Monday, December 16, 2013

Rod Laver's memoir like the player, all class

Tennis has an outstanding capacity to produce memorable autobiographies from some of its great players and Rod Laver – A Memoir is no different.

Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of tennis players that they appear to have a greater degree of self-sufficiency than many other sports peoples.

Rod Laver: A memoir with Larry Writer. Published by Pan Macmillan.

They are more often familiar with defeat, therefore better able to cope with disappointments although that doesn't make losses any less frustrating.
But in recent times the autobiographies of Andre Agassi and John McEnroe have been two examples of books that have gone beyond mere blow-by-blow descriptions.
Rod Laver is from an earlier era, one that pre-dates many who would have devoured the Agassi and McEnroe books with relish.
However, his story is not reduced by comparison and in many ways it enhances their particular stories.
Laver is from a more ordered time, one where the distractions of life were not so great. Yet his story is a graphic example of how much work has to go into a career for success to be secured.
The game was amateur when he started out and until he achieved his first grand slam. These notions may mean nothing to a generation brought up on tennis tournaments worth millions of dollars for participants.
However, every time a winner's cheque is handed over the recipients should tip their hand to Laver and those of his friends who ostracised themselves from the tennis mainstream during the mid-1960s when turning professional.
There was a stigma then in accepting your skills were worth money to you in that post-colonial, amateur time when to many, generally commenting from the security of their own mansions, it was a cardinal sin to believe you were worth more than a pat on the back and a gin at the end of a hard day's work.
As they attempted to ply their trade, especially in the United States, the small band of tennis professionals had to play in some horrendous venues on some unbelievable schedules where events were played between lengthy drives in cars to small houses.
That commitment bred something hard among the band of tennis brothers and when the establishment finally woke up and realised their game was diminished without the professionals, the younger players, like Laver, were well placed to take advantage.
All of the hardships, both physical and mental, are canvassed in Laver's memoir in a book that is not just a record of why today's stars should never forget what their forebears went through but also an example of what hard work, dedication and, ultimately, supreme skill can achieve when developed to the utmost.
Laver won two grand slams, the only player to achieve the feat, one as an amateur and one as a professional. He never lost contact with tennis and is revered by those who recall his influence on the game.
His recovery from a stroke, and his story away from tennis, supplement this book making it a must read to understand why tennis occupies such a prominent place in world sport and to demonstrate what places humility, grace and sheer, unadulterated class, still have in top-flight competition.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Punchy book on boxing terms puts record straight

Bob Jones has many literary strings to his bow: novelist, newspaper columnist, political writer, business and management opinion and, of course, boxing writing.

Throughout all his works there is serious intent leavened with insight, humour and observation. But there can be few in the literary world who walk so easily through all the areas Jones manages.
He gets his message across in compelling style and there can be no doubt that his latest effort 'Fighting Talk – Boxing and the modern lexicon' is quite possibly the greatest example of his versatility.

It comprises a study, he would be horrified at the description of textbook, on the use of boxing terms in modern day life. In backgrounding the origins of expressions he also provides something of a history lesson of the finer points in boxing.

At the same time Jones also brings to light, firstly, the mis-use of words and expressions, and secondly the way they creep into accepted usage. Anyone who hears people talking about 'a change of tact' when users mean the more correct, and relevant, 'change of tack' will know what a frustration that can be.

Perhaps the most classic instance Jones highlights is the use of 'lightweight'. To describe someone as a 'lightweight' is generally to demonstrate their lack of gravitas or comprehension, yet the usage is sadly out of place.

As Jones says, some of the greatest boxers have been lightweights so that using the term lightweight to highlight mediocrity is 'an insult to the great featherweight and flyweight boxers who have contributed to boxing's heritage'.

Equally, Jones highlights the misuse of 'a line in the sand'. The term was a line drawn on the ground where boxers would face each other before starting a contest. Nowadays usage suggests to draw a line in the sand is an acceptable end point to events.

'Majority decision' is another oft mis-used term. As Jones points out, it is when two judges award a bout to one fighter while the third judge awarded it as a draw. This is opposed to the 'split decision' where two judges find for one contestant and the third for another.

