Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review: First Tests, Great Australian Cricketers & The Backyards that Made Them

As I sat on a winters Saturday afternoon with the football call in the background I delved into a work that for a long time I had been desiring to read. First Tests by Steve Cannane recalled in me dreams of hot summers and backyard cricket; of the innocent yet ferocious contests played out in country and city alike every Australian summer.

Premised upon the search for the reasons why our champions of today and yesteryear played the way they do/did the link between the backyard conditions and future technique can be tenuous at times, but in other instances you would have very little doubt as to its effect on the young champions. That Neil Harvey grew up dicing with the sideways movement of a cobblestone pitch, and the Chappells playing shots between many backyard items serving as fielders would be two examples of correlation to later skills.

The real story though in each of the chapters is the love of the game from a young age that our champions showed, and the unrelenting desire to play cricket at all available times. In a world where we are force fed information from different directions constantly it is refreshing to read of children simply pursuing dreams, dawn to dusk, for pleasure.

If you have read reasonably extensively on Australian cricketers and their lives you may find that the stories used by Cannane are repetitive and contain few new insights. We all know how Sir Donald Bradman hit a golf ball with a stump against a water tank. Also, the overriding rhetoric that it was better in the old days than today's sterile academy based environment could detract from the beauty that is reading of Australian sporting culture.

A bonus however is you get more from this work than just a cricketing technique or history lesson, you read Australia growing as a nation through the window of probably the national sport of the country. You begin to understand the depths of despair and disease that the great depression brought. Yet through all this children still played, all day and all night if they could. This was more than the individuals too, remember our champions all needed someone to bowl to or bat against at one time or another.

Pick this one up and let it inspire you to reminisce about your own childhood and cricketing dreams. Let it encourage you to enjoy the most out of everyday. Once you have finished reading I can guarantee you will run straight outside and start playing like you used to. I did, but unlike Clarrie Grimmatt's fox terrier mine won't return the balls! Footballs.

image thanks to

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: Bradman's Invincibles - Roland Perry

A number of cricket teams will live long in history, having books written about them and having their relative merits forever debated. The most recent of those, the Australians who dominated cricket for fifteen years to 2008 developed a storied reputation perhaps tarnished by a lack of quality lasting opposition. The West Indian team preceding them did the same for nearly twenty years.

Perhaps the most revered cricket team of all was the 1948 Invincibles, who completed an arduous six month tour of England without a loss. The tour was a perfect fusion of circumstance: Bradman's final First Class matches, a cricket-starved world following the Second World War needing non-combatant heroes and finally, a collation of talent probably unrivalled to that time.

In his work Bradman's Invincibles Roland Perry has created a perfunctory and informative book swayed obviously by his allegiance to Sir Donald Bradman. Perry, a writer with several books whose title include the words "Bradman" to his name, spent a number of years in conversation with Sir Donald Bradman and collaborated with him on several works, appears to think that Bradman's word on matters of cricket is absolute and completely true. He has taken every word he could trawl from his time spent with The Don and has turned it into a misguided four-hundred page tome where the point is almost indecipherable. What should have been a celebration has been turned into a trudging day-by-day commentary..

Bradman was undoubtedly the greatest cricketer of all time and even during the 1948 Invincibles tour where he turned forty, was Australia's best batsman. He has also suffered somewhat from revisionism, where posthumous revelations as to his character have begun to unfairly detract from his cricketing legacy. These "revelations" should only add to that legacy - of a genius batsman and excellent captain who wanted - and mostly got - his own way, often at others' expense. Any of his negative character traits are nonexistent on paper.

Relying on one source for the vast majority of one's sources is a mistake, both for one's credibility and entertainment purposes. The author has taken The Don's word as gospel in book which would be infinitely richer and more enjoyable for an Old Testament, Letters and Apocrypha. Perry has little affinity for beautiful prose, writing economically, repetitively and with no flair for either detail or accuracy. His style expects the reader to be in constant wonderment at the achievements of that squad rather than providing the full picture demanded by such an seminal tour.

Neither has Roland Perry skill of analogy, often comparing players across generations in a hackneyed and awkward style - even to the point of using the same comparison twice in three pages. There are several glaring factual errors and those who bridled against Sir Don Bradman's absolute rule are portrayed in an unflattering light. Though the book stretches to 430 pages, the last one-hundred and seventy of those are needlessly given over to potted biographies of the tourists and their vanquished opponents, which, while providing some interesting details is more an annoyance than enjoyable. This follows a passage where the author says it would be pointless to compare "Greatest Ever" teams and then proceeds to do so.

That's not to say that the book is devoid of redeeming features. Bradman's Invincibles provides an interesting peek into some aspects of cricket in the late 1940s, where towels were shoved under shirts and trousers became makeshift thigh and chest guards and breakfast in ration-enforced England consisted of half a piece of toast and a mushroom. The lack of net sessions was mildly surprising, but understandable given the amount of cricket played. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was that both Bill Johnston and Keith Miller often resorted to spin depending on the circumstances of the game; though this in itself is questionable given Perry's unfortunate failure to grasp the difference between leg- and off-cutters.

