and why. If nothing else, India’s test cricket team being (seemingly) an equal part of this recent public commemoration points to sport being used as a vehicle to perhaps address some of these larger heritage issues.
Addendum: Many thanks to Andrew Renshaw, editor of Wisden on the Great War, for sending this article that was part of the England v. India match programme from the third test at Southampton. In it you will find more details about both English and Indian cricketers that served, and were lost, in the First World War.
I’ve long been a fan of well-written sports literature. Part of this interest comes from the day job (or, perhaps, the interest in sports lit lead to the day job. Chicken, egg, etc.) though I normally read sports lit for pleasure regardless of what is going on research-wise. Of course, sometimes the sports lit does make it’s way into my research, and more often than not my pleasure reading will inspire research directions, but in general I just like a good sports book. Although I will occasionally read more fluffy sports biographies and memoirs, I tend to drift towards those books with a broader social, culture, historical, and aesthetic direction. However, during the summer, I like a good sports “beach book” as well – something with a bit of heft but not so weighty as to feel like assigned reading for a graduate sport sociology or sports geography class. Thus, while I believe CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary to be a masterpiece of literature – sport or otherwise – I think it might be too dense for a this list. You don’t bring Moby Dick to the cabana, after all.
With that in mind, here are a few of my favourite sports “beach books.” Each of these, I believe, are engrossing reads while also being a bit more critical or introspective. Some are very well known, others are a little obscure. In any event, I hope you find a couple of them as interesting and engaging to read as I did.
The Following Game by Jonathan Smith – Last August I wrote at length about The Following Game and, I must admit, it is a book to which I return often. I won’t add much to what I wrote last summer, except to say that it is a beautiful, gentle, and very wise book. Essential, even if you don’t like or know nothing about cricket.
Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy by Ed Hawkins and The Fix by Declan Hill – The integrity of sporting results, particularly the role the international gambling market plays in setting particular outcomes, is a important contemporary issue. Although match fixing has been around as long as sport, instantaneous communications makes sports gambling an international phenomenon. While Hawkins explores cricket betting, particularly in India, and Hill looks at match fixing in soccer, each offer fascinating insights into how easy it is to manipulate results. And, well, both read a bit like spy novels too – which makes them even better.
Open by Andre Agassi – Famous for Agassi confessing that he hates tennis despite having been one of the world’s top players, it is also probably the best sports memoir I have ever read. It is very well-written and absolutely engrossing from first page to last.
Slow Getting Up by Nate Jackson – This book is, in some ways, a contemporary version of Dave Meggyesy’s classic Out of their League, where Jackson describes – in unflinching details – the life of an everyday, average NFL player. You see the glory, but you also see the guts – and it ain’t pretty.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby – Still holds up, even two-decades later. This is more than a memoir of a life lived through Arsenal football, it is an anthropology of fandom. And, it also features some of the most memorable lines in sports literature (“I fell in love with football as I was to later fall in love with women…” etc.)
Slouching Towards Fargo by Neal Karlen – A year in the life of the (very) minor league St. Paul Saints, Karlen’s book is far from a romantic view of America’s favourite pastime. A very unvarnished look at the desperation of minor league baseball.
Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems by Randall Maggs – If you’re beach books include poetry, and perhaps of the more intense variety, Maggs’ semi-fictional account of Terry Sawchuk, one of hockey’s greatest and most tragic figures, is well worth a read. There are many great hockey books, though this is probably the best of the lot.
Tropic of Hockey by Dave Bidini – Part travelogue, part search for the soul of hockey, Bidini looks for the commonalities that link those of us who play (or played) the game in different corners of the globe. As someone who played competitively, but also later loved his weekly game of “shinny” with the boys, Bidini’s book shows that we all share a bond through the game regardless of our geography.
The Great Tamasha by James Astill – Cricket, and in particular the dramatic changes in the sport from where three-hour T20 matches complete with celebrities, cheerleaders, and exploding scoreboards now rule the roost, becomes a metaphor for the rapid changes in contemporary India. Page-turner that links sport with geo-politics.