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Wed Apr 23 08:48:27 SAST 2014

The best Christmas books

Sunday Times | 11 December, 2011 02:030 Comments
Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

Views on Sophia Loren's cooking, Kamp Staaldraad, Chris Barnard, leopard crawling through the bush and plenty of nostalgia will make compelling holiday reading

My Journey by Victor Matfield (Random House Struik, R183)

THIS book spans Matfield's professional career and formative years.

When, for instance, he attended Noordskool (Pietersburg North Primary), he and his under-eight teammates hatched a plan to not shake the hands of opponents who had beaten them. His mom intervened and bent his ear (literally) before he returned to the field with lifelong sportsman-like conduct fully instilled.

Matfield briefly takes the reader through his exploits as a keen cricketer. He played for the Far North under-15 side. He did so again in grades 10, 11 and matric, but lamented his failure at not making Nuffield Week.

He earned distinctions in mathematics, science and accountancy in matric and also writes passionately about his enduring love for his wife, Monja, and their two daughters.

These are, however, side dishes to the main course - the controversies that raged at the Bulls and Springboks.

Matfield addresses the infamous Geo Cronje/Quinton Davids furore without fully rolling up his sleeves. Writes Matfield: " ... Geo Cronje and Quinton Davids would have to share (accommodation), even though Rudolf (Straeuli, the Bok coach) knew that Geo wasn't comfortable." Why not? Does Cronje dislike people without beards?

Later Matfield opines: " ... it wasn't unusual for the Afrikaans guys in the team to seek out one another's company, and the players of colour and the English-speaking guys did much the same." Fair enough, if you catch my drift. " ... so, is someone a racist if he prefers to spend time with his friends?"

More sugar coating follows when he writes: "It was a case of birds of a feather flock together." To which Davids could argue that those birds certainly stay in formation.

Those were tumultuous and wildly confusing times in Springbok rugby and paranoid coach Straeuli has to shoulder his share of the blame. Matfield suggests Straeuli tried to play mind games with the players. "I told Joost (van der Westhuizen) it wouldn't help us at all.

" ... it was ridiculous," Matfield wrote about Kamp Staaldraad. "Maybe it meant something to the other players but it did nothing for me.

"Team building is a good idea but there has to be a fun side to it as well. It can't only be about breaking down and punishing people. All of this happened just a few weeks before we were leaving for Australia, and I was really worried."

He speaks of his fractious relationship with Jake White, who told him to cut his hair and change his attitude. They later enjoyed a gloriously symbiotic relationship.

Matfield also recounts his bizarre first meeting with Peter de Villiers at George Airport, where De Villiers questioned him about his racial views.

My Journey is no compelling read but it will keep rugby buffs interested until the end. - Liam Del Carme

Jackers, a Life in Cricket by Robin Jackman with Colin Bryden (Don Nelson, R169.95)

MANY sporting biographies are mere repeats of matches played and successes achieved, which can lead to a tedious read.

The biography of cricket commentator Robin Jackman is not one of those.

From the foreword by legendary Ian Botham and the prologue that records a lunch "Jackers" had with his uncle, actor Patrick Cargill, where Sophia Loren did the cooking, the contents reveal the life and times of a man who enjoyed every moment of his cricket career, and also made friends with all the greats of the game.

The book is similar to a sporting classic, tennis player Gordon Forbes's best seller, A Handful of Summers. Jackman introduces the many celebrities he met along the way. Along with screen siren Loren were Charlie Chaplin, John Cleese, Elton John, Mick Jagger and Oliver Reed.

Reed often turned out in charity cricket matches under Jackman's captaincy and even requested a bouncer from fearsome West Indies fast bowler Sylvester Clarke. "Clarky" obliged, striking the famous actor in the midriff. Reed collapsed at the crease, but stood up almost immediately.

"That was great," said Reed with a huge grin. "Now I know what it feels like."

Jackman, however, skims over one of the more controversial parts of his life. He was banned from entering Guyana as part of the England team to the West Indies, causing the cancellation of the Georgetown test. Jackman's connections with white-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa were the reason, but the author fails to put it in any context. Was he an apartheid dupe? Did he understand the political dynamics at the time? Does he have any regrets?

The book highlights areas from his childhood to his 20-year first-class cricket career as well as his travels as a commentator. It's an entertaining read, but a little more depth might have added value. - Chumani Bambani

Challenging Beliefs: Memoirs of a Career by Tim Noakes with Michael Vlismas (Zebra, R220)

HIS is not a household name, but Tim Noakes's involvement in, and effect on, the SA sporting scene is legendary.

