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Book Review: The Art of Centuries by Steve James (2015)

 

A 2nd cricket book that I’ve read on the considerable subject of batting: what does it take to score a century? It’s the same subject as the previously reviewed Who Wants to be a Batsman? by Simon Hughes, another professional cricketer turned writer – the important difference is that unlike Hughes, Steve James was a batsman; playing for Glamorgan, scoring 47 first-class hundreds and making two appearances for England in 1998.

Published within three months of each other in 2015, it isn’t clear which of the two had the idea first (James credits his book to the suggestion of his publisher), but it doesn’t really matter.

James’ batting history goes back to the age of twelve and his maiden hundred for Monmouth School. Like Hughes, his father (who owned the local sports shop) was a huge influence, implanting in James the importance of scoring centuries for a batsman.

The individual chapters are thematically structured around the elements of batting; some primary such as preparation, fitness and technique and others secondary: luck, superstition, the importance of some matches more than others. Again, it isn’t a textbook on how to score big runs but more of a thoughtful study around the subject.

Each chapter is constructed around a blend of James’ memories, reflections and observations of his own career and the game in general, along with much material gathered from other players. As a low-level batsman myself, I found it to be full of fascinating material (at times engrossing): thoughts and ideas that helped me a little to think, reflect and rationalise my own game. Some of the later chapters are perhaps a little padded (to make up to 300 pages – a 200-220 page book would be more satisfyingly concise).

My favourite moment was probably the story of Brian Lara’s 147 against Glamorgan in 1994, when James and the other fielders attempted to counter Lara’s pinpoint placement (and trick him into hitting a catch to them) by imperceptibly shifting position sideways, only for the great batsman to continue hitting boundaries through the gaps in between them.

The Art of Centuries is enjoyable to read – James has an intelligent and thoughtful writing style, which has both seriousness (he’s unafraid of expressing his views, on occasion quite bluntly) and much human generosity and fascination (he takes sport seriously, but there is a gentle self-deprecating tone present). A really good book for a cricketer.

 

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More Book Reviews: The Mixer & Klopp: Bring the Noise (both 2017)

Two football books, both excellent holiday reads. First up was The Mixer by Michael Cox, a history of football trends and tactics in the Premier League era of English football (1992-2017). This period is covered in twenty-five chapters, mainly structured around the various champion teams, but also two very memorable nearly sides (Newcastle ’96 and Liverpool 2014) and some notable outliers (the Bolton and Stoke of Allardyce and Pulis are prominent among these).

The standard is set with a fine first chapter on the inaugural season, 1992-93; the introduction of the backpass rule (which increased the premium on fitness and ball playing defenders) and the impact of Eric Cantona are discussed. As we are taken forward to 2017, Cox’s narrative weaves together the events and personalities of the successful Premier League teams, with enjoyably snappy comments and observations.

The key theme is the success of the Premier League being (slowly and gradually) underpinned by the arrival of talent from overseas: players like Cantona, Bergkamp, Zola, Ronaldo and Silva and then managers such as Wenger, Benitez and Mourinho. These and many other figures revolutionize the English game through developments in tactics and training. The greatest figure of all, Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson, is seen to absorb these changes, re-calibrating his side’s tactics, structure and play over the course of their thirteen championships victories.

Although its rampant commercialism is often a turn off for me (and I’ve never been a customer of Sky), the Premier League has been a deeply entertaining football product and The Mixer is a great celebration of this – sweet things such as the small facts like the one about Arsenal uniquely scoring in every game in the 2001/02 season or Didier Drogba’s patchy season-on-season stats but incredible record in big games. The best is perhaps the one about the chaotic (and deeply fortunate) nature of the four Champions League wins achieved in this time by Manchester United (twice), Liverpool and Chelsea.

I zipped speedily enough through the 450 pages of The Mixer over a week’s break in the Lake District, taking in two or three chapters each evening. After I’d moved onwards across the Irish sea to a further week in Donegal, I picked up Klopp: Bring the Noise by Raphael Honigstein, a biography of the current Liverpool FC manager.

Jurgen Klopp, as is apparent for all who know of him is, even by the standards of top level football coaches, a striking personality and a powerfully charismatic figure (a political career post-football is mooted more than once here). He has appealingly down-to-earth human qualities: humour and self-deprecation, empathy and open-heartedness. Although it is also made clear that on the flip side Klopp is fiercely direct and driven to win, frequently prone to simmering anger.

In short, Klopp is a man blessed with particularly outstanding people management skills. This is emphasised by the first-person evidence of the very large parade of his colleagues and personal associates assembled here by Honigstein from all corners of German football (players, fellow coaches, club functionaries, general managers and chairmen).

