Academic fights off the smart money

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The Independent Online
A RETIRED ACADEMIC carried off the richest prize available to the writers of sporting literature when he won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award yesterday.

Sir Derek Birley's exhaustively researched A Social History of English Cricket beat off four other contenders for the prize, which is worth pounds 7,500 plus a pounds 1,000 free bet and a copy of the book bound by the master bookbinder David Sellars.

Sir Derek, 73, was praised by the television presenter and awards announcer John Inverdale for his combination of authoritative analysis and lightness of touch. "This is an enduring book which will be read for generations," Inverdale said. The author, who could not attend the London ceremony, sent a letter of thanks from his Cornwall home, where he is recuperating from a stroke.

He retired as vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster in 1991 after a distinguished career as an educational administrator. His previous books on the social history of sport include The Willow Wand and the award-winning three-volume Sport and the Making of Britain.

Sir Derek's book was by no means favourite for the award. Muhammad Ali was the subject of both Mike Marqusee's Redemption Song and David Remnick's King of the World, but the smart money was on Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, an account of an Italian football club's fight for survival. Playground of the Gods charts writer Ian Stafford's year of training and competing against some sporting heroes.

With Inverdale on the judging panel were Cliff Morgan, the writer Frances Edmonds, the journalist Ian Wooldridge and John Gaustad, who owns Sports Pages bookshop, where the ceremony took place.

`A Social History of English Cricket', by Derek Birley, Aurum Press, pounds 20 hardback.