An example of Jones providing historic perspective was in his dissection of the term 'punchdrunk'. Modern, non-boxing, usage suggests someone is punchdrunk after taking a volley of blows whether in political debate or business transactions.

But as Jones points out, the condition of punchdrunkness is medically known as dementia pugilistica and is a permanent condition. It leads to memory loss, poor balance, slurred speech and body tremors. It is the result of dehydration in weight-reducing, generally by lighter weights of boxers, but also by jockeys and is also suffered ball-heading football players. As part of his discussion on this subject he backgrounds the introduction of boxing gloves to the sport.

His study unearths other gems. Among them is the possible origin of the term 'fan'.

Jones' humour is unleashed on the devotees in sport who pause in their victory utterances to thank the top figure in their particular faith.

"A new millennium trend in boxing is for the cornermen to be ignored and instead credit given by a winning fighter to God, who apparently is a fight devotee, evidently not averse to divine intervention on behalf of his favourites. Assessed on such attributions, God is a particular fan of Latin American and black American fighters," Jones said.

All of the points discussed are backed with examples of usage from a plethora of journalistic sources from the modern age around the world

At the end of his book Jones also provides Aphorisms and Metaphors from other sports. They round out an immensely appealing book which is superbly presented by the publishers with an excellent index to speed up the possible search for terms.

As always the conclusion of a Jones book across all the areas mentioned at the outset leaves the reader disappointed that an educational, humorous and point-making treatise has ended. 'Fighting Talk' is right up there with the best of Jones' work.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tony Greig from a different angle

Tony Greig probably didn't set out to be divisive, but he had that effect on people.

He was best known to mainstream New Zealanders as one of the commentators on Channel 9's coverage of Australian cricket which beamed into Kiwi homes from the earliest days of the post-Packer era of World Series Cricket.

Tony Greig: Love, War and Cricket – A family memoir by Joyce Greig and Mark Greig. Published by Pan Macmillan. Price $49.99

But to cricket fans he was widely regarded as a combative captain of England, and a player who aligned himself with Kerry Packer's assault on the administrative bastion of world cricket that was something of a closed shop until 1977.

As Packer's agent, Greig was involved, while captaining England, in putting the feelers out for players who wanted to get involved in the proposed 'rebel' series that Packer wanted to run on his own television station as a result of the Australian Cricket Board refusing to give up on its rights being allocated to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Knowing that the cricket fraternity would never agree with his initiative, Packer launched his World Series that resulted in two years of upheaval before a British court ruling that the cricket administrators were guilty of a restraint of trade for cricketers forced the hand of the administrators.

Packer got his access to television coverage and the result has been reflected in cricket's re-birth since that time.

Greig became installed as one of the regular commentators, often upsetting the home bias of his Australian co-commentators, most notably Bill Lawry.

What is not so well known is the story of Greig's life. While this publication is, as its cover suggests, a family memoir, including the intriguing story of how his parents met and the implications of that on his mother's existing war-time marriage, it does help demonstrate what might have contributed to Greig's make-up.

Given the accounts of his Scottish father's war-time service in Bomber Command and the number of missions flown, above and beyond the call of duty, it was little wonder that Greig the younger was stung by The Times' cricket writer John Woodcock's comment at the time of the Packer controversy that it was understandable Greig should be involved because, after all, he wasn't an Englishman by birth but by adoption.

While his cricket career is covered in the story, what is more telling is the effect of his career, and the subsequent life in post-Packer days, that is the more revealing. Too often the personal cost of sport is not reflected but the role of family cannot be under-stated and both mother and son make poignant storytellers in this regard.

Tony Greig's influence in cricket was significant, and his views contained in his Cowdrey Lecture, which is run in full in the book, is a demonstration of how he felt about the game and its future.

Tony Greig – Love, War and Cricket is not your usual cricket biography but then Greig wasn't your usual cricketer.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lack of use by NZRU saddens Lomu

Not many New Zealand sports stars could warrant an update of their autobiography.

