Sporting books that provide contrasting fare for Christmas

2012-12-15 00:00

HAUNTING nightmares and fond memories — that is the contrasting fare served up for Christmas this year by publishers Zebra Press.

Luke Alfred, the author of The Art of Losing, has taken on the uncomfortable task of unearthing the reasons why South African cricketers have consistently failed at the World Cup.

Peter Joyce, in contrast, has happily and without the angst compiled accounts of famous South African personalities and events in his 100 Memorable Sporting Moments.

And for something completely different, Jacana are the publishers of sports commentator Andy Capostagno’s Ystervarkrivier: A Slice of Life, which is a collection of short, amusing stories set in a fictional village somewhere in the Eastern Cape.

Capostagno, when he is not commentating on rugby and cricket for SuperSport, farms at Currys Post where he savours the lifestyle, but has a hands-off approach to any manual labour it might involve.

Cappy moved to South Africa from England exactly two decades ago and has drawn on his experiences in this country, a love of golf and his keen sense of observation to pen these delightful tales of life in this quirky village.

Most of the action in Ystervark­rivier (Porcupine River) centres on the church, the bottle store and the nine-hole golf course built by Harry Corkabya, a Yorkshireman. Wandering across this pastoral setting in post-apartheid South Africa are a number of curious characters who provide the colour and the humour, praying together, drinking together and competing against each other.

Well written in a relaxed style, this is an ideal Christmas read.

Peter Joyce has paged back through South African history, highlighting the country’s most famous sporting events from the turn of the 19th century to the 2012 London Olympics.

While rugby has produced many of the highs in South African sport, Joyce has covered a wide spectrum. There are chapters devoted to such famous locals as Comrades Marathon runner and Springbok rugby player Bill Payn, sailor Bruce Dalling and cricketer Jonty Rhodes.

The usual suspects are rounded up, among them Lucas Radebe, Barry Richards, Karen Muir, Penny Heyns, Zola Budd, Baby Jake Matlala, Jacques Kallis and Josiah Thugwane.

Joyce has not avoided the tragic and unsavoury moments with accounts of the death of 53 soccer fans at Ellis Park, Hansie Cronjé playing cricket for gold and the loss in 1988 of Durban boxer Brian Baronet.

But this book is a celebration of the golden moments right up to 2012, a particularly successful year for South Africans with the swimmers and rowers excelling at the Olympics, Ernie Els defying the odds in winning the Open and ending with the triumphant march of batsman Hashim Amla and the Proteas through England.

If you like your sport in small, tasty chunks, then you will enjoy 100 Memorable Sporting Moments.

On the other hand (as Naas would say), Luke Alfred’s The Art of Losing revives memories of darker times — disappointing defeat in six World Cups and four World T20 tournaments — as he attempts to find out just how South Africa have contrived to turn losing one-day tournaments into an art form.

Alfred went digging for reasons, interviewing many of the players and officials who were closely involved as the Proteas, on occasions the firm favourites and once as hosts, failed to reach even one of the six finals.

Disappointed supporters have disdainfully labelled them “a bunch of chokers”, yet the reasons for their failures vary from the rain in Sydney in 1992 and the misreading of the Duckworth-Lewis table at Kingsmead in 2003 to the most nightmarish of them all, the panicky mix-up between Lance Klusener and Allan Donald in England in 1999 when just one run was needed for a semi-final victory.

But there is also no doubt that the Proteas, crowded with all-rounders and world-class cricketers, have under-performed on the one-day stage.

Alfred, quoting Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell, examines the difference between choking (“thinking too much”) and panicking (“thinking too little”).

“Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct,” Gladwell says.

The offshoot is that teams and individuals are branded as panickers or chokers “and these tags act as self-fulfilling prophecies”.

Alfred wonders if South African cricketers have been more vulnerable because they have been raised in a culture of obedience rather than critical thinking. This is perpetuated by the school system with children not taught to solve their problems.

“Cricket is a sport that demands you confront your demons … The Proteas have historically failed to solve their problems or, conversely, they have tried to solve their problems in testing situations and have failed.”

Alfred has produced a thought-provoking, well-researched book with fresh anecdotes and insight.

A closing suggestion, but is there not an obvious sequel to this book? The Art of Winning, perhaps, with an analysis of the Proteas’ remarkable Test match record with victories (in proper cricket) all over the world — including two successive series wins in both England and Australia. How much easier and more pleasant it would be to talk to players about Test match heroics rather than one-day chokings. Just a thought.

• Ystervarkrivier: A Slice of Life by Andy Capostagno (Jacana, Johannesburg), R140.

• The Art of Losing by Luke Alfred (Zebra Press, Cape Town), R220.

• 100 Memorable Sporting Moments by Peter Joyce (Zebra Press, Cape Town), R195.

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