Bradman's Invincibles is hardly a revolutionary work. It holds interest - perhaps because it's the first cricket book I've read in months (years?) - but is disappointingly perfunctory and poorly rounded.

Golf balls (hit repeatedly against a tank stand with a cricket stump).

Image courtesy: (may they Rest In Peace).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: I Shall Not Hate - Izzeldin Abuelaish

by Glenn Jessop

A book with balls? Izzeldin's story has it in spades.

A potted history of this autobiographer’s life: Born at the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza in 1955, eldest of six brothers and three sisters, Izzeldin worked hard to help support his family while at the same time applying himself diligently at school. At 14 he was employed on a Jewish farm at an Israeli town north of the Gaza Strip, a foundational experience which helped him realise that Jewish people were people just like himself (i.e. Palestine). Weeks after returning to Gaza his family home was bulldozed to the ground by Israeli tanks. He persisted in his studies in medicine, seeing this as a bridge between two nations at war. In 1983 he graduated as a doctor from the University of Cairo and then obtained a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology from the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia. He became the first Palestinian obstetrician and gynecologist to be given a residency in an Israeli hospital, and continued to study and practice in a range of countries, eventually moving into policy development and research. During his pioneering career he maintained a passion for using health to achieve justice.

In 2008/09 his life took a cruel turn. His wife died of acute leukemia and within four months his house was bombed by Israeli tanks, killing three daughters and a niece. The pain and injustice of the death of innocent people jumped off the pages and shook my faith in humanity. Izzeldin’s response quickly restored it. He saw it as an opportunity to heal wounds and find a new way forward. As he courageously and generously declared:

“What happened to my family still strikes me as inconceivable. I lost three beautiful daughters and a wonderful, loving niece. What I can say is this: Let my daughters be the last to die. Let this tragedy open the eyes of the world. If I could know that my daughters were the last sacrifice on the road to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, then I would accept their loss”.

He concludes with a simple but astoundingly simple challenge (and solution): “It’s time we sat down and talked to each other”. Following the publication of his book Izzeldin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

What struck me throughout this account was the author’s struggle in facing impossibly frustrating circumstances (such as protracted border crossings, prejudiced views and war), whilst maintaining patience, courage and hope. He certainly practices what he preaches: using the death of his daughters as a call to peace, using the promise and practices of medicine to improve relations between two nations at constant loggerheads, and defending the ideal of a common humanity wherever possible.

Izzeldin is a man with a powerful story, one which offers a stirring account of life in the Gaza Strip. I for one have watched the events in the Middle East – and the conflict of Israel and the Palestinians – over the course of my life and never fully understood the dimensions and human context of the situation. Whilst I will never completely comprehend it, this book certainly helped me to understand the human element, the utter anguish and pure frustration of a man and his family living as Palestinians in Gaza. In a situation that strikes me as hopeless, this story conveyed a ray of hope, and helped me to gain sympathy for those in such circumstances.

Understanding ‘the other’ is a critical and fundamental tool to combat injustice, prejudice, inequality and war; reading this book is one small step in seeing life through the eyes of another.


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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Stephen Fry in America

Stephen Fry is an entirely remarkable man and with his work Stephen Fry in America - based on his 2007-08 documentary series - he has captured beautifully the dichotomy of the United States of America. Over a period of about months, he set about visiting each of the fifty US states not only to see their most touristy destinations but to meet the people therein and experience what makes each state unique. In doing so, he has delivered a masterwork.

By evaluating each state individually and driving between (most) destinations, Fry produces a diary which gives the most hardened cynic a glimpse of the people behind the USA and why preconceived notions of arrogance, ignorance and blind jingoism often fall wide of the mark. That he drove - a very American pastime - an English taxi - quintessentially British - only serves to highlight such an outsider's view.

From visiting Morgan Freeman's Blues club in Mississippi to flying over Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, his remarkable penchant for understanding and describing both people and situations leaves the reader with no doubt as to his feelings - almost always overwhelmingly positive, but objectively presenting the big-picture view. Early on, he accurately notes each member of the US population almost belongs to two countries - the Union and their own individual state. With each state he finds a uniform warmness and welcome, but discovers the manifestation of that welcome changes with each locale.

It's an easy read, great both for giving one ideas about places to visit and experiences one must have in the United States. Also, he writes an apologetic for an often misunderstood country, now globally miscast as a buffoon due to recent actions in political and celebrity spheres.

When he describes a Southern "You're welcome" as the most genuine one could ever receive he sums up that so misunderstood region. As he describes America as the country in which he would "most" like to break down late at night - he would feel sure of being helped by strangers and passers-by - he denotes what it is that makes America a wonderful country - they celebrate and help others as well as their own (mostly!).