Richard Hadlee managed it, but then he had nearly 20 years of top-flight cricket and the likes of Peter Snell and Martin Crowe had post-career updates long after their competitive days were over.

JONAH - My Story. Published by Hodder Moa

But it is fitting that All Blacks' colossus Jonah Lomu has managed the feat.

His was a genuine international best seller which was hardly surprising given the profile he enjoyed in the sports world.

He also had some notable occurrences in his life after the publication of his first book, especially the kidney transplant he received, and which was the forerunner to his attempted comeback in the game.

Both issues are dealt with in his reissue as is the falling out with his former manager Phil Kingsley Jones.

Lomu also talks about the rough time he had after his appearance at the Rugby World Cup opening in Auckland when all in the stadium of four million could see that he wasn't at his best.

It turned out, within hours, that his transplanted kidney had gone into meltdown and couldn't be saved after seven years. And as a result Lomu has gone back on the waiting list for a new organ. His efforts to make sure he could attend the World Cup final show the level of determination that has marked the latter years of his life.

One regrettable point Lomu outlines is his lack of use by the New Zealand Rugby Union. He said it was a pity, since he stopped playing, that their relationship had not been closer.

"Unlike adidas, they just don't seem to want to have me involved. Even when I came back to rugby with North Harbour, they weren't interested.

"I never spoke to anyone from the union and it's pretty much been that way since I finished playing for the All Blacks.  Back in 2004, I would have thought maybe a get well card after the transplant operation might have been a nice gesture. Instead I got nothing. Not even a call," he said.

Lomu heard the NZRU had not been happy that he 'supported' Japan's bid for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But he said he was asked by a journalist if he thought Japan would benefit from getting the 2011 World Cup? He said: "Yeah, of course it would be good for the world game. Asia is a big, untapped market."

But he added: "That was a hell of a long way short of me actually supporting their big over New Zealand's. No one was happier than me when we won the rights for the cup in 2011."

Lomu said with his work with sponsors he had learnt plenty and felt he had something to offer but the lack of a relationship with the NZRU was disappointing.

"Ultimately, it's their choice - we all have choices - but I would have thought they might have taken a bit of time, especially in recent years, to ask if there was anything I could do for them.

"Anyway, my door is always open. I've been loyal to the game and the jersey.

"I've never taken a handout in my life, and I don't ever expect any now. That's the way it will always be," he said.

Fulton and Southee take NZ Almanack honours for 2012-13

Batsman Peter Fulton and bowler Tim Southee were named the players of the year by the New Zealand Cricket Almanack.

Editors Francis Payne and Ian Smith described Fulton’s efforts in 2012-13 as ‘the best form of his career’. He totalled 1249 runs, capped by a century in each innings of the drawn third Test with England at Eden Park, a feat only surpassed by Martin Crowe.

The 66th New Zealand Cricket Almanack of 2013. Edited by Francis Payne and Ian Smith. Published by Hodder Moa. Price $55.00

Southee had achieved the best bowling performance by a New Zealander in India at the start of the season when taking 7-64 and he finished with 10 wickets in the Lord’s Test against England. At the start of the season he had been 33rd on the list of New Zealand’s wicket-takers but his 38 wickets during the summer saw him shoot to 17th with his total at 83 Test wickets.

The promising players of the year selected by the editors were left-arm fast bowler Mitch McClenaghan, Daryl Mitchell and Craig Munro.

One of the most interesting features of the Almanack every year is its Happenings section and just some of the details are listed below:

+ It is difficult to believe but leg-spinner Todd Astle was the 25th player to be on a winning side in his maiden Test. What is even more interesting is that the first player to achieve the feat was double international Keith Thomson, he played hockey for New Zealand, in 1968 which means that in 34 years, nearly one player a year has featured in a maiden Test win.

+ At the moment Astle shares a distinction with two others on the list, Gary Robertson and Andre Adams, of that being the only Test they played. However, Astle does have time on his side.

+ Given all the events in New Zealand cricket, it was somewhat incredible that the fact that New Zealand fielded the same XI in four successive Tests this year was the first time it had been achieved.

