Thursday, 22 May 2014

England's ODI Batting Dilemma

Another English cricketing summer has begun again with Sri Lanka being the first of two renowned cricketing titans to tour our country this summer.

However, England despite the new regime change with new performance director, Paul Downton; the return of Peter Moores as Head Coach and a new group of selectors, England are still making the same mistakes in 50 over team selection.  With less than a year to go before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, England are showing their hand to be feeble and weak.

For years, England have refused to join the party of having big hitters at the top of the order as is the want of every other Test side.  Whilst there is a credit in maintaining consistency of selection across all formats and familiarity of roles for players, is that not ego massaging of the order by not putting pressure on players to succeed and garner a better quality of performance.

In Alex Hales, England finally have a player who is both bombastic and exciting at the top of the order.  One of the best T20 players in the world, he requires the opportunity to be promoted to the fifty over game and yet England are seemingly content with the opening partnership of captain Alastair Cook and Ian Bell. Whilst Bell is scoring runs solidly, if there is someone disposable it is the Warwickshire batsmen whose removal from the limited overs team(s) will prolong his Test career of which he is the most solid of anchors following the dismal Ashes series over the winter.

Cook has shown himself quite adept at adapting to the shorter format of the game, however, do we have to select the Test captain due to his position of seniority or is he being selected on merit? The selection of Cook with Hales would give the left and right hand combination, and allow Cook to bat his way and Hales the freedom to swing his arms much like Sanath Jayasuriya was nearly 20 years ago.

Yet is this a matter of accommodation or a matter of bad management, because the formation of a competitive batting line-up is being ignored for the sake of posterity.  Ravi Bopara is possibly the most talented individual all-round cricketer in England, and yet he is mis-managed by England seemingly.  This writer has seen Bopara score centuries for Essex at the number 3 position; his experience and now veteran status should not be undermined and utilised.

Bopara at 3 followed by Eoin Morgan at 4 then the developing Gary Ballance at number 5 will allow some solidity to the order as Ben Stokes (in a perfect world) will enter at 6 followed by the wild card of Jos Buttler at number 7, where his inventiveness and unorthodox approach at the death of a first innings can garner bonus runs or be successful in a chase.

This would mean the removal of Joe Root from the team, this is required as Root a good member of the Test side and an important component of the side going forward is being accommodated in this respect of the limited overs side.  Whilst he scored a century in the Caribbean, he nonetheless scored at close or less than a run a ball.  Until Root shows he can play and score consistently for his county, only then can we add him to the discussion.

Currently England are not sitting pretty in the ODI rankings as a team and individuals, there is still time to make a statement. How about picking the ones making the loudest noises?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thirty One Nil

When I interviewed James Montague at the tail end of last year in relation to the release of his book, When Friday Comes, my last question to him was, What advice do you have for a young writer? His answer was go out and find the stories. Taking heed of his own advice and endorsing the quote on the front of new book ' The Indiana Jones of football writing', Montague travels around the world from 2011 throughout the qualification period for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Montague travels to all corners of the globe from the now famed American Somoa team (who garnered world attention after being defeated by Australia 31-0) which gives the book it's title. Other outposts visited include Lebanon, CuraƧao as well as returning to the Middle East, a place of which he wrote with such authority.

Montague is an affable writer, and by placing himself at the heart of the action amongst such eccentric players and equally fanatical fans whilst experiencing the problems of travelling the globe and being an outsider in a strange land.  Often he had little money, often he is up against the clock; he makes clear that it is not all warm beaches and glamour, the dedication to the craft of journalism is never in doubt.

While some call him Indiana Jones, for me he is Michael Palin - the polite Englishman ever respectful and yet universally liked by all, able to infiltrate previously restricted areas with ease and gaining access and interviewing those who rarely gain exposure from the world media.  Whilst football provides the overall framework for the book, the locations and their residents provide the page-turning material. The final score is not the most important result, more so the bus journey to the ground.

Mixing in top rate observations of new landscapes as well as explaining the sometimes qualifying procedures for these lonely nations; Montague has again written a book that is more travelogue than tome to football.

It got me thinking that if Shakespeare had been born in the twentieth century, he may well have written, 'All the world is football' and with writers like Montague who venture to all corners and continents to cover it with such aplomb, the passion for football will never diminish.

