Scarlett Smith reports
Pontefract, West Yorkshire, may not exactly be a hotbed of literary masterpieces, but that may all be about to change due to the memoirs of world number one squash player James Willstrop, whose biographical account of a year in the punishing world of professional squash, Shot and a Ghost, is among just 7 books shortlisted for the hugely prestigious William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
Known as the ‘Bookie Prize’, The William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award is the world’s longest established and most valuable literary sports-writing prize, and
the nomination of Willstrop’s self-published memoirs is huge recognition for a sport and an athlete who was denied the chance of an Olympic medal in 2012 by the oversight of the IOC.
Whilst Andy Murray lifted Olympic Gold during London 2012, Willstrop watched from his Pontefract home and tweeted his congratulations. He would have been among the favourites to lift another medal for team GB in London 2012, had squash been an Olympic sport.
But, this is not an athlete that dwells on what might have been. Willstrop, a fan of Oscar Wilde, is clever, ironic and humorous. He can also be very poignant, especially when talking about his relationship with his squash coach father, Malcolm.
There is irony also, in the fact that one of the other shortlisted books this year is The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s account of the drug addled era of Lance Armstrong.
The irony is that Willstrop is a very different type of sporting hero. Plying his trade in what is arguably as punishing a sport on the body as cycling, Willstrop competes not only ‘clean’ but as a vegetarian. At 6’4″ and striving for physical perfection on a bowl of cereal, one could acknowledge that his really is a body treated as a Temple.
What might surprise sports fans is the value of winning the Bookie Prize will have for Willstrop. The £24,000 cash prize is worth more than the winner’s purse for either of the sport’s most prestigious titles, the British or US Open. Yet another contrast between squash and its racket counterpart, tennis.
In a physical, mass participation sport – more people play squash each week than play tennis, rugby or cricket, Willstrop stands out as a gracious gentleman as much as a sportsman. Should ‘Shot and a Ghost’ win this title, it will be a justifiable reward for an athlete who cares more about his body and his soul than the trappings of glory.
‘Remarkable’ shortlist for William Hill
James Willstrop and Rod Gilmour’s squash title joins That Near-Death Thing by Rick Broadbent (Orion); Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn (Faber); The Secret Race – Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle (Bantam Press);Be Careful What You Wish For by Simon Jordan (Yellow Jersey); Fibber in the Heat by Miles Jupp (Ebury Press); and A Life Without Limits – A World Champion’s Journey by Chrissie Wellington with Michael Aylwin (Constable & Robinson).
Co-founder of the award, Graham Sharpe said: “From a record entry of 165 titles, the judges have produced a magnificently varied list of seven readable, remarkable and worthy contenders. The subject matter encompasses the entire emotional gamut from comedy to tragedy.”
Now in its 24th year, the prize awards £24,000 to the winner as well as a £2,000 William Hill bet, a specially-commissioned handbound copy of their book and a day at the races.
The winner will be announced at Waterstones Piccadilly on Monday 26th November.
Malcolm takes a punt
The William Hill Sports Book of the Year is in its 24th year and carries a first prize of £24,000, a £2,000 free bet and a day at the races.
Fourteen books have been nominated,from which a short list will be announced on 26th October, with the winner to be declared at Waterstone’s Picadilly, on 26th November.
James Willstrop’s Shot and a Ghost becomes the first squash book to be nominated and keeps good company,with Victoria Pendleton’s ‘Between the Lines’, Johny Wilkinson’s ‘Johny’ and champion jockey elect, Richard Hughes’s’ A Weight off my MInd’ also on the list.
Hughes did his prospects no harm,riding 7 winners at Windsor recently amidst a blaze of publicity. James has served a long apprenticeship as a weekly columnist for the Yorkshire Evening Post, where, although squash has been his main topic, he has had the freedom to write on a variety of subjects. One advantage he may have is that his book was written by him and not ghost written, which certainly some of the nominations were.
The book has been well received by a variety of newspapers and sportsmen and women and apart from the satisfaction James may have had from its success, it has been a useful source of publicity for the sport.
Reaction from the governing bodies
Zena Wooldridge, Chair, England Squash & Racketball commented: “Congratulations to James for this marvellous achievement, which is also wonderful profile for squash and its current Olympic campaign. It also demonstrates the breadth of talent within the game, and we wish James well in the final award process. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.”
“Everyone at the PSA is delighted to hear the news that James’s book has been shortlisted,” said PSA CEO Alex Gough. “The entire squash community is aware how good the book is and what a great job James did. The book has received international recognition, which is a testament to James’s writing ability, and has raised the profile of squash worldwide. It’s a fantastic achievement. We wish James the best of luck for this final hurdle and are anxiously awaiting the result.”
The judging panel for this year’s award consists of broadcaster and writer John Inverdale; footballer and chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle, who joins the judging panel for the first time; broadcaster Danny Kelly; award-winning journalist Hugh McIlvanney; and columnist and author, Alyson Rudd. Chairman of the judging panel is John Gaustad, co-creator of the award and founder of the Sportspages bookshop.