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Book Review
Bob Woolmer on Batting, Bob Woolmer on Bowling
Published: 2010
Pages: 128
Author: Bob Woolmer, Tim Noakes and Helen Moffett
Publisher: New Holland Publishers
Rating: 3.5 stars
By Neil Pickup
04 Oct 2010
Bob Woolmer on Batting, Bob Woolmer on Bowling

I've been coaching cricket for the best part of ten years now: from an unqualified beginning alongside my little brother's U12 team, through a series of coaching badges spread between life-affirming victory and soul-searching defeat, to my present role at the helm of Oxfordshire U10. Looking back on the decade, there are a handful of moments that stand out: the highlights - the last-ball victories, the silverware, the look on a boy's face after a maiden fifty - and then there's the exact opposite.

I remember seeing another coach look at a boy's batting and diagnosing "too much bottom hand" in a heartbeat, wondering whether I'd ever be able to do that. I remember being told that you had to be able to deliver feeds well in order to be able to coach well, and questioning whether that was a barrier I could clear. I remember sitting in a playing field in Berkshire after an afternoon spent watching leather chasing, batting collapses and arguing with parents, asking myself if I wanted to put myself through all that on a Sunday afternoon. Every story is a different shade of the darkest reality of sport: the knowledge that, at that particular moment, you weren't good enough, and you had to get better.

Even during the good times - after a summer in 2010 that's seen my junior sides win more than three-quarters of their games, claim the Oxfordshire districts title at U11 and U13, win the Rugby School sixes and break every record going at County level, the question remains. Why did we finish last at U15? Why was our running between the wickets so hopeless against Caldicott? How come boys reached fifty on at least thirty occasions, yet only once converted these into three figures? Yes, there are some simple answers - and of course limited overs have a lot to do with the last question - but the same conclusion lies in wait. No matter how well you're doing things, there's always a way to get better.

For me, there are two major ways of doing this: one, practising the basics - fault detection, feeding, technical analysis - and two, nicking other people's ideas. If I look through the catalogue of drills, games, explanations and analogies that I use as a coach, I think there's the sum total of one that I've come up with myself - and that's probably because no one else is stupid enough to use "I'll sit here and you hit me on the foot" to groove straight drives. These two companion volumes, Woolmer on Batting and Woolmer on Bowling, updated works by Professor Tim Noakes and Dr Helen Moffett, subscribe heavily to box one.

From the start, both books expect the reader to come in on their terms: there is no dumbing down, no subtle, deprecating humour - no words wasted on colour where they could be concentrating on technique. Every detail is given due consideration, right down to the specifics of finger positions of the bottom hand grip or the implications of the front foot no-ball rule for fast bowlers' ankles, it's hard to believe you could turn to either volume with a technical question, only to see it go unanswered. Batting covers the grip, stance and setup before proceeding to build its innings through the straight bat shots, before expanding its horizons towards the cross-batted strokes and the Woolmer favourites, the family of sweeps.

This is one section in which a criticism of the book's approach can come to mind: there's, perhaps, too much weight given to the statement if it's prefixed with "Woolmer thought", as if this is an alternative for full explanation and argument. This also rears its head later in Bowling, when doosras are encouraged as a tremendous skill, skating over the fact that I've never had a conversation about a doosra without talking about its legality. It's a particular shame in this context, as the book begins with a revealing study of the biomechanics of bowling, discussing the "carrying angle" phenomenon - the imperfectly straightened arm that contributes to the illusion of throwing in the actions of Muttiah Muralitharan and Johan Botha.

Physics and mechanics also take centre stage in the latter half of Bowling, as the finer details of turbulent and laminar air currents, and the ways in which they react with the rough and shiny sides of the cricket ball to create both conventional and reverse swing, and explored in great scientific detail. The Magnus effect, discovered in the 19th century as the military tried to explain why nobody ever managed to hit the guys they were trying to shoot, is also explained within the context of spinners' dip and drift, exemplified by Shane Warne's "ball of the century". Science is again at the forefront as the authors take aim at the "saccade heresy" - the misconception that batsmen watch the ball in an unbroken line from the bowler's hand onto the bat, which extends into an analysis of reaction times in diminishing light.

Warne is far from the only member of cricket's hall of fame whose exploits feature in the books, as Woolmer's South African connection ensures that Jacques Kallis and Allan Donald can provide excellent technical models for the respective volumes, whilst every chapter is littered with names from cricketing past and present. This is no better illustrated than in the manner which Don Bradman's backswing - aimed as it was at second slip - is analysed in a deep and thought-provoking feature entitled the "rotary batting method". The Don's technique differed from his contemporaries, the argument goes - so why has no one tried to copy him? Why, for many years, was he simply explained away as "unorthodox", or "genius", rather than being looked at as a break in the mould? Once again - no matter how well you're doing, why can't you do even better?

These aren't books for the cricketing greenhorn. They're not the ideal Christmas present for a budding youngster, nor a likely aid for a new coach: the level of detail in the biomechanical sections would almost certainly go over the head of anyone without a good deal of cricket background, and the patience to match. Nonetheless, for a teenager with real aspirations of playing at the highest levels, or an experienced coach willing to challenge his ideas and his understanding, these books - particularly as reasonably-priced as they are - would be a valuable addition to their bookshelf.

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