Last weekend, while re-reading Andre Agassi’s candid (and controversial) autobiography Open, I realized that barring a few, just how prosaic books by cricketers on themselves generally have been. Most read like a sanitized career update; an endless recount of matches and milestones. Such books can bore you to tears.
Agassi, among other things, talks freely about his experiments with drugs, insecurities when he started balding and his volatile love life till he found Steffi Graf. He also talks of his rivalry with Pete Sampras without any hint of false modesty or pride. The two great players just didn’t get along because they were contrasting personalities and that comes through without rancour.
When the promos of the book were put out before its release last year, I was cynical. I thought Open was a desperate attempt by a fading tennis player to cling on to stardom. But Agassi surprised me as much with his candour on his personal life as with his insights on life on the professional circuit.
The most admirable aspect of the autobiography is that Agassi is unsparing of himself. He has obviously squared up to his own follies and finds no reason to run away from admitting these. A small passage from the book on his relationship with his first wife, actor Brooke Shields, will illustrate what I mean.
“As Brooke (Shields) and I approach our two-year anniversary,” writes Agassi, “I decide that we should formalise our clinging. Two years is a meaningful benchmark in my love life. In every previous relationship, two years had been the make or break moment—and I’ve always chosen break. Every two years, I grow tired of the girl I am dating, or she grows tired of me, as if a timer goes off in my heart.’’
Of his tennis rivalries, Agassi talks of the “bow-legged” unknown German player Bernd Karbacher whose “ass is chapped”, and how “I leave him standing there like a Jehovah’s Witness on my doorstep”. The rasping style of his co-author J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer prize winner, enhances the reading pleasure of the book considerably, but I would imagine that the thoughts are all Agassi’s.
John McEnroe’s Serious (with James Kaplan) is another terrific book. Unlike the punchy prose and racy pace of Agassi’s book, McEnroe’s style is droll. He has an eye for detail and believe it or not, he can be self-deprecating too. Like Agassi, McEnroe does not camouflage either his disdain for fellow players like Jimmy Connors, or how celebrity-hood and experimenting with drugs led to his break-up with wife Tatum O’Neal.
Among other recent autobiographies which I found engrossing was Lance Amrstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, in which the multiple Tour de France winner discusses in depth and detail his fight against testicular cancer. It’s a gripping story of grit and a lesson not just in how to become a champion in sports, but also life.
In my list of all-time favourites, I must mention Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. There have been several books on the boxing legend; this one is simplistic, but engaging and thoroughly entertaining. I must here confess to some favouritism, for, Ali remains my greatest sports hero.
A cynical point of view says that an autobiography is the most respectable form of lying. May be. But from a reader’s point of view, autobiographies are welcome because they bring the subject up close and personal, or should.
Mundane, predictable stuff is the bane of such books. Is candour and openness a Yank thing? Or are cricketers generally more reticent about revealing their lives?
Two recent cricket autobiographies, Herschelle Gibbs’s To the Point and Henry Olonga’s Blood Sweat and Treason, are believed to have broken the mould and achieved some success, though for vastly differing reasons. I am yet to read either, so can’t discuss them with any authority, but reactions to them have been interesting.
The mercurial opening batsman Gibbs’s book stirred great publicity when it was released a few months back. When on tour, especially, it was as much sex, drugs and rock and roll as it was cricket for the Proteas, if Gibbs is to be believed. This has already cost Gibbs his contract with his board, so it can be said that his autobiography has had some impact even if critics have remained unimpressed.
Olonga’s book, from all accounts, seems the more compelling. The former Zimbabwean fast bowler, who fled to England after political differences with President Robert Mugabe, is now an evangelical singer based in England. During one of my commentary stints in 2007, I was on the same show with Olonga and found him to be extremely articulate and politically alive.
Considering that cricket, more than any other sport, has spawned so much literature, it must seem odd that there have been few great autobiographies (mind you there have been terrific biographies). It is always possible I may have missed something significant and if there is any reader who can direct me to such books, I will be obliged.
My wish list of players from the subcontinent whose no-holds barred autobiographies I’d like to read are Sourav Ganguly, Yuvraj Singh, Javed Miandad, Vivian Richards, Wasim Akram, Ravi Shastri, Mohammed Azharuddin and Salim Malik. Meanwhile, from what I’ve read and would recommend as starters for those embarking on the cricketing journey are:
a) Farewell to Cricket: Arguably the greatest player ever, Donald Bradman has an elephant’s memory and his prose is lucid, the issues he addresses still resonate. But don’t look for any salacious stuff.
b) Autobiography: You can pick any book by Neville Cardus for failproof delight, but this one’s special. How an illegitimate child went on to become possibly the finest writer on the game.
c) Life Worth Living: C.B. Fry was Ranjitsinhji’s contemporary at Cambridge and Sussex. Not merely a great cricketer, but a great all-round sportsman and a man in tune with the affairs of the world.
d) Sunny Days: A simple but evocative narrative of his early years in international cricket of one of India’s best-loved cricket sons, Sunil Gavaskar.
e) Tiger’s Tale: A stellar account by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who lost one eye in a car accident and yet played with distinction at the international level to become the youngest captain in the history of the game in 1962.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org