Thirty-One Nil is out on 22 May 2014 from Bloomsbury priced £12.99 for paperback and available on eBook

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Beyond the Edge

This wonderful new documentary tells the story of how a British expedition attempted to climb Mount Everest and how on 29th May 1953, two men Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay conquered the tallest mountain on Earth.  Hilary was a New Zealand beekeeper and Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa, who together achieved something thought to be impossible.

Beyond the Edge uses archive footage from those who climbed with the group, still photography from base camps and actors in re-enactments; you get a real sense of the enormity of the challenge facing them all.

Along with fellow ground breakers of the time, Roger Bannister and Donald Campbell, Hilary shared with them a deep desire to succeed and achieve beyond the mere limitations of man.  His sheer ambition coupled with an overpowering perfectionism set Hilary apart from the British climbers, that married with his physiological advantage of having climbed in the mountains of New Zealand which held him in good stead for the expedition.

As noted in the film, this climb was the last hurrah seemingly of the British Empire as it was on its last legs as a new dawn was forthcoming in the coronation of a new monarch in Queen Elizabeth II.  The summit was reached on 29th May, and news reached London five days later on 2nd June, the day of the coronation.  Even in those days, happy accidents or PR gurus were in full effect.

The achievement in a period of austerity provided hope to a nation still suffering from post-war blues in the midst of rationing.  However, the effort of one New Zealand beekeeper and his sherpa helped rally a nation; you also get a sense from Hilary in his taped statement of the climb that he did not want to let anyone down in his task.  A feeling shared by most climbers, as in the Irish documentary The Summit (2012) of a failed K2 climb where 13 people died.

Shot with a marker for 3D distribution, the landscape photography is awe-inspiring, the pay off being the majestic 360 degree panoramic shot from the point of view of Hilary as he reaches the summit.

Sixty years after the event that still transfixes people, the conquering of Everest gets the treatment and documentation it deserves from director Leanne Pooley who co-wrote the screen story with Matthew Metcalfe.

Beyond the Edge is released on Friday 23rd May by Metrodome.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Touchy Feely

Lynn Shelton, director of Humpday, returns with her third feature, Touchy Feely which tells the story of a masseuse who suffers an aversion to skin whilst her older dentist brother starts showing signs of healing powers; whilst both suffer crisis of confidence, their closest relationships with boyfriend and daughter respectively suffer.

In the same vein of atypical American independent cinema, Shelton sets up a family dynamic with the two siblings and their problematic relationships, yet Shelton is also able to tell us more about the characters by way of their profession.

When Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt) suffers this aversion to touching clients, she feels lost as it is the only thing profession she has had in her adult life. The same came be said of her humdrum brother Paul (Josh Pais) who has only ever been a dentist and does not want to be anything other than a practising orthodontist, yet the people coming to his surgery means he misses the needs of his daughter expertly portrayed by Ellen Page.

The semi-improvised dialogue between the four main players gives the film a genuine feel of authenticity helped by the natural cadence of the acting, unfortunately the pay-off comes short of justifying our investment in these characters.

This is a shame as Shelton again shows herself to be an assured hand in proceedings, however like a predecessor Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Enough Said) perhaps Shelton needs to get more personal for her work to crossover to the mainstream.

Touchy Feely is out Friday 16th May

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


Released in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this summer, the new documentary from Mr. Bongo films Ginga: The Soul of Brazilian Football tells the story of the ongoing love affair between Brazil and the most popular sport in the world.

Ginga follows seven young footballers from a diverse range of ethnic and social backgrounds which helps explain the passion for the sport.

Through the exploits of these youngsters we can see how such stars like Pele, Socrates, the original Ronaldo and now Neymar are created.  The argument may be made that great sportsmen are born, however, the argument of nature over nurture has a closing argument in Brazil.  Men and women are born into this exuberant nation, and nurtured to play football from a young age in favelas, in streets and on the beach even.

Startling photography adds a travelogue portrayal to the film, yet the spirit of football and the magic of the sport we hope that will come across during the month long tournament in June and
July of this year, is fittingly in the home of Ginga football.

As Ronaldo says, 'Ginga, it's in our blood, it's a gift given by God especially to Brazilians who play football and learn to dance from an early age.'