In a literary sense, the thing that stands out above all else is Fry's ability to describe so eloquently but in easy, simple sentences. His descriptions are bang-on but for a man with an obvious intellect and Johnsonian vocabulary, he makes this book easily accessible and eminently readable.

An easy basketballs.
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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Admin: Do you want to write for Books with Balls?

Have you always wanted to tell everyone what you think about War and Peace? Or Ethel the Aardvark goes quantity surveying? Or perhaps you'd like to see your opinions published on the world wide web. If so, you're welcome to submit a review to Books with Balls - just email us at balancedsports (at) and let us know you're interested and we can take it from there.

Hope to hear from you soon!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review: And another thing... - Eoin Colfer

Perhaps Douglas Adams' greatest gift was for procrastination. Which created perhaps his greatest literary gift - an ability to create expansive, rambling narratives which both entertained and advanced the plot (mostly); mostly composed over hours of switch-on, switch-off composition. His legendary ability to achieve minimal results in maximum time abruptly ended the first Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy novel when his publishers literally said "Finish the current chapter and submit it". That he was able to draw the strings together on such long-winded expanses of prose after his short attention span was distracted by coffee, his Mac or even a passing butterfly was not only a gift but random acts of genius.

Eoin Colfer - he of the Artemis Fowl series - evidently has the same ability to ramble. However his contribution to the Hitchhikers' multiverse unfortunately loses steam and becomes less charming and more rambling as it proceeds. Undoubtedly a wonderful writer, Colfer turns phrases easily and thoughtfully, a quality which makes him a reasonable choice as H2G2 writing supremo. However, Douglas Adams had a remarkable knack of being able to knit a plot around his tangential observations that Colfer somehow lacks - you feel as if you are either reading a paragraph aimed at advancing the plot, or one aimed at making the reader snigger. While he's attempted quite successfully to mimic Adams' style, by the half way point many sequences have become interminable you realise the best characters, ideas and plotting were all Adams'.

This results in a book which feels awfully like the Star Wars prequels (ouch!) - the best ideas were the original ones and new "gimmicks" mostly fall flat. When riffing from the chords that Adams laid down, it's punchy and quite amusing. The premise (and plot) of the book is relatively clear - and remarkably straightforward for H2G2 - and Colfer's prosaic nous is evident throughout, the work lags badly and eventually becomes burdensome.

That's not to say it's a bad book, but it feels like Colfer began by encouraging lightning to strike twice (or for a sixth time) and ends with his realisation that no-one can really write like Douglas Adams. Like other artists of the twentieth century - Adams' contemporary Graham Chapman, for example - he will be imitated but it's best to go your own direction with established characters. As an example - have you ever tried to write in someone else's style? It's hard. And apparently gets harder as you plug on through 273 pages.

Having not read any of Artemis Fowl I wasn't sure what to expect of the work, or my beloved H2G2 multiverse. You can't copy inspiration and expect the same results. Like Doctor Who after Russell T. Davies and The West Wing after Sorkin it's best to go in a different direction rather than using creative types with talents in different areas. It's a brave attempt and doesn't reflect badly on Colfer, but doesn't shine like Adams. In a word: expected.

' fans should still read And Another Thing... but do so prepared to be left flat. First half tennis balls, second half golf balls.

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Review: The Mission 2: The inside story of Geelong's 2007 & 2009 AFL Premierships - Scott Gullan

by Books with Balls debutant, Glenn Jessop.

As a life-long suffering – and recently purring – GeelongCats supporter, it was with relish that I recently sat down to bask in thenostalgia of my team’s premiership triumphs as documented in Scott Gullan’s The Mission 2: The inside story of Geelong’s 2007 and 2009 AFL Premierships. The book details the club’s warts and all review following a torrid season in 2006, watershed flag in 2007, devastating loss in 2008 through to their epic and inspiring 2009 win.

The strength of this book lies in the expose of a club’s inner workings. It draws on honest accounts from the players and administration (in particular, the CEO and President) to shed light on the bonds, bravado and breaks within the playing group and support staff. Often hidden from the general public, the description of the physical strain on players is fascinating and highlights the grueling and gut-wrenching nature of the game.

Although the blow-by-blow accounts of each game are somewhat monotonous, Gullan manages to inject life into the text by telling the stories of individual players, from the enigmatic Steve Johnson to Matthew Stokes, Cameron Mooney, Tom Harley, Jimmy Bartel, Shane Mumford and sons of Gary Ablett senior. We hear of the hunger to play at the highest level, the agony and anguish of injury, the painful dilemmas and emotional toll of team selection, the inimitable bond with team-mates and the maturation of young men as they grasp and respond to the demands of AFL football.

Indulgent by nature, this book offers a satisfying description of an elite team in its prime, a diverse group of men pursuing and living every child’s dream. Footballs.

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