+ Central Districts and former New Zealand batsman Jamie How holds a unique record in the game. He is the only player to have taken part in a 400-run stand in first-class cricket, a triple-century stand in one-day cricket and a double-century stand in Twenty20 cricket.

+ Left-arm spinner Bruce Martin’s feat in playing 115 first-class games before making his Test debut is a New Zealand record.

As always, the Almanack is a fund of detail on the New Zealand season and a must-have for genuine cricket fans. There’s much more inside this 66th edition.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Armstrong's rise and fall outlined in compelling book

It is doubtful a more compelling account of Lance Armstrong's demise could be presented than that achieved by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell in their book Wheelmen.

The two Wall Street Journal writers have provided an in-depth account of Armstrong's life and it is not a pretty read.

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell. Published by Hachette NZ.

Criticised throughout his domination of the Tour de France for his bullying attitude, Armstrong still managed to win support for his feats because of the seeming quality of his achievements.

The constant defence that he was the most tested rider in the world was a deliberate and calculated ploy to stave off those who wanted to know why more was not showing up in tests done on him. There was a fear he was one step ahead of the chemists and so it proved in a sport that had an on-going problem on the basis of past inaction on doping matters.

His dominance also started to hit home to others that all was not quite right.

Former Tour winner Greg LeMond recalled to the writers the first time the question of Armstrong doping was raised with him. It was in 1999 on the climb on Sestriere when the American blitzed the field on the climb.

"As Armstrong conquered Sestriere, everyone in the room, including LeMond, was cheering like mad. Except one man. A former mechanic on the Festina team named Cyrille Perrinn tapped LeMond on the shoulder and whispered to LeMond, 'sur le jus'.

"LeMond knew what this meant – Armstrong was juicing [taking drugs]. But how could the mechanic know this? 'What? Why?" LeMond asked, among the commotion and cheering.

"'No effort,' Perrin said. 'Look at his eyes, his breathing,' he said. Perrin went on to explain that cyclists were now using a powerful cocktail of drugs that propelled them up mountains without effort. 'They feel no pain,' he said to LeMond."

As much as the blatant cheating on the bike there were the machinations on the periphery of the game and those involved on the corporate side of the  Armstrong phenomenon. One example the authors highlighted was the relationship with Thom Weisel whose USA Cycling Development Foundation became a power player in the administration of the sport.

When Weisel gained control of USA Cycling, he appointed Jim Ochowicz as president while also installing him as a broker in his own banking firm. When Ochowicz joined him, one of his clients Hein Verbruggen went with him. Verbruggen was the head of the sport's world body, the UCI. That, the authors claimed, opened up ways in which Weisel could influence UCI decision-making.

They said: "Verbruggen now had several disincentives to police Armstrong's doping, and Armstrong would be thankful for them at various times throughout the remaining years of his career."

Armstrong wasn't beyond exerting his own threats, as LeMond found after he talked to British journalist David Walsh when Armstrong's links with controversial doctor Michele Ferrari confirmed to LeMond that Armstrong was doping.

LeMond said to Walsh: "When I heard he was working with Michele Ferrari, I was devastated...If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."

Armstrong attacked LeMond through their corporate connection with Trek bicycles saying one call to the company boss could shut down LeMond's work with the company.

An example of Armstrong's vindictiveness and control was seen when in 2004 lowly-placed rider Filippo Simeoni attempted to form an inconsequential breakaway group which would have no bearing on the final outcome of the race. But sensing sponsors would not be happy with lowly riders getting some publicity, Armstrong chased them down.

A factor in that thinking was that Simeoni had testified against Ferrari and  sued Armstrong after he criticised Simeoni. Armstrong rode them down, and in a famous scene that had television commentators wondering what was being discussed as he had his hand on Simeoni's back, delivered the message to the rider.

What Armstrong told him was: "You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you."

He told the rest of the chasing group they wouldn't get away as he would not let the breakaway survive. The other riders put pressure on Simeoni and they drifted back to the peloton. When they got there Armstrong made a zipping motion across his mouth to warn there should be no more talk about doping.