The biography is structured in quartets of chapters, the first on Klopp’s background (both family and his determined but undistinguished playing career), then individual chapters on his three management jobs at Mainz, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool; and then round again three times –  making up sixteen chapters. The chapters often begin with a description/reminisce of a dramatic or key moment in Klopp’s life, upon which the surrounding or underlying events and the fascinating personal testimony of the other actors is laid deeply.

Honigstein has great facility with the English language (I was a big fan of his weekly Bundesliga columns in the Guardian) and his writing neatly and stylishly describes Klopp’s career, embellished with impersonal observations and comments (with wry touches of humour in places also). Adding this to his previous Das Reboot, as well as the wonderfully readable Tor! by Uli Hesse, there is a small but rich vein of English language football books by German authors.

Returning to the subject; whilst reading Bring the Noise the most interesting thing to me (aside from the matter of personality and magnetism) was Klopp’s strategy and results. Tactically adopting Wolfgang Frank’s novel variant of high intensity pressing with a 4-4-2, and then using it with a series of underdogs to try and gain an advantage over more prestigious and resourced opponents. Equally fascinating to me was that whilst this method improved performance enormously almost from the off, ultimate success (promotions and championships at Mainz and Dortmund) occurred after several disappointments and took a great deal of determination and perseverance. Similarly Klopp hasn’t won any trophies yet in his 2½ years at Liverpool, although a chance to rectify that is just around the corner, as Liverpool will play Real Madrid in the Champions League final later this month.

To wrap this review up, both of these books are excellent additions to the sports library: entertaining, fascinating reads on two (well, entertaining, fascinating) phenomena in modern sport.

More Doctor Who Reviews: Planet of the Daleks (1973)

I can remember watching this 1973 story a long time ago (it was repeated on prime-time BBC1 in 1993). I had memories of it being a good story (if little more than that); watching it once more a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t have cause to change my opinion. Planet of the Daleks is generally an ably written and directed example of an adventure story.

It is very much a re-tread of the original Dalek story (The Daleks), from December 1963 – the Doctor encounters the xenophobic and genocidal Daleks, along with their gentle and pacifist counterparts the Thals, assisting the latter in overcoming the Daleks and destroying their city. On this occasion the action is transcribed (away from the Daleks’/Thals’ home planet) by the writer Terry Nation to a 3rd planet, the jungle, ice-bound environs of Spiridon. This planets’ synonymous inhabitant humanoid lifeform has developed the power of invisibility, hence the Dalek’s hostile invasion and the Thals’ commando operation to stop them.

Nation’s plot follows the line of the original Dalek serial: The Doctor, Jo and the Thals between them are either imprisoned or manage to sneak into the Dalek city. Managing to escape, they then round their resources together into a successful attempt to attack and destroy the city.

The original serial was a masterpiece of a tense sci-fi adventure, harnessing the Daleks’ pragmatic evil to the viewers stunned comprehension of it. Ten years on, David Maloney and the creative crew make a good attempt at recreating that atmosphere – there is a lot of peril and tension, and the planet is effectively realised.

Unfortunately, the earlier production had the benefit of being produced in black and white – Planet of the Daleks, in vivid seventies colour, makes a good try at the claustrophobic tension of the original, but the budget limitations do not aid it. The fact that the themes of the original have also moved along are a problem. The Daleks seem to be running out of road – in this story they are little more than a homogeneous stock menace with a series of set moves and responses (not helped by the production’s difficulties in distinguishing one Dalek personage from the other).

The Thals too have the (previous) difficulty of their characterisation being much less dramatically interesting than their (polar-opposite) opponents; and in any case their characters are superseded by the much more charismatic and assertive figure of the Doctor (who doesn’t really need them to triumph over the Daleks). Nation attempts to address this by having the Doctor advise them on the nature of bravery – there is a long conversation in the second episode between him and a Thal medic, Codal, on the various interpretations of this.

There is also a rogue Thal – instead of a coward figure (like Antodus), here there is a reckless soldier figure (Vaber), who chafes and mutinies against the calm pragmatism of his commander. His foolishness leads to his capture by the Daleks, but he demonstrates his courage at the last. The actors playing the Thals have been criticised unfairly: Bernard Horsfall and Tim Preece are excellent as Taron and Codal (given the limitations of their characterisations); more of a question of taste is Prentis Hancock’s overwrought performance as Vaber – familiar having watched him also in Planet of Evil (I remember he was effective as the highly strung but fearsomely brave Scots prisoner in Colditz).

