Sunday, November 22, 2015

Norman Harris, one of New Zealand's great sportswriters

Sad to learn today of the death of New Zealand-born athletics writer Norman Harris.

Harris, 75, recorded the heady days of the Peter Snell-Murray Halberg era of New Zealand athletics' golden years in a level of sportswriting that has seldom been matched.

He emigrated to Britain in the late-1960s and worked for The Sunday Times.

During his time in New Zealand he contributed a significant collection of books on athletics.

Two of his earliest efforts were: Lap of Honour (published 1963), recording some of the less well known feats of athletics involving New Zealanders, and The Legend of Lovelock (1964), the first published biography of New Zealand's first Olympic Games athletics gold medalist, Jack Lovelock

It was in Lap of Honour that athletes like miler Randolph Rose from the 1920s, Bill Savidan, the winner of a thrilling six miles at the first Empire Games in 1930, and the three-mile/six-mile double winner at the third Empire Games in Sydney, Cecil Matthews, were brought to life for a new generation of sports fans who may never otherwise have known of the feats of these athletes.

But the list didn't stop there: Stan Lay's javelin throwing, Doreen Lumley's sprinting and Doug Harris' half-mile running were described.

And the Olympic Games feats of Lovelock, long jumper extraordinaire Yvette Williams and road walker Norman Read are also feature along with the products of the Lydiard school of middle and distance running that Harris knew so intimately: Halberg, Snell, Ray Puckett and Barry Magee.

The Legend of Lovelock made use of Lovelock's extensive diaries and scrapbooks at Timaru Boys' High School and added to the rich literature surrounding New Zealand's athletics champions.

Along the way he found time to produce some superb booklets which outlined more achievements of other Empire and Olympic Games competitors. These were the Silver Fern series: Silver Fern in Perth (1962), Silver Fern in Tokyo (1964), Silver Fern in Europe (1965) and Silver Fern in Kingston (1966). A record of the 1963 season was described as a New Zealand Athletics Almanack but it was really Silver Fern in 1963 in literary drag.

Of these publications it is not only track and field that is described but cycling, weight-lifting, fencing, rowing at al.

In his Kingston British Empire and Commonwealth Games effort, his description of Peter Welsh's brilliant win in the 3000m steeplechase still stacks up. What a shame film no longer seems to be available of this race. It was one of the classics when a medical student from Otago University took on the guns of the distance and blew them apart in the greatest race of his career.
Harris also described the success of the forgotten miler, the man who gets left off all the lists of New Zealanders to have succeeded in middle-distance events, Ian Studd, the bronze medalist in the mile in Jamaica.

His Silver Fern in Europe is notable for the way in which he recorded the decline of Snell who suffered a series of defeats that eventually led to his retirement. But there was also a superb description of a race involving the man he would eventually make the subject of a full book, Neville Scott, the alcoholic three-mile runner who never achieved the sort of fame that could have been his.

Harris also combined with legendary Australian distance runner Ron Clarke to write The Lonely Breed which took the Lap of Honour approach and applied it to world athletics. His description of the Modesto clash between Snell and American upstart Jim Beatty in 1963 is another fine example of Harris' abilities.

But athletics was not his only forte.

He wrote books about soccer's Charlton Brothers, Bobby and Jack, and also about New Zealanders who had made it overseas in The Fly Away People. He also wrote cricket and a small paperback, Cricket's Greatest Matches was one effort, and a description of the Johannesburg Test match involving the famous Boxing Day/Tangiwai train disaster story of Bob Blair was another recent book.

He latterly returned to his New Zealand origins to write Beyond Cook's Gardens, the scene of Peter Snell's first four-minute mile on New Zealand soil, which also happened to break Herb Elliott's world record of 3min54.5s.

And amongst it all was a tale of his own efforts to make it, firstly as a runner, only to be cut down by an Achilles tendon snap, and then his bid to make it is a cyclist, in his Champion of Nothing.

There is no doubt that Norman Harris was the greatest single influence in my becoming so involved in sports history, and sports writing. We did meet, a few summers back, courtesy of Dr Graeme Woodfield, the writer of Jack Lovelock, Athlete and Doctor. It was nice to be able to thank him for the role he played in helping me choose an immensely satisfying career.

May future generations of young sports fans be similarly fortunate in finding such positive direction in pursuit of their interests.