In this book, the co-founder of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa gives his views on everything from "myths perpetuated by the sports-drink industry and the dangers of overtraining and overdrinking, to the prevalence of banned substances and the need to make rugby a safer sport", as the press release goes.

While the science behind sport is conveyed in an interesting and simple way, it is the backdrops of the teams and athletes with whom he has worked, and his opinions on well- known South Africans that are fascinating.

Of Professor Chris Barnard, who inspired him to become a doctor, he writes: "Barnard in time became a special inspiration for me, even though I appreciated that his love of self made him less than he should have been. Born with a few different behavioural genes, he could have become, with Nelson Mandela, the greatest South African of all time."

He also provides a fascinating insight into the Springboks' unexpected 1995 World Cup win.

Attributing it to "old-fashioned values of faith, discipline and teamwork combined with supreme physical preparation and a clear understanding of the game plan", Noakes reveals how he faxed a speech to team manager Morne du Plessis the night before the first game against Australia.

The speech drew heavily on Winston Churchill's war-time speeches and Chariots of Fire.

Du Plessis gave the speech to coach Kitch Christie, who gave every Springbok a copy.

It began and ended: "There is a defining moment in each person's life when the true measure of who he is, is tested. Forever after he will be judged and, more importantly, he will judge himself on the basis of how he answered in that moment of truth. That moment in your lives has arrived ... Seize your moment of greatness so that future generations of South Africans may know that this was the finest hour in the long and distinguished annals of South African rugby. That when your moment of judgment came, you were not found wanting".

Noakes also writes about his involvement with the Proteas and pays tribute to former national coach Bob Woolmer, who died unexpectedly during the 2007 World Cup.

He reveals his friendship with incumbent national coach Gary Kirsten, whom he believes "is the one person who can fulfil Bob's legacy to South African cricket".

This is a book well worth reading, not only by South African sports fanatics, but by those interested in extraordinary people - of whom Noakes is undoubtedly one. - Lee-Ann Alfreds

Butch by Butch James (Highbury House Safika, R158)

"A FASCINATING story, holding nothing back in his tell-all autobiography," this one's promotional bumf suggests.

The fact is that it is not nearly as hard-hitting as his tackles, but then again, James has set the bar pretty high in that department. Speaking of which, James seeks to set the record straight, arguing he was generally above board when grappling with the ball carrier. He also tackles his rumoured cocaine abuse.

The reader quickly gains an insight into his relaxed attitude. "As a Bok No10 you have enough to worry about without getting involved in stuff you have no control over," he wrote about rugby's many boardroom dramas.

He was a teammate of Luke Watson at Bath, which means his opinion of the flanker is different from the commonly-held one.

"I found myself feeling sorry for Luke. He never held a gun to anyone's head to make them select him and in a way was also the victim of processes he had no control over."

Of course, Bok coach Peter de Villiers gets a mention. "Peter leaned on the senior players and took their suggestions on board to get the ship sailing."

De Villiers' unpredictability was soon apparent after James was called up for the first time. "He'd made no secret that Peter Grant (Bash) was his first-choice flyhalf. He ran Bash in the starting line-up after I arrived and continued to do so for the first few practices before suddenly making a U-turn and telling me I was going to be the No10 in the run-on team."

He also shares the odd gem, like when lions feeding on a buffalo carcass interrupted Gary Kirsten's pep talk to the Bok squad in the Kruger Park before the World Cup. "The noise was so loud as the animals sorted each other out and enjoyed their feed that Gary had no choice but to stop talking."

Later. "The ranger shone his spotlight and there was Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn and Heinrich Brussow leopard crawling through the bush ... trying to stalk the lions."

Priceless. - Liam del Carme

More than Rugby by Pierre Spies with Myan Subrayan (Penguin, R160)

ARGUABLY the most explosive and powerful loose forward South Africa - and perhaps the world - has ever seen, Pierre Spies, tells all in this biography.

He tells of his unwavering faith, family, sporting achievements and the bumps in the road on his way to the top .

The young man describes the heartache of a boy going through his parents' divorce, becoming the man of the house to his mom and two sisters, and the death of his dad - a damn fine wing for the Blue Bulls in the old days and his "hero, idol, mentor and best friend" - which got him back on to the path from which he had strayed.

You will learn how he looked up to Springbok greats such as Victor Matfield, who writes the book's foreword, and how they inspired him in his early years at the Bulls after some tough times.