One of the scripts’ weaknesses is how Nation involves a theme but leaves it underdeveloped and unresolved: e.g. the Daleks’ harnessing of invisibility is left to one side when the menace becomes their vast 10000 strong presence on Spiridon; the Spiridons only dramatic presence is the figure of Wester, a weak “friendly” characterisation added to assist Jo and the Doctor. I don’t mind the six-part length of the story, even though the drama drags often. In fact, I’m quite fond of their stately pace and their cloaking of a weak conclusion (the last point is one of my main bugbears about Doctor Who and one that can really spoil a four-part serial).

Planet of the Daleks succeeds primarily as a sci-fi adventure and is enjoyable to watch.

More Doctor Who Reviews: The Sea Devils (1972)

We’re back for a remake of Doctor Who and the Silurians. The Sea Devils moves the action to Portsmouth (with the Royal Navy in place of UNIT), with the monsters being a undersea variant of the subterraneans.

Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have recorded the final episode, so I don’t know how this all pans out. Prior to that, The Sea Devils is an entertaining story, with humorous and tense moments. As with the previous story the monsters are in the end a little undercooked (again they have little to do until after halfway through), so the story holds up with Malcolm Hulke’s well-paced script and some excellent performances. Roger Delgado is back as the Master, and at last it seems that he is locked up by the authorities; on an old fort island in the Solent.

This isn’t quite the case, as the appearance of the Master’s acquiescent incarceration is a fraud. Even though the credulity of the prison governor Trenchard is a little hard to accept, Clive Morton is excellent as the trenchant old duffer. Later on, Martin Boddey is one of the better iterations of the man from the ministry.

The Doctor and Jo are a decent double act by now, with Jo often having to sweep up after the Doctor’s strident bumbling. The Royal Navy are a worthwhile addition: Edwin Richfield is a strong presence as the Naval Captain and the sea air is a nice change from the usual locations, even though the settings seem a little enclosed at times. The Sea Devils all in all is a very good adventure.

More Doctor Who Reviews: The Daemons (1971)

The Doctor (with UNIT) saves the planet from destruction by satanic forces. I mention UNIT upfront because The Daemons is a demonstration of the ensemble: Katy Manning is by now completely settled as the Doctor’s assistant and in this story Jo Grant is a dynamic presence. Yates and Benton are also prominent and well used: outside the industrial/military complex and within the milieu of a country village pub, the Doctor seems too, well, alien; Yates and Benton amiably standing around in their civvies gives the mild drama in the bar a comfortable, Crossroads-like ambiance.

The villagers are a drab and desperate bunch, under the mental control of the Master; except for Damaris Hayman’s village eccentric, who is the one person on the Doctor’s level. The irascible archaeologist is also a good turn – he’s killed off much too early. The Master is shoehorned once again into proceedings as the agent of destruction, this time in the guise of the diabolist minister of the Church of England: keeping the village assembly under control and summoning the forces of evil from time to time. Roger Delgado does look particularly wicked in a dog collar.

There is plenty to like about The Daemons, and it has always been appreciated as a classic by many. Over time though, it has become to be regarded as one of those stories whose reputation, along with the other prime case Tomb of the Cybermen, is way above what its merits deserve. I do go along with this view – the main culprit is the plot, which is quite a mess.

The goings-on are another borrowing from Nigel Kneale: the reawakening of aliens buried for millennia, their remembered forms adopted in human culture since time immemorial. This background is sketchily explained by the Doctor to Jo. I didn’t really take this in, so for the rest of the story the fantastic and the scientific did not interact at all. The script makes little attempt to correct this – within its contemporary, domestic setting the story comes across as much too insensible.

There are also problems with the Doctor again. Pertwee is able as the leading man, but in this story there isn’t much in the way of character-driven plot for him – in episodes 3 and 4 the Doctor lies in bed in a coma, then on recovery rides a motorcycle over to the Brigadier and bickers with the soldier who is constructing a gizmo to break through the heatshield separating them. He then returns to the village to encounter a silly assassination attempt around the Maypole, seeing it off with the aid of his remote-control car. In the meantime, it is Jo who discovers what is going on and, in the end, takes out the monster – in The Daemons the Doctor contributes by his presence rather than his actions.

The Daemons, after a strong first episode develops into a weak story with a silly climax. Ultimately though the lack of credibility doesn’t matter. The viewer gets an enjoyable ensemble piece in a representation of a picture-postcard village (an experience a little perhaps like Last of the Summer Wine).

