Book of the Week: Gamblers and Christians united in name of sport

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The Independent Online
Start of Play: The Curious

Origins of our Favourite Sports

By Jonathan Rice Prion, pounds 14.99, hardback

IN 1907, eight years after his finest hour, Vere Thomas St Ledger Goold was apprehended with his wife at Nice railway station in possession of two trunks which were found to contain the remains of a Danish widow suspected by Mrs Goold of having an affair with her husband. He remains the only Wimbledon finalist to end his life on Devil's Island.

It is exotic episodes like this that make Start of Play such an absorbing read. Rice sifts through the early traces - Julius Caesar kicking a skull across the River Brent, Indians playing polo with human heads wrapped in muslin, the charge against Mary Queen of Scots that immediately her second husband breathed his last, she repaired sharpish to the golf course - then devotes a chapter to each of the major ball games. There is not much in the way of Americana, but then as the word "our" in the subtitle suggests, this is a record of Britain's unique historical contribution to world sports.

It is difficult to pin down absolute beginnings - versions of football and golf were played everywhere, for example. So the book concentrates on the last couple of hundred years, and particularly those intensely productive few decades of the last century when sports were organised and codified, the forces of privilege planting their flags and making sure the peasants were kept out of the loop.

As usual when sport is involved, the story is sometimes venal, sometimes glorious (but mostly venal). Gambling was often the spur for development - even the original raison d'etre of professional cricket, whose ranks swelled from 20-strong in 1840 to 500-plus in 1860, was to please the punters (tennis, the modern version of which was born in the back gardens of the bourgeoisie, was an exception).

Later, the proponents of an empire based on muscular Christianity took over, asserting their moral superiority over the money-grubbers. All the Victorian sporting pioneers, Rice notes, were of the ruling classes, though for him they were unwitting revolutionaries as well, setting in motion "huge forces for social change".

With respect to Rice, the academic bit should be left to the academics - he is on his shakiest ground when attempting grand conclusions, painting with a broad brush. His skill is as a miniaturist, ferreting out the colourful details.

There is a succession of fascinating firsts and fabulous facts, for example - the first international (Scotland v England at golf 1681), the first cricket tour to be cancelled for political reasons (1789 - guess why), John Wisden's 10 clean-bowled wickets in an innings. And every chapter is embellished with deft characterisation and a lightness of touch that makes for easy reading.

Rice had a good idea and has executed it well. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield had one good idea - sphairistike, the precursor of modern tennis. But, as Rice says, he "moved on to other things; one of his later books was entitled Bicycle Gymkhana."

One wishes Rice better luck with his future projects.