The authors also gave full coverage of the plight of Floyd Landis and the battle he had in potting Armstrong who had unleashed a smear campaign against him. Things looked to have succeeded when the US Attorney for the Central District of California was ending its two-year investigation into Armstrong.

It was to prove the lull before the storm.

As the full facts surrounding Armstrong's use of drugs emerged via USADA, the US anti-drug agency, the collapse of the Armstrong empire was prompt and graphically caught by the writers.

Theirs is a readable and graphic account of all that occurred in the Armstrong era appearing well-sourced and a permanent reminder of what may well prove LeMond's words correct, 'the greatest fraud'.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Passing Parade 2 (In memory of Bryce Courtenay)

The second in a random series on experiences and conversations in my journalism career. All the people involved were spoken to face-to-face in interviews but some extra material by way of background may have been added to round out the experience, especially when looking back a considerable number of years.

Sometimes luck reveals itself in strange ways.

It was the practice at The Evening Post in Wellington for the books editor to place in a large box all of the books he didn't think were worthy of a review in the esteemed newspaper.

Any half-respecting bibliophile couldn't but help poke their nose in the box at least once a week (well, people did read books in the late-1980s).

On one such occasion there, sitting looking back at the observer, was a book titled "The Power of One". It didn't have one of the great covers, but picking it up revealed it was about a young South African orphan who had to grow up tough and who used boxing as his means of defence.

It struck a chord and so it was taken home and soon revealed itself as a first-class read. It had many fine strands and one little story stuck in the mind, and has remained there whenever the notion of luck is applied. It was provided via a character in the book, a professor, whose use of absoloodle to every positive response was another memory.

Courtenay related the story of the impoverished Russian Jew who one morning while making his breakfast toast had the misfortune to drop it on the floor during the spreading process. But to his disbelief the toast landed butter side up.

How could this happen? He was a poor Jew, this sort of thing did not happen to people like him. Luck was not part of his vocabulary.

He took the situation to his rabbi and the rabbi agreed that this was indeed an amazing situation. He had no answer but would take it to his superiors. They heard the case and were also intrigued and at a loss for an explanation. But after much deliberation they arrived at an answer.

The poor Jew was called to hear their finding and he was told that it was the collective belief of the assembled brainpower that there could only be one answer. It was that he had clearly buttered the wrong side of the toast!

Picking up The Power of One was like finding your toast had fallen butter side up.

Once completing the book the afore-mentioned book editor was appraised of his unworthiness for the role and how could he dare to put such a book in the remainders box? Not only was the book a thrilling read, it also contained some of the finest boxing description it would be possible to read.

Some months later, the book editor recalled the discussion and said that the writer of the book concerned was returning to Wellington to promote the paperback version of the book and would be available for an interview. Would there be any interest in that? he asked.

There most certainly would, he was told, and the booking was made for an interview.

When introductions had been duly completed, Courtenay was informed that he was being interviewed by a sports writer who had been intrigued by the quality of the boxing writing in the book. He said that shouldn't be too much of a surprise, he had fought 150 amateur bouts, and just out of interest Sports Illustrated had agreed with the sentiment about the boxing writing.

In the same interview he was asked what future projects he might have in mind. Courtenay explained that he had recently been in Tasmania doing some research on his then wife's family, Solomons by name, and in a little church he had left a note in the registry book that if anyone should have any information on the Solomons, and especially a gentleman by the name of Ikey Solomon, they should contact Courtenay at the phone number attached.

Some time later at home in the evening, the phone rang and it was someone with some information who had seen his note at the church. Courtenay related that the person had asked him: "You do know who Ikey Solomon was?"

Courtenay replied that he didn't. His caller informed him that Solomon was the model that Charles Dickens used for his great character in Oliver Twist, Fagin. The book he would next write would be about Ikey Solomon's life.

Without saying too much more it is now known as The Potato Factory, the first part of a trilogy which included Tommo and Hawk and ended with Solomon's Song. Writing follow-up stories was part of the early Courtenay approach as Tandia followed the story of his original The Power of One.