Vale Norman Harris.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dogged Jennings has had his reward

Sports Classics Review No. 2

Second-hand book sales can be wonderful things. They are marvellous for offering up books that when they first came out didn't really grab the attention.

That's not so much for what they contained but money tended to be spent on more urgent reads.

But it was great at a recent sale in Auckland to pick up a copy of Andrew Jennings' FOUL! The secret world of Fifa.

It was especially timely after all that has happened this year with the legal action against many of the subjects outlined in this 2006 book by Jennings. His book follows an earlier assessment of Fifa by David Yallop, How they stole the game which concentrated on the earlier escapades of Havelange.

The on-going hunt for Fifa scalps has been a pre-occupation for Jennings in recent times, following his similar work against the International Olympic Committee, especially the disgraceful fascist Samaranch who, like his soccer counterparts Havelange and Blatter, was at the helm of his organisation when television rights suddenly made a significant difference to the amount of money their games were worth.

How fascinating it would be if Jennings were to turn his attentions on the mafia who now run world cricket – but that's another story.

Jennings' contacts provided him with plenty of meaty material, of such a nature that there could be little doubt of its authenticity. The fact that Blatter, in particular, proved so dismissive of his pointed questioning reveals just how close to the truth Jennings was.

It is the way that power corrupts that annoys most when reading this book. Here we have a game that is being ripped off by its senior administrators whose only real goal, pardon the pun, in life should be ensuring the advancement of their sport.

Instead it is their own puffed up advancement that is important to them. Especially horrific is the tale of West Indian manipulator Jack Warner and his Concacaf cronies, including the clearly despicable American Chuck Blazer, and how they rigged a leadership vote.

They ensured Haiti's delegate to Fifa was not allowed to board a plane from Port au Prince on the order of the country's Secretary for Sport. He had committed no crime. He was heading to Fifa to vote in the presidential race. In his place Warner arranged for the girlfriend of Jamaica's football president Horace Burrell to stand in and put Haiti's vote to their preferred option, Blatter.

Yet, in spite of the subterfuge, not one voice of protest was raised by those in Concacaf's lobby about the fix.

Blazer, of course, was convicted of bribery, tax evasion and money laundering charges in the US and worked undercover with prosecutors to effect the arrests made earlier this year. Fifa has subsequently banned him from all football-related activity for life.

So many similar instances of corruption are spread through the tale that the only surprise is that it took prosecutors, American ones at that, so long to act. It doesn't say a lot for the Swiss legal system that such corruption was allowed to occur.

But, whatever, action is now underway and for that reason Jennings can be extremely satisfied that he had played such a big role in the fight.

More will still be coming out in the future but to get some sort of idea of the machinations behind it all, the deceit, the lack of disclosure and the corruption, Jennings' book is well worth a read.

England rugby faces a long haul back

It's official – Eddie Jones' appointment has completed what has long been suspected – England Rugby have run out of ideas.

It shouldn't be a surprise. It's the same in most other aspects of their sport, and possibly even their commercial and other fields.

The country that gave the world many of their competitive sports while spreading their Empire around the world has admitted defeat. They can't do it on their own.

So what are we going to see?

Will we see a distinctive England style of rugby, a style capable of putting the good old red rose back where it belongs? Hardly.

Will we see an England united to the point where it sweeps all before it in an on-going demonstration of dominance such as the All Blacks have just completed? Unlikely.

Will England's players suddenly unleash skills, consistently and for 80 minutes, that have hitherto lain dormant allowing them to overcome all odds and enjoy a sustained period of success? Difficult to believe.


England is like South Africa. Its internal politics always let it down when it comes to the crunch.

Consider what happened to the Springboks this year, and every time they get to a vital stage of their season.

Someone with a political axe to grind emerges from the woodwork to claim race quotas are not being met and there needs to be some action to ensure they are.

It's a constant weight on their game and can't help but cause destabilisation in their side. Japan's win over South Africa this year is a classic example of that.

England are no different. They can't get their team together long enough to understand what their requirements are. What a waste of time and money it was sending their team to the high altitude of Colorado to supercharge their fitness for their campaign.

Who is advising them of this sort of rubbish? Where was the All Blacks' need for high altitude training? Where did Australia have their pre-tournament time together? At Notre Dame, slap bang in the middle of the American prairie, no altitude training there.

