All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman August 19, 2006

A true allrounder

Martin Williamson reviews All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman, by Mick Collins

We live in a time when the media create sporting heroes and millionaires out of many individuals who are really fairly ordinary. It's a contrast to an earlier era when people whose feats these days would make them household names took part for the fun of it. With few exceptions, money did not come into it.

One such character was Max Woosnam, a character so colourful that if someone told you his story you would justifiably be forgiven for thinking he was the invention of an Edwardian Boys' Own type of adventure.

His achievements are remarkable - he won an Olympic gold at tennis, as well as a Wimbledon mixed doubles title and also captained Great Britain in the Davis Cup; he skippered Manchester City, and led both the amateur and full England side in the same season; he scored a hundred at Lord's; he obtained five Blues at Cambridge; and he was fairly handy at golf and snooker. He also managed all this as an amateur, and unlike many of his peers, he was not well off and had to fit in his sport while working full time. He also distinguished himself in the Great War. And yet, despite this, he is almost totally forgotten.

It is the unearthing of his remarkable tale that makes All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman by Mick Collins such an enjoyable read. These days, those who are good at more than one sport are urged to concentrate on one pursuit and we long for the days of the multi-faceted players. But what comes across here is that had Woosnam decided on football or tennis, he would have excelled. As it is, he ended up juggling several balls.

His cricket was almost entirely confined to his time at school, but he was clearly very good at it. After leaving Winchester he effectively gave up, reasoning that it took too long and he could pursue several varied games in the time it took to play a match. Much the same applied to golf, even though he was a scratch player. Boredom caused by him finding things being so easy was one his perennial sporting conundrums.

His prowess at games, however, was not matched by his role as a father which left much to be desired, even by the standards of those less hands-on times. Clearly, his family ranked very low in his pecking order. Perfection has its price.

Collins is to be congratulated on bringing Woosnam alive for a new generation. It is a story that is well worth a read even if the sports he excelled at are not exactly your cup of tea.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo