Sports books for Christmas: From Ranji to the romantic epic of winning the Ashes

England's sensational summer of cricket will not have a long shelf life but reissued bargain is worth a look. David Llewellyn samples the festive fare
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The Independent Culture

According to a recent report, cricket books have outsold all other sports books in the last year. That is not really surprising, given that they number chronicles of the Ashes triumph and Freddie Flintoff's life story among them.

Of course, that does not mean to say that they are all great. In fact, some of them are downright dull, boring and poorly written.

But if the buying public is in any way discerning then cricket books will stay top of the sales lists over the next few months, especially if they are as superbly researched and as well written as Ranji - The Strange Genius of Ranjitsinhji By Simon Wilde (Aurum, £7.99).

The fact that it is a reprint six years after first appearing in bookshops is testament to the high regard in which the publishers hold this work. And at this price it represents a bargain.

The key thing about this book is that, having assembled a mountainous range of facts and figures about Ranji, Wilde uses them to blow away the smokescreen that had distorted the life story of one of the game's most fascinating of characters, and he proceeds, in shining prose, to shatter a few illusions.

The myth and mystique in which Ranji himself encouraged previous authors to cloak his background is torn off to uncover a less than perfect hero. Wilde's revelations of the man off the field will have some of the game's most passionate romantics cleaning their rose-tinted spectacles in disbelief.

But even Wilde, who had unprecedented access to archives that had been denied, or perhaps not sought by the three previous authors, does not want to leave his readers with a tarnished image of one of the greats of the game's golden age, and in the end you are asked to remember the on-field Ranji rather than the one who is hauled out of his shadowy other world.

If only all the cricket books that hit the open market in the last year were as well written. Of course, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2005 (John Wisden, £36) runs as near perfection as it is possible to do, but the Ashes victory spawned a welter of sub-standard items, most dashed off on the hoof, one even compiled by an author who failed to attend a single day of the historic series.

At least Being Freddie by Andrew Flintoff (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) can supply some decent eye witness accounts of the triumph over the Aussies, and it also reveals a fair bit about Freddie the man, without the sycophancy that a biographer might feel obliged to indulge in.

Flintoff was helped by Myles Hodgson, a Lancastrian and cricket correspondent of the Press Association, hence the narrative never loses its sense of purpose or direction, and, however private Flintoff wants to remain, Hodgson has endeavoured to reveal something of the "private" Andrew as well as the public "Freddie".

It certainly holds the edge over Tim Ewbank's biography Freddie (John Blake, £17.99), a brave effort, but in being published ahead of Flintoff's brilliant Ashes performances, will probably have to go into a reprint before it can be given a fair hearing.

Michael Vaughan's timing was similar to Flintoff's so his Calling the Shots (Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99) is also readable. It is the second part of his autobiography and once again he has been given back-up by the veteran sports journalist and fellow Yorkshireman Martin Hardy.

It does go some way to revealing the thinking behind Vaughan's captaincy, but you still feel that he is holding back in certain areas.

The usually taciturn (in public at least) England coach, Duncan Fletcher, got in on the act with Ashes Regained - The Coach's Story (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). This account will be reviewed more fully shortly, but its price alone makes it worth buying.

Graham Thorpe stumped up more of a "confessional" than an autobiography, which may well have had a therapeutic affect, but recounting the personal side of things rather detracted from the Surrey and England left-hander's cricketing feats.

Somehow The Autobiography - Rising from the Ashes (Collins-Willow, £18.99) falls somewhat short of the mark, even if it was ghost-written by Simon Wilde. Perhaps a biography by the Sunday Times corres-pondent is called for.

Back to the Ashes. The Press Association is, by definition an agency of record and therefore its book How We Won the Ashes (Methuen, £5.99) is the business.

Not only is it a bargain, but you get to relive the stunning summer as it unfolded, courtesy of the aforementioned Hodgson and his colleagues. And just to underline the quality of this modestly priced volume no one, not even Hodgson, is given a credit. No bylines here - the only stars were those in cricket whites out in the middle - but, for the record, the authors were Hodgson, Richard Gibson, John Curtis and David Clough.