Reviewed by Gerard Healy
Veteran journalists Ian Heads and Norman Tasker have put together a collection of stories from their years covering sport (mainly Rugby League, Union and cricket). Boxing, horse racing, swimming and athletics stories get a jersey as well but the AFL is on the reserves bench. While women in sport get a chapter, some other sports (e.g. soccer & golf) miss out.
One of the central themes of the book is the effect that big money has had on sport. The writers were on the spot when first, World Series Cricket and later Super League, shook up the worlds of cricket and football respectively. They acknowledge that improved TV coverage and a fairer monetary reward for top athletes followed these revolutions, but they have their reservations. Intense pressure to win and bundles of cash have put stress on the olden-day values of fairness that previous champions like Rod Laver, Betty Cuthbert and John Landy demonstrated so admirably.
Heads and Tasker grew up in an era when top players usually played hard but fair and also held down a job. The press and players also had a more open relationship in less complex times, so their viewpoint is that those times were often better. This puts a nostalgic tinge on some stories.
Reporting sport also throws a light on a range of social, cultural and political issues as well. Don Bradman’s peers would meet in Adelaide after the war to catch up. They held him in awe as a batsman, but found him to be a complex personality as well (p 315). It also emerged that religious divisions crept into the teams of the 1930s.
A more recent story of coming out by the footballer Ian Roberts highlighted the courage needed to break through strong barriers (p 197). The old journos have a lot of respect for Roberts and Ian Thorpe for doing so.
The political tie to sport is long-running and, among other events, Heads and Tasker covered the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1969 Wallaby tour to South Africa. The racism they encountered in the republic was invidious (p 204) and the subsequent actions of some players boycotting the return tour in 1971 earned Nelson Mandela’s respect. Older readers may remember Bjelke-Petersen’s state of emergency here in Queensland.
The book features some real characters. On the 1951 tour, the French goal-kicking ace Puig Albert didn’t see tackling as his job, even though he was the fullback! (p 302). Souths John O’Neill arrived late for a tackle and was penalized. ”But I got here as fast as I could,” he told the ref. The same ref had an interesting exchange with the publican at a local watering-hole after a very tough Townsville match (p 191). Then there was the wily old horse trainer in Charleville, who pulled off a scam involving the four-furlong post (p 164).
Another positive of the book was the insight into their early days in journalism in the late 1950s, early 60s. One example: the story of an 18-year-old Norm Tasker being told to phone the Australian and NSW captain Richie Benaud at his home to get his views on the day’s play. Richie’s helpful response to this young reporter marked him out as a class act (p 46). Generally, there was a healthy level of trust between players and the press, well-represented by Ian Chappell’s story from the 1972 tour of England (p x).
Writing of great players, who was the greatest of them all? Heads and Tasker have seen many, but they single out a couple from cricket and football that will start a lively discussion at the pub (p 343).
One negative was the way that some of the stories meandered down memory lane, in the company of a former champ, without actually delivering any real gems. A train trip with Clive Churchill is one example (p 328). Perhaps the old, what happens on tour, stays on tour line was taken too seriously or were the lawyers limbering up on the sidelines?
I’d give this book a qualified thumbs up – there are some great stories in here but you have to dig a little to find them. It’s like a drawn cricket test with the occasional flash of bright play to enliven things.
Ian Heads is a well-respected journalist, author and historian who has written or co-authored more than 40 books with the likes of Mark Taylor, Arthur Beetson and Des Renford. He has also written a history of Australian sport (since 1788) and the game of Rugby League.
Norman Tasker is a 60-year veteran of the sports-writing craft. He’s made many tours with Australian cricket and rugby teams and was editor of Rugby League Week and Inside Edge magazines. He has written 13 books, including four with Alan McGilvray.
Great Australian Sporting Stories
by Ian Heads and Norman Tasker
Pan Macmillan Australia
400 pp; $34.99