Runners and writers: the five shortlisted for the 1999 William Hill Book of the Year

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King of the World by David Remnick(Picador, £14.99 hardback)

King of the World by David Remnick(Picador, £14.99 hardback)

It is not the author's intention, but this examination of what is regarded as a golden era for boxing (the early 1960s) is ultimately a sad one.

The former world heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, is characterised as a frightened scrapper, hardly surprising after the terrifying legal assault he was subjected to at the hands of Sonny Liston; meanwhile, "the big ugly bear" as the then Cassius Clay referred to Liston, was locked in the unforgiving knuckles of The Mob; and then there was Clay, later to become Muhammad Ali, a genius in body and mind who would end the millennium with both in some jeopardy. These men, you remember, are supposed to be the winners.

David Remnick depicts Ali in the days when he almost made you believe in the great boxing falsehood; that this is an art or application wherein a man can hit but not be hit, the sweet science.

As Remnick points out, these preliminary deeds of Ali are irrelevant to anyone under 40 but they are re-lived to a background featuring some of the 1960's pivotal figures - John F Kennedy, Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad - and events - Vietnam, civil rights and political assassinations.

Ali's cruel affliction is emphasised by the eloquence of his glittering early years: "I won't retire from boxing with cuts, cauliflower ears and a busted nose. I'll leave physically intact, just as I am now. I will do that because my style protects me from cuts and injuries."

There is a brief audience with the Ali of today because that is all he can manage now. Better to remember him in better times when the world was his.

Richard Edmondson

Playground of the Gods By Ian Stafford (Mainstream, £15.99 hardback)

If Nothing else, Ian Stafford has guaranteed himself an alternative career should he cease to be fulfilled by his present life as a prolific sports writer. The powers of persuasion utilised in bringing this book to fruition suggest politics at the very least and the mayorship of London, should he favour something of the white-knuckle variety.

His basic concept was brilliant: frustrated fan-writer, facing up to life at 35, decides that sporting greatness is destined never to come his way.

Plan B: ask some of the world's leading sportsmen to allow him to compete with them and record his adventures. Astonishingly, he persuaded the unpersuadable and spent the best part of a year challenging the best in football, squash, running, rugby union, rowing, cricket and boxing.

He travelled the world - from carnival-time in Rio, where he trained with the Flamengo team, including the Brazilian superstar Romario, to a (literally) blood-curdling three-round fight with the world light-heavyweight champion, Roy Jones Jnr, in Florida.

Another lowlight in our hero's sporting quest found him on the north-west frontier of Pakistan with Jansher Khan, the greatest player in squash history. Here, Stafford was promoted as the British champion and the local media turned out to watch his annihilation at the hands of the Great Khan.

The book is awash in equal number with the author's valiant efforts and his sporting injuries, from sprained ligaments and muscle tears, to calluses on hands and blisters on buttocks; and that list does not include the catalogue provided by Roy Jones Jnr.

Long after the royalties are spent, Stafford's scars will provide happy memories of his year with the gods.

Len Gould

Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties By Mike Marqusee(Verso, £17 hardback)

"I DON'T have to be what you want me to be." As Mike Marqusee writes, it could almost be a line from Bob Dylan. Uttered after he had beaten Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title, those words thrust Cassius Clay into the vanguard of the march on the establishment that the 1960's tried so hard to be.

Before long Clay had become Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam's icon and cash cow. Marqusee places his life and career firmly in the context of the emerging radical politics that convulsed the decade. His focus is wide-ranging, with lengthy and absorbing passages on figures such as Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson, Marcus Garvey and above all Malcolm X, the friend he ultimately turned his back on.

The soundtrack is another friend, Sam Cooke, who secretly supported the Nation of Islam, and Dylan, whose free-wheelin' journey from the political to the personal is woven into Ali's story. Ali paid a high price for his ideas, downtrodden by white authority on one side, exploited and controlled by the Nation on the other. Marqusee ends with the "Rumble in the Jungle", which launched the career of Don King - a fitting end to what could be a depressing tale.

That it is not is thanks to Marqusee's brisk style, which only occasionally has to support an overblown judgement. To be truthful, there is not much boxing in there. But this is a fascinating account of an extraordinary man in momentous times.

Chris Maume

The Miracle of Castel Di SangroBy Joe McGinniss(Little, Brown, £16.99 hardback)

Unlikely though it seems, the year's best football book is the work of a fiftysomething American who only discovered the beautiful game when the World Cup hit the United States in 1994. But veteran writer McGinniss is a genuine sports nut, and the transfer of his affections to the hapless hopefuls of Castel Di Sangro makes perfect sense. After all, it is no stranger than a village side from the isolated mountains of Abruzzo making it to the heady heights of Serie B, duking it out with giants such as Torino and Genoa.

McGinniss spent a season living in the little town, with the intention of penning an account of the team's struggle to achieve la salvezza - avoiding relegation - yet he couldn't possibly have expected the human drama which unfolded. The 1996-97 season saw the tragic deaths of two players, the arrest of a defender in connection with a cocaine smuggling ring, the unveiling of a new player which turned out to be a publicity stunt (or, being kind, a performance art piece) organised by the attention-seeking chairman, and, mercifully, some remarkable performances from the team described by a newspaper as possessing "the legs of pianos, but the hearts of lions".

The pedantic will query the author's knowledge, yet the hearty Yankee is acutely aware of the absurd figure he casts, berating the coach for his selections and forever failing to control his emotions. Though ostensibly about football, it's really a classic about cultures colliding, as this American comes to realise just why he can never become an Italian.

Steve Jelbert

A Social History of English CricketBy Derek Birley(AurumPress, £20 hardback)

The overwhelming feeling from reading this exhaustively and exhaustingly detailed book is that not much has changed. Money troubles and stifling conservatism have all been part of the sport since the beginning.

Cricket has always been a pauper relative to football, for example. The 1898 Wisden reported that Derby County FC took more in one game than Derbyshire in a whole season. The distinction between professionals and amateurs was a nonsense: for the tour to Australia in the winter of 1863-64, the Players were paid £250 plus expenses. The only Gentleman on the trip, E M Grace, brother of the more famous, received £500 expenses.

Nostalgia has also been an ever present. In 1774, the Morning Chronicle wrote: "Cricket has too long been perverted from diversion and innocent pastime to excessive gaming and public dissipation."

But then gambling kick-started the game, with sums waged worth £500,000 today, and there is a rich array of stories that underline the colourful venality that has always accompanied the snobbery.

Reactionaries have always been in control, too. It took decades to change the rules to allow over-arm bowling and even longer to get rid of the Gentleman/Player distinction, where the game had to be virtually dead on its feet for the spectator-friendly "truncated, mutilated version" that was limited-overs cricket to be introduced.

Birley is optimistic about the future of the game, with all its "infinite variety", and he has lavished much love on this book. It is a long haul, though - expect to spend an extended session at the crease.

Chris Maume