The 6 Greatest Sports Books You've Never Heard Of

If you like your sport and want something a little more stimulating to read than ghost written autobiographies of 21-year-olds then you could do worse than try some of these lesser known gems.
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The Cricket War by Gideon Haigh

Coloured clothing, white balls and day night cricket. An abomination against the traditions of cricket or a much needed kiss of life to a game being strangled to death by the establishment? Whatever your point of view there's no denying that the game we know today would be very different if it hadn't been for Aussie tycoon Kerry Packer's clash with the stuffed shirts of the MCC in the late 1970s.

Beautifully written, comprehensively researched and featuring a cast of outlandish characters straight out of central casting The Cricket War tells the story of era that has been largely airbrushed from cricket history.

Come What May by Donal Og Cusack

Hurling may be alien to most readers on this side of the Irish Sea but don't let a lack of knowledge of the game put you off this compelling autobiography by one of the most controversial sportsmen in Ireland today. Whether it's the camaraderie and companionship of rural club hurling, leading the high profile Cork country side in strike action or confronting his own sexuality (Og Cusack was the first high profile Irish sportsman to come out) Og Cusack is always forthcoming, often extremely frank and sometimes even a little frightening. As intense and impassioned as fellow Cork-man Roy Keane, Og Cusack's book is a love letter to hurling, a game that has provided him with the greatest pleasures imaginable as well as causing much bitterness and pain.

Muscle by Sam Fussell

Nerd gets metaphorical sand kicked in face, nerd seeks revenge is a staple of American popular culture from Spiderman and the Karate Kid through to The Social Network. The nerd in this instance is Oxford educated Yank Sam Fussell, who, sick of being pushed around and intimidated in pre-Giuliani New York decides that beefing up is the best way to boost his security and self-esteem. What follows is an intense journey into the crazy world of extreme bodybuilding. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window” and the view offered through the beefcake window is a pretty terrifying one. Fussell shows an almost religious zeal for his new world and becomes completely seduced by the buff abs, protein rich diets and even the muscle enhancing but testicle shrinking drugs. He eventually realises that madness lies ahead and comes out the other side but not before lifting the lid on a strange, alien environment. Like Louis Theroux before Louis Theroux was around.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window” and the view offered through the beefkcake window is a pretty terrifying one.

Big Deal by Anthony Holden

Before the rise of the Internet, when Scandinavian schoolboys (and girls) were actually at school and not crushing high stakes games, the poker circuit was the preserve of men with names like Amarillo ‘Slim’ Preston, Doyle Brunson and Huckleberry Seed. Not really the kind of environment you’d expect to find the classical music critic from The Observer. Poker aficionado Tony Holden took a year off from Wagner and co and headed to Malta, Monte Carlo and of course Las Vegas to play in some of the biggest tournaments around. The result was the rather splendid Big Deal. Written in the 1980s, though it may as well be the 1880s given how much poker has changed since then, the stories, anecdotes and characters still shine through. Holden is a funny and engaging guide and in his long suffering but unnamed wife, The Moll, he created a figure to match Her Indoors and Maris Crane.

A Voyage For Madmen by Peter Nichols

If your knowledge of sailing is based on an episode of Howard's Way or unsuccessfully trying to decipher the chaos that is an Olympic Yngling race then Peter Nichols' A Voyage For Madmen will soon put you right. The madmen in question are the nine who set off on the first round the world yacht race in 1968/69 and given what happened to most of them it's a very appropriate title. With no satellite weather forecasts, computerised navigation, email or phones, sailing was a far riskier proposition than it is now and Nichols charts the skill, bravery and foolhardiness of the eccentrics who took part. Often reading like a thriller, A Voyage For Madmen is full of courage and recklessness, heroism and ultimately tragedy and a book that even the hardiest of landlubbers will enjoy.

Paper Lion by George Plimpton

Despite being 36 years old and possessing precisely zero in American footballing credentials, George Plimpton was determined to find out what it would take to become a pro quarterback with one of America's premier clubs, the Detroit Lions. Paper Lion tells the story of his incredible adventure.

You really get a feel for the tough, physical nature of the game and a flavour of what a unique and privileged experience it is, to be part of a professional sports organisation.

Plimpton spent four weeks with the Lions at their pre season training camp, four weeks in which he managed to lift the lid on the closed world of the NFL professional. His aim was to show the everyday fan what it was really like to be part of a pro football team. He tossed passes with the quarterbacks, got roasted as a defensive back and hammered by the defensive linemen. He took part in the complex practice drills, and experienced the excitement, stresses and nerves as game time approached. In fact everything a genuine NFL rookie would go through. And it all culminated in an unlikely appearance at quarterback in an exhibition game.

Despite being written over 40 years ago, Paper Lion has aged remarkably well. You really get a feel for the tough, physical nature of the game and a flavour of what a unique and privileged experience it is, to be part of a professional sports organisation. Plimpton was mistaken for an Episcopalian Bishop when he arrived at camp, (there was a convention taking place at the same school complex) which nicely sets the comic tone for the book. A more unlikely football player you couldn't wish for. Despite this, thanks to untold amounts of enthusiasm and the good natured support of the players he produced a fantastic and at times very funny book.

Fancy a run-down of great war books? Look no further.

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