Ginga is out on DVD from Monday 12th May at £12.99rrp

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Afternoon Delight

Out on DVD this Monday from Emfoundation, Afternoon Delight by Jill Soloway stars Kathryn Hahn as an unhappy surburban Mum who encounters a young stripper who reawakens her sexual longing that has been dormant for quite some time; think Belle de Jour transferred to Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Hahn is perfectly cast as Rachel, the mum with the six year old daughter, but who is experiencing a lot of ennui and unhappiness with her married life to Jeff (Josh Radnor - How I Met Your Mother).  On a night out with friends to a strip club, she is bought a lapdance with a young stripper, Mckenna (Juno Temple) and her desire is awakened by this encounter.

After Mckenna is kicked out of her apartment, Rachel invites her to her home and save her from a life of debauchery, the youngster admits she is a prostitute and in her own words 'a whore'; yet rather than saving her, Rachel is drawn to the unseemly lifestyle and whilst her sex life is better with Jeff - when a stranger enters a family home, trouble is ahead.

Soloway does well with the script as a critique of enclosed communities satirising the Jewish community of bake sales and fund raising that is numbing Rachel.  Yet the scenes of sex are handled with a fear often seen in American cinema that is sometimes unsure with how to address the basic human need of intercourse.  This is a shame as both Hahn and Temple really jump into their roles with aplomb.

However, Soloway does make an interesting statement on the male gaze in cinema, by changing the gaze from the male to the female gaze of Rachel, and yet whilst Temple is merely a main vessel of the gaze for Rachel, she remains an object of desire also for Jeff and his male friends.  So is the male gaze questioned or just reinforced?  There's even a running gag of looking into each other's eyes during coitus and when clinking glasses for a toast.

Helped by some great performances by the two leading ladies and cameos from among others Jane Lynch as Rachel's 'inappropriate' lesbian therapist.  Soloway nails the film as an attempt to look at the unhappiness with the affluence of their surroundings, as Jeff says to Rachel, 'Not everyone is meant to be happy', yet by the film's end the couple have found an even keel following the intrusion of Mckenna into their sanctum.

Whilst released only a few months ago theatrically, there is certainly enough here to maintain people's attention and for Hahn it is a great opportunity to see her leading a film.

Afternoon Delight is out on DVD on Monday 12th May from EM Foundation

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Johnny Football


Kevin Shropshire's new book by MVP Books entitled Johnny Football tells the reader about the tumultuous two year period in College Station, Texas when a confident young man who captured the attention of a nation, the hearts of an adoring fan base whilst polarising opinion amongst various media outlets.

Not since the days of Tim Tebow at Florida has a young college sportsman been as loved and as hated  when playing at the College level. Johnny Manziel seemingly appeared from nowhere winning the starting QB position as a freshman leading the Texas A&M Aggies to a 11-1 season including a win on the road versus the reigning National champions Alabama and winning the illustrious Heisman trophy, the first freshman to do so.

Shropshire's book is a wonderful home not just to those life-changing times in Texas but he takes the  time to give an in-depth history about college football in Texas, the reasons behind the Aggies move from the Big 12 to the more intense SEC conference where the level of opponent is more attributable to a greater post-season Bowl appearance.

With great humour Shropshire covers the career of Kevin Sumlin who has dealt with the Manziel thunderstorm with great dignity; Shropshire's chapter on the NCAA investigation which jeopardised Manziel's 2nd season is portrayed with precision and care to not make a judgment but produce the facts as they are.

Shropshire's history in the regional press of Texas provides some hilarious nuggets of truth in the task of local journalism, as well as jibes at the feverish fandom of college sports.  This reader particularly liked the story of when the Alabama Crimson Tide came to College Station for the rematch of Manziel vs AJ McCarron which the Tide QB won, with Aggies staff instructing fans, 'Don't look at the Tide fans, and don't feed them either', numerous occasions his reader laughed out loud at this writer's clever use of humour to make the point clear.

And yet the Manziel story has not finished yet, tomorrow night in New York City for the 2015 NFL Draft when Johnny Football may become Johnny Cleveland, Johnny Jaguar or Johnny Viking.  What is clear from all the stories Shropshire writes is that many coaches, players and critics agree that Johnny Football for all the off-the-field drama is a once in a lifetime footballer capable of galvanising a franchise and team with his unique play-making ability.

Johnny Football: Johnny Manziel's Wild Tide from Obscurity to Legend at Texas A&M is out from MVP Books in England on 26th June 2014, but is available now via American outlets for your reading devices.