A coach and hero
Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (Struik)
The foreword claims that Bob Woolmer had just finished writing this weighty tome when he died during last year’s Cricket World Cup. The spine is more equivocal, giving the joint authors as Woolmer, sports scientist Tim Noakes and someone called Helen Moffett.
While reading, the questions constantly came to mind: how many of these 642 pages did Woolmer in fact contribute and to what extent is this really his account of the “art and science” of cricket?
The reader’s unease is heightened by the repeated references to him in the third person and the fact that some of the anecdotes—notably one by Moffet about Pakistani players pumping themselves up before play—did not come from his pen.
This is not hair-splitting. There is a legitimate suspicion that Woolmer essentially wrote a rather narrowly focused coaching manual and that, in a move to cash in on public rubbernecking in the wake of his sensational death, other people worked it up into a general-interest cricket book.
That self-regarding ET clone Richie Benaud indirectly lends weight to this theory in the foreword, where he describes it as “a coaching book”.
The upshot is that the work rather falls between two stools, with large swathes that will interest mainly coaches and players at a fairly high level.
In the mould of Don Bradman’s Art of Cricket, it contains, for example, photographic breakdowns and lengthy descriptions of the main batting shots. Even keen non-specialist followers of the game will not find much to engage them in a page-long account, with “action” photographs of Jacques Kallis, of the forward defensive prod. The chapters on fitness techniques, diet and fielding drills, likewise, will be a yawn for many readers.
To leaven the technical esoterica, sections have been tossed in on juicier topics, including cricket and sex, alcohol and suicide. Again the authorship is unclear and the book additionally suffers from excessive delicacy about scandal and controversy habitually shown by cricket commentators.
The high suicide rate among cricketers and ex-cricketers, compared with other athletes, is potentially a good topic and we are told of a “fascinating” study (David Frith’s By His Own Hand) of 80 such cases.
But just as Hansie Cronje’s moral meltdown is a commentating taboo, not a single suicide is mentioned by name.
This is a well-behaved cricket book, imbued with the slightly reverential air of an obituary. The section on sledging contains some mildly amusing examples of batsmen’s repartee, but fights well clear of the more robust classics of the genre:
Glenn McGrath to Zimbabwe’s Eddo Brandes: “Why are you so fat?”
Brandes to McGrath: “Because every time I fuck your wife she gives me a biscuit.”
By far the most interesting parts of the book were, one suspects, not contributed by Woolmer at all, but by Noakes the scientist. They include analyses of the aerodynamics of swing, reverse swing and “drift”; on “chucking”; and on how batsmen read bowling of the highest pace, all lucidly written and embellished with excellent infographics.
It was intriguing to discover, for example, that the human eye cannot track bowling of higher than 130km/h and that batsmen facing pace move their eyes off the ball to where they expect it to land on the wicket.
This, the book points out, effectively debunks the hoariest of coaching maxims: “Watch the ball right on to the bat.”
The book contains an arresting account of the most famous delivery in modern cricket—Shane Warne’s opening ball in a Test against England—making the point that drift (explained by the Magnus Effect) lured the hapless Mike Gatting down the wrong line.
There is a detailed defence of Muttiah Muralitharan against the charge of chucking, which goes beyond the scientific evidence to argue that his unique brand of wrist-spin is an essential counter to the growing dominance of the bat at the highest levels of the game.
The Art and Science of Cricket is a large and, one imagines, expensive book, which contains much that will not interest mainstream cricket enthusiasts.
But, for the first time, it gave me a scientific understanding of why and when the bowled cricket ball curves in the air. For that alone it might be worth getting.
The Lemur by Benjamin Black (Picador) Cliffhanger by TJ Middleton (Picador) Drowned Hopes and What’s So Funny? by Donald Westlake (Quercus)The Reapers by John Connolly (Hodder & Stoughton)
Why do authors write under pseudonyms when they change genres? Do they think book buyers go according to brands—that they reach for a book by a name they recognise, never read the back cover or the first page and feel cheated once they get it home because they were looking for poetry and ended up with a crime novel?
Benjamin Black is actually John Banville, who turns out beautifully written crime novels but doesn’t want to put his name to them. In the case of The Lemur he might be right. Unlike the previous two, Christine Falls and The Silver Swan, this latest is not only slim but lightweight. Foreign correspondent unhappily married to an heiress is hired by his ex-CIA father-in-law to write his biography. Foreign correspondent hires a researcher who promises revelations—just what the father-in-law does not want—and is promptly murdered.
TJ Middleton is actually Tim Binding, described on the back cover as “the greatest living chronicler of post-war Britain”. An earlier book, A Perfect Execution, had a murder, so he hasn’t gone the incognito route because his newest has a bit of violence. Maybe it’s the misogynist humour—what one might expect from a contributor to the TV show Men Behaving Badly. Cliffhanger is set in a row of houses along the sea, high up on a cliff. Taxi driver Al Greenwood is bored with his wife and decides to push her off the edge.
He irritates her deliberately so she will stalk off to her favourite cliff-edge spot. Then he sneaks up on her—she can’t hear him because it’s pouring with rain—and gives a mighty push. When he returns to his bungalow, there she is, by the fire: he has pushed someone off the cliff, but not his wife. Now he has to find out who the woman is he’s killed. There proceeds an array of strange characters—the policeman, the nosy old lady and so forth.
It goes as humour; so do Donald Westlake’s books and they can be pretty amusing. Westlake is the king of the caper plot, which he’s been writing for decades—more than 100 books, plus screenplays. Some of his books have been filmed: The Hot Rock is one, Point Blank another. He also uses pseudonyms, maybe because his output is so overwhelming, but has written both Drowned Hopes and What’s So Funny? under his own name.
Both feature the luckless John Dortmunder, a professional thief who is lured continually into other people’s nutty schemes. In Drowned Hopes, there’s a stash of hundreds of thousands of dollars buried in a town in upstate New York, which has subsequently been flooded to form part of New York’s reservoir system. In What’s So Funny? they’re after a solid-gold chess set seized from the Nazis by a group of American soldiers who foolishly left it in the hands of their sergeant for safekeeping. He’s used it as collateral to build up a fortune, neglecting to share the wealth with his former comrades, and stored the chess set in a bank vault. When he dies Dortmunder and his motley crew are sent to liberate it.
John Connolly always writes under his own name and, whether it’s crime novels, a coming-of-age tale or a collection of short stories, his books are so good one tries to make them last. In The Reapers Louis and Angel, a pair of professional killers who have appeared in earlier Connolly books, are being stalked by an array of thugs hired by someone clearly bent on revenge. The thugs try to take out anyone connected with the pair, including their business partners and the little old lady who lives downstairs. Louis and Angel have to find out who’s out to get them and then do what’s necessary.
In Connolly’s hands this is less about the killings and more about the characters—what has made Louis, a born killer, and Angel, his lover, into guns for hire, their lives together, their dealings with the outside world. The book could actually be about anything—a pair of accountants on the run from the Receiver, say—and it would be just as good, which is very good indeed.