Further interviews with Courtenay followed in later years. One moving discussion was when he was promoting the paperback version of April Fool's Day, the story of his son's battle with transfusion acquired AIDS.

Another was when he was promoting Tommo and Hawk, the occasion when he courteously signed that earlier first edition copy of The Power of One. "Did you know," he asked, "that this is very valuable?" The hardback version had been a disaster, he said and it didn't take off until issued in paperback. There were not many hardbook copies around. Try and find one in a second hand sale – it's hard work.

Courtenay never claimed to be anything more than a storyteller, something that didn't seem to sit with more highbrow writers who may have written more stylishly but who sold nothing like the numbers of books that Courtenay did.

"I just sit down and start yakking on paper or into a word processor," he said.

Courtenay believed in the need for storytelling and the benefits it had for literacy.

"Literacy is the biggest single problem facing Western culture. As soon as language evolved, imagination evolved and imagination can only work at its optimum in a literate people.

"Without literacy we are less able to cope with the environment we live in," he said.

Courtenay, who had a career in advertising, during which time he was responsible for the creation of the Milky Bar Kid, related that he used to immerse himself in his novels. When writing The Potato Factory he often had to shower after each composition session because he felt all the filth of inner-city London in the days of the Industrial Revolution sticking to his skin while he could smell the foul odours associated with the conditions so well did he imagine his surroundings.

He was the ultimate story teller and it is sad that the pen has been stilled so swiftly. He will be sorely missed by his legion of fans.

A dark day for the All Blacks

October 30 was a significant day in New Zealand rugby, not just because the 2014 batch of Super Rugby squads were named.

It was the 50th anniversary of the day Welsh club Newport beat the All Blacks, the only loss the All Blacks suffered on their 1964-64 tour of Britain, Ireland and France.

Wilson Whineray's men went down 0-3 when Newport centre Dick Uzzell landed a dropped goal in the 17th minute.

Try as they might, the New Zealanders couldn't escape the passionate grip of the home team who achieved a great day in their club's history.

Welsh teams don't beat the All Blacks too often.

The occasion was marked by a renunion of the team on Wednesday evening and all but two members who had died, were able to attend. The players were given the freedom of Newport in honour of their achievement at the Rodney Parade ground.

Captain Brian Price, who toured with the British and Irish Lions, achieved Triple Crowns and Five Nations championships, told the South Wales Post: "It's difficult to say if it was the pinnacle of my career – getting picked as an uncapped player for the Barbarians side which beat the Springboks in 1961 and taking away their unbeaten record on the last match of their tour was special, as was winning your first cap for Wales and then going on to captain your country.

Brian Price - Win was memorable because he was playing with his mates
"The great thing about the New Zealand game was the victory over the All Blacks with Newport also had the distinction of being one that was achieved while playing with your mates, the people you played with week in, week out," he said.

Among various parts of the build-up to the game he recalled that Uzzell was nursing a hamstring injury that they had to keep quiet about. He was only passed fit two hours before the game, and then only after an injection from the club doctor.

While they had never been in control of the All Blacks pack they had been holding their own, he said.

"Some said our tactics were negative but we were out to stop them from gaining any momentum and from preventing [Don] Clarke from getting any penalty kicks at goal.

"I remember Brian Jones and Uzzell were superb in defence and we had five kicks at goal that day, all long ranger, while they didn't get one shot."

Uzzell's dropped goal attempted 'wobbled and scraped over the bar', he said.

"Wilson Whineray came into our dressing room afterwards and said to us: "Congratulations boys. There's no doubt about it, you were the better side on the day. I just hope you all get selected for Wales so we can have another crack at you'," he said.

Uzzell told The Rugby Paper: "We'd gone into the match determined to give a good account of ourselves and not let them run away with it.

"I never planned to drop a goal, not least because I was never a drop-goal specialist.

"It was done on pure instinct. I saw these three All Blacks charging at me and set myself up for the shot. I never saw it go over because they flattened me, but I heard the roar," he said.

Newport, joined Swansea (1935) and Cardiff (1953) as clubs who beat the All Blacks, with Llanelli joining them in 1972.