The book includes personal pictures of Spies out on the field and track, and of family and friends. There are also contributions by Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana and Juan Smith.

But the most interesting part is his account of being "gutted" by the news that he would not be going to the 2007 World Cup in France after being diagnosed with blood clots on his lungs - and more importantly, that it was life threatening. He explains how he came to terms with the diagnosis and the allegations of steroid use and got on the road to recovery after he was told he shouldn't play rugby again.

For the more sentimental, he tells of meeting the love of his life, Juanne, their engagement and marriage.

Included are numerous quotes, and extracts from the scriptures that relate to the appropriate topic. - Craig Shelver

A Last English Summer by Duncan Hamilton (Quercus, R179)

HAMILTON is an award-winning English sports journalist who first gained prominence for a fine book on former Nottingham Forest and Leeds United football manager, the temperamentally larger-than-life Brian Clough. His second book was a revisionist account of Harold Larwood, the English fast bowler, and his role in the infamous Bodyline Series under Douglas Jardine in 1933.

His third is a departure from the first two, in that it is the story of a season rather than a person. The season is the cricket summer of 2009 and Hamilton writes of it with a gently nostalgic tone entirely appropriate for a cricket book. The literary precursor for Hamilton's book is the English journalist JB Priestley's travels through depression-torn England in the 1930s, An English Journey. The wellsprings are also more personal: Hamilton's love of cricket was inspired by his grandfather, the old man having been rendered deaf by his role in the Great War. As a boy, Hamilton stuttered. The two were united in disability - and their common love.

Priestley started his book at Southampton, while Hamilton starts his in Durham in still-cold April. There follow journeys to London and Leicester, Nottingham and Swansea as well as to a Lancashire League game at Acre Bottom, between Ramsbottom and Accrington.

The purpose of Hamilton's navigations is to experience cricket culture in an Ashes summer. He writes about it thoughtfully, lovingly, a little cloyingly - there is sometimes a little too much cream on the scone of his sentences. Still, there are some lovely passages and chapters, the section on Sir Learie Constantine playing league cricket for Nelson in 1929 being one of my favourites, another being his description of Sir Richard Hadlee's time at Notts. "He bowled with the control of a diamond cutter," writes Hamilton.

Constantine, writes Hamilton of league cricket's Golden Age, "transformed the league in the way that the first Gold rush pioneers transformed the dusty American West. The league became what Constantine made it".

What Hamilton finds on his travels is for the reader to discover but the joy of the book is in its elegiac tone; it's love of a special game and the undertow of pathos provided by Hamilton's confession that he loved his grandad because the 2009 season was, of course, not one Hamilton's grandad lived to see. - Luke Alfred

Sticky Wicket - Inside Ten Turbulent Years at the Top of World Cricket by Malcolm Speed

TOWARDS the end of his eight-year stint as the CEO of the ICC, Malcolm Speed was widely despised. The organisation for which he provided the most recognisable face continued to sink in the estimation of cricket fans as the ICC oversaw a disastrous 2007 World Cup and increasingly bowed to the might of India.

The Indian issue came to a head in early 2008, when the ICC's kowtowing to the Indian board appeared to reach new lows as umpire Steve Bucknor was withdrawn from duty by Speed following the infamous Monkeygate scandal in Sydney.

The episode forms the opening chapter of the book with Speed insisting pragmatism, not the BCCI, was behind the decision, as he explains the behind-the-scenes processes involved. The rest of the book is not dissimilar, but it would be unfair to label this a long excuse for the ICC's actions during his tenure.

Rather, the Australian gives us his viewpoints on a series of major issues and makes no apologies for having unpopular opinions on certain matters.

His insight into what the position actually entailed in some ways draws sympathy.

While the CEO sets the agenda of ICC meetings and brings crucial facts to the boardroom's attention, his intentions are often snuffed out by clandestine meetings in the bar at which secret deals are made between the heads of member nations.

Speed accepts the difficulties the position brought, and even seems to relish that he was burned in effigy on several occasions. He deals with the issues that plagued his term, and isn't afraid to name names or publish his correspondence.

The chapters on the "Mike Denness affair" and the 2003 World Cup make interesting reading, while Speed also describes an entertaining meeting with Allen Stanford in Johannesburg during the 2007 World Twenty20. By the time he has dealt with the fallout with Ray Mali, his honesty has restored much of his credit and illuminated an often murky organisation's dealings. - Tristan Holme

  • This book is available on the Internet
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