Paperbacks: Sport, by Tim Harris

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The Independent Culture

It is intriguing to speculate if the 2012 Olympics will repeat the innovation introduced in the London games of 1908 when the marathon was extended to 26 miles 385 yards so the Royal family could watch the start from the Windsor Castle nursery windows. Even those indifferent to the lure of sport will find surprising diversion in Harris's prodigious exploration of sporting quirks and oddities.

Did you know that baseball is mentioned in Northanger Abbey, that cigarette smoking was once common on cricket pitches (players were, however, advised not to puff on pipes) and that in the carriage races that preceded motor racing, a "pit-stop" of a full change of horses could be achieved in 48 seconds? Eschewing a tedious trudge from one sport to another, Harris divides his epic into eight offbeat themes from drugs and kit to sports reporting and rules ("Nice Guys Finish Seventh"). Among the tasty nuggets turned up by Harris's Stakanovite research is the reason for the third stump in cricket (Edward "Lumpy" Stevens "threaded" John Small's two-stump wicket three times in a match in 1775) and the origin of Cockspur Street in London (the location of specialist craftsmen associated with cockfighting). Many present-day cricketers seem to have taken to heart Harris's prefatory quotation from WG Grace: "Never read print. It spoils one's eye for the ball."