More Doctor Who Reviews: Terror of the Autons (1971)

A sequel to the previous seasons’ Spearhead from Space, Terror of the Autons is a curiously vivid re-tread of the original. The disembodied Nestene consciousness returns to invade Earth, in the form of their plastic Auton dolls. Whilst Spearhead from Space was an Earthbound sci-fi drama in a traditional, serious, filmic style, Terror is a gaudy shocker full of cartoony violence.

The story is a series of unexpected attacks and horrible deaths; either through the Nestene’s possession of benign day-to-day plastic objects or the captivatingly malignant presence of the Master, the one example provided in an otherwise functional script, of Robert Holmes’ skill at witty and entertaining characterizations. With his outstanding proficiency of hypnosis and mind control, along with a gift for uncanny disguise and a ruthlessness at times both subtle and then brutal, the Master is far too much of a match for the humankind of Home Counties England.

Whilst his new rival is throwing down the gauntlet, the Doctor is not his usual self. His dialogue is itself rather impatient and sour-tempered, made worse by Jon Pertwee’s tetchy and irritable performance – to the point of the Doctor spends most of the four episodes carrying on like a bit of a nobhead. This is bad, particularly when for most of the time his opposite players are two newcomers to the programme who are visibly finding their feet. The familiar dramatic relief of the Doctor’s angry argument with the man from the ministry is short-circuited by his self-presentation as a kind of flamboyantly maverick backbench MP.

Terror from the start is a cartoon romp where the Master runs amok implementing the Nestene plan of attack, breaking off at least two times an episode to set about killing the Doctor. The Doctor, despite being two steps behind, manages to keep his skin and starts to track the Master down – crucially he disables the others’ TARDIS quite easily, imprisoning him on Earth. It is visually one of the most memorable Doctor Who stories, in part due to its vivid color: there is gross overuse of (more than a little iffy) CSO. The design and costume also stands out: in particular the repulsive killer doll that does for Farrell senior and the strikingly jolly masks that the Autons wear to hand out daffodils in (I reckon) St Albans.

Terror of the Autons is successful story despite its flaws. It is a memorably scary example of Doctor Who: the spectacle of plastic objects menacing and killing people, in particular the poor factory manager McDermott being suffocated by an inflatable chair, is quite a disturbing one for the programme’s target audience. The scariest moment for me was the unexpected sudden appearance of the Auton in the factory safe, almost blowing the Brigadier’s head off.

Terror’s particular cocktail mixture was a one-off, although the gaudiness appeared often in Pertwee’s time as the Doctor and the level violence became an issue much later during Phillip Hinchcliffe’s time as the shows producer.

Doctor Who and the Silurians

I thought this was a very good serial: entertaining, dramatic and with some excellent plotting. It did though seem to succeed through more than the sum of its parts, especially over an extended seven-episode length. A good deal is in debt to Quatermass. Also the plot, which slowly develops in stages, under-develops and passes by several interesting sub-plots.

The aliens (or in this case Earth’s precursor dominant species) are introduced too late as characters. Their development, through the friction between the cautious older Silurian and the aggressive, warlike younger, is then resolved too speedily. Their following attempt to destroy all life in the home counties through the release of a plague, is averted by the Doctor taking an episode to work out a chemical formula; finally their bid to consume the nuclear power station and murder its staff is foiled by their laughably illogical preference to return to hibernation and let the impending radiation leak to do the job.

I found these problems in the plot development and the presentation of the Silurians to compromise the moral question of their eventual destruction by UNIT and the British government. The Silurians are intelligent, advanced and impressively capable in attack (which makes their eventual submission a little incredible); they do become genocidal in opposition to the intruders, which the Doctor does seem to naively ignore in his practical attempts to facilitate reconciliation. He also expresses horror and opposition to the proposed and eventual destruction of the Silurians, but we see nothing of his ultimate response (beyond turning up for the next Saturday’s story).

The Silurians has a lot of quality: Barry Newbery’s sets, both the claustrophobic subterranean caves and the power station, are excellent. Unlike many, I don’t find Carey Blyton’s atonal score to be much of a distraction. The cast is particularly good – Fulton Mackay as Doctor Quinn dominates the first three episodes before being killed off, regrettably as his treachery suggests an interesting subplot which is shut off. Later, Geoffrey Palmer is engaging as the man from the ministry, before he is returned to London and killed off by the Silurians’ plague. Peter Miles’ performance as the plant director is a good deal hammier, but enjoyably so in its paranoia. Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John are a strength – even through the Brigadier flits in and out of the drama and Liz often acts as a 2nd person, they bring a lot of gravitas to the drama. Pertwee is effective here as a quieter leading man.

Overall, Doctor Who and the Silurians is a memorable and excellent serial.