Christmas Books Special: Sport books reviewed

Ashes and dust-ups on and off the pitch
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The Independent Culture

This year we have been privileged to enjoy one of the great sporting contests. Once the England cricket team had beaten Australia and the Ashes were secured, the real competition began - the race to get those crucial last chapters tagged on to otherwise completed books. The players were all perceived as national heroes, naturally, but Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff was the only one to attain the status of national treasure. Though his autobiography Being Freddie (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) doesn't really rise to the immensity of the occasion - how could it, given the immensity? - it does provide an agreeable stroll through his life and career.

Like so many athletes, Flintoff is something of a split personality: there's the extravagantly talented all-rounder, and the fun-loving Lancashire lad with the party-animal potential. Both are on show as his story progresses from the hard times, with weight problems and a bad back, to this all-conquering summer. Michael Vaughan's Calling The Shots (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) has a reasonable stab at conveying something of the England captain's lot. The mystery of captaincy, according to Vaughan, is that there isn't one. Instinctive rather than cerebral, he even admits to allowing Marcus Trescothick and Graham Thorpe to take the helm for a while during games.

While neither Flintoff nor Vaughan is interested in courting controversy, the England coach Duncan Fletcher is happy to step into that breach. In Ashes Regained, (Simon & Schuster, £12.99) the Zimbabwean mounts a spirited fightback, for example, against Australian complaints during the Test at Trent Bridge about his use of substitute fielders. "I smiled at Trent Bridge," he writes. "Yes, those of you who consider me the grumpiest man on the planet might require me to repeat that. I smiled."

In Ashes Victory (Orion, £17.99) everyone gets their say. Copyrighted to The England Cricket Team, it is among the best of the bunch at describing the ebb and flow of the series. But as cute lines like the one about Australia crying "Havoc!" and letting slip the dogs of Warne demonstrate, a team of writers has been beavering away, so the project has a slightly dishonest feel. The best written of post-Ashes books must be Battle for the Ashes (Ebury Press, £14.99) by David Frith, while Gideon Haigh's fine reports from the Guardian are collected in Ashes 2005 (Aurum, £9.99).

Gavin Henson's My Grand Slam Year (HarperSport, £18.99) neatly demonstrates the trouble sporting memoirs can heap on their authors. After caustic verdicts about his Wales rugby team-mates, he was forced to apologise to the entire squad. Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward, and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell, must have been dismayed at Henson's account of how they mismanaged the dismally unsuccessful summer tour.

A million miles and several decades away is one of the most deserving William Hill Sports Book of the Year winners in the award's history. Gary Imlach's My Father and other Working-Class Football Heroes (Yellow Jersey, £15.99) tells the story of the TV presenter's realisation, when his father died, that he hardly knew the man, and his attempts to build a picture of his life and times. Stewart Imlach played when footballers were popular heroes, but also wage slaves. His son's account is intensely evocative of what was supposed to be a golden era, while the pursuit gives the book a melancholic streak that takes it beyond the ambit of most sports writing. For this reviewer, it was indeed the book of the year.

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