Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sportswriting Doesn't Suck: Gideon Haigh and Bill Simmons

Currently, my two favourite sportswriters - hell, probably two of my favourite writers of any inclination - are Melbournian cricket writer Gideon Haigh, and basketball/American sports/general pop culture writer Bill Simmons. I enjoy them both for quite different reasons though. Cricket is at heart a traditionalist's game, and Gideon Haigh is one himself to a large extent, though not one that is blind to the sweeping changes that are being wrought on this once amateur sport. The most recent book I picked up by him, 'Sphere of Influences', is fairly critical of the increasing commercialisation and proliferation of cricket, and the growing global control of the main Indian cricket authority, the BCCI. This commercialisation and control is best exemplified by the Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 league where franchises put in mammoth bids for the world's biggest sluggers, which Haigh worries will overtake Test cricket as the ultimate ambition for young cricketers. Still, he is more than just a nostalgic - Haigh very much sees a place for Test cricket within the future of the game, and constructively tries to outline what that place is - even if he is cynical about what the actual outcome will be. Apart from 'Sphere ...' I've read four other books by Haigh: 'The Green and Golden Age', 'Inside Out', 'All Out' (on the 2006-07 Ashes series), and the hilarious 'The Vincibles' (about his club cricket team, the Yarras). All of them are full of dry, memorable phrases and descriptions, for example: '[Damien] Martyn is one of those cricketers who renders the game so simple that you want to pluck up your bat with the cratered edges and start your career all over again'. One could say the same thing about Haigh: in a sportsworld full of hyperbole, cliches, tautologies, and irrationality, his writing is a refreshing breath of clarity, classicism, and simplicity.

Bill Simmons, by contrast, doesn't read like a classical writer at all. His most recent book 'The Book Of Basketball' encapsulates his writing is a oversized nutshell - it's bloated (something that Simmons notes on more than occasion within the book itself), and full of contradictions, half-baked theories, and pop culture references, both common and obscure. Simmons' moniker is The Sports Guy, and like an obsessed sports fan, he sometimes overthinks things to the point of absurdity (for example, his preview of the 2011 NBA All-Star Game). But it's also that very obsessiveness that makes his writing so absorbing; avid sports fans will recognise themselves in the gamut of emotions and irrational thoughts that Simmons catalogues. When I read 'Now I Can Die In Peace', his book about the long wait he endured for his beloved Boston Red Sox to win the World Series, I could relate to every page even though I knew very little about baseball. And his half-baked theories are entertaining to read about, such as his 'Ewing Theory' (the theory that the New York Knicks played better without their star Patrick Ewing), as well as the analogies he draws between pop culture and sport, for example his analogy between Oklahoma City Thunder stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and Avon and Stringer from 'The Wire'. Whenever there's a new Simmons NBA column, I have to drop everything and read it straight away; I may not agree with a lot of what is being said, but it's always a fun read nonetheless.

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