And then there are their clubs. It's a situation tailor-made for disaster, just like their football, just like their cricket.

In reality Wales, Ireland and Scotland are little better.

With the introduction of professional leagues, there are any number of chances for home-grown coaches to learn in the white-hot atmosphere those competitions generate.

But it is clear something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Why have none of these countries developed and sustained a coaching pyramid?

Is it down to interference from administrators and board members who think they know best?

That has to be suspected. It's all about results, yet it isn't.

How can you achieve success when everyone is sticking their oar in?

All of this without even starting to think about the role of their media in this whole charade – that's completely another story.

Sympathy has to be extended to those coaches who are being denied their right to learn at the highest levels for the betterment of the game in their regions.

Sport should be an expression of the culture of the team playing whatever game is involved just as the All Blacks represent the New Zealand style, and Brazil represent the style and flair of their country, and as the basketballing dream teams of the United States represent all that is glitz and glamour of their country.

Sadly, Home Nations rugby is doomed to be only a variation on a theme, a Southern Hemisphere theme.

What a World Cup it will be when the world's top nations come together and play rugby that best represents their respective countries. That would be the greatest World Cup of all.

But clearly it is going to be a long time coming.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bodyline - What it was all about

Sports Classics Review No. 1

Possibly given what New Zealand's batsmen are going to face in the second Test in Perth it is worth looking at the fast bowling phenomenon that was 'Bodyline'.

Missing until recently from my cricket library was a copy of David Frith's Bodyline Autopsy that is surely the definitive book on the controversy that threatened relations between Australia and England in the summer of 1932-33.

What gives Frith's treatment an advantage is the benefit of time. One of the finest books by one of the participants was undoubtedly Jack Fingleton's Cricket Crisis. It had some distance between the events of those days and publication, but Frith has been able to draw on a much more extensive resource base to weave his story.

His account is largely chronological but it has a context that makes it a fascinating look into the events.

Bodyline was the method of bowling deemed appropriate to deal with the scourge of all bowlers of the era, Don Bradman.

The villain of the piece, England's captain for the Ashes tour to Australia, Douglas Jardine had exclaimed while watching film of the 1930 Ashes Test at The Oval where Bradman struggled with a damp pitch, "I've got it! He's yellow!" And he wasn't referring to the one-day uniform so common in the modern day.

He believed Bradman was afraid. Hence the development of the leg-theory that would be labelled 'Bodyline', the result of a newspaper reference by former Australian batsman and AFL footballer John Worrall to Bill Voce's 'half-pitched slingers on the body line'.

Jardine developed an armoury capable of meeting his tactical requirement, the Nottinghamshire bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, backed by the slower but accurate Bill Bowes.

Bradman said from Canada, where he was touring, when the England team was named that an 'avalanche of bumpers' would be on the menu for the Australian batsmen. What he didn't foresee was the packed leg-side field to cope with the chances that would come their way.

Jardine hadn't played in the 1930 Test where Bradman was seen to be troubled, but he soon found out about it and had a meeting with Larwood, Voce and their Nottinghamshire captain A W Carr to discuss possible tactics.

Larwood later wrote that Jardine asked him if he could bowl leg stump and make the ball come into the body forcing Bradman to play to leg. Larwood said he could.

The stage was set for two supreme contenders, Bradman with the bat and Larwood with the ball, to go at it.

What followed occupies much of Frith's tale, augmented by contemporary and subsequence observations by participants and journalists. It is woven into a fine tale not confined to the pitch, but to the halls of power in both countries as diplomatic skills are required to resolve the situation.

Jardine in the end got his way and secured the Ashes, but at what cost? For whatever reason the main contenders from the England side, Jardine and Larwood played very little cricket in the future.

Hovering, sometimes in the foreground and often in the background, was one of the team's two managers Pelham Warner, whose place in the whole affair had an aspect of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

The postscript is almost as intriguing as the on-field action and lends a completeness to the story as Frith follows the story to the end.

Was Bodyline a success? Well England won the Ashes for the short-term success but in the longer term it would have to be said that Australia's fury at the tactic made life easier for their players. And Bradman still finished second in the averages for both teams at 56.57 while his strike rate of 74.85 was still superior to all the other recognised batsmen in the series.

What is a success is Frith's treatment and a book worthy of a place in any sports library.