The 34-year-old retired from Test cricket last year and has not featured in a one-day…
Tiger Pataudi, in one of his mischievous moods, would sometimes recall photographs of the past that were notorious for their static quality, and even imitate some of the poses. If you saw Ranji “hooking a short-pitched ball”, the frontispiece of his book on cricket, you were struck by the immobility of this great sportsman whose supple wrists and feline movements held everyone in thrall.
It wasn’t the fault of the cricketers. Photography hadn’t evolved. It wasn’t until Middlesex allrounder and photo enthusiast George Beldam made up in imagination what he lacked in technology that the first iconic picture was shot. ‘Jumping Out’, a brilliantly framed picture of the great Australian batsman Victor Trumper was captured by Beldam in 1905, three years after Trumper’s annus mirabilis when he made a century before lunch on the first day of a Test, and finished the English tour with 2570 in a season marked by bad weather and wet wickets.
The picture is on the cover of Gideon Haigh’s recent book Stroke of Genius, with the explanatory subtitle, Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket. Trumper was effectively, says Haigh, the first Australian to be the best at anything in the world. Many considered Trumper the greatest Aussie batsman, ahead of Don Bradman, although he averaged only 39 in Tests.
Jumping Out is an extraordinary picture. The batsman is a metre outside the crease, the front foot is in the process of landing on the turf, the bat held aloft preparatory to the straight drive is an extension of the arm, the eyes are focused, and there is power, grace and a complete lack of strain. There is a gap between the buildings in the background which silhouettes Trumper’s head, and even three chimneys (perhaps) that line up on the building to the left before which the bat has stopped in its upswing just before it begins to descend.
As Haigh explains, the book is not a biography of Trumper. “It is instead, for want of a better word, an iconography, a study of Trumper’s valence in cricket’s mythology and imagery.”
It is too a study in the development of photography, social commentary, cricket technique, Beldam’s obsession to find out how great players did their stuff, an effort to cancel out some of the air brushing indulged in by the few biographies of Trumper, a sideways look at the Golden Age of cricket and a study in the art of presenting profound research with a light touch. Haigh pulls all these threads together and colours them with the richness of his prose.
“Spoil a bowler’s length and you’ve got him,” was Trumper’s credo, and the photograph is an example of action suiting words. It is cricket’s version of what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin has called the ‘optical unconscious’, which injects us with memories of events and personalities we do not have first-hand knowledge of, but maintain an easy familiarity with.
For another chronicler of the game, however, the apex of beauty in the game was captured a quarter century after that Trumper shot. In Cricket: The Game of Life, Scyld Berry gives pride of place to the picture of Walter Hammond playing the cover drive at Sydney Cricket Ground in 1928-29. “For poise, grace, symmetry, composition and power it might be the picture of a statue by Pheidias,” wrote Ronald Mason, “there is a flawless balance in the distribution of every line and every mass in the field of vision, and it conveys an infinite potentiality of strength…”
The photographer, Herbert Fishwick specialised in taking pictures of Merino sheep but decided to go to the match that day.
Scyld himself calls it the “most beautifully composed photograph of the most beautiful cricket stroke.”
Stunningly, Scyld takes off from there to the statues of David by Michelangelo, Donatello and Bernini, comparing how each finishes, how the transfer of weight adds to the grace.
He then goes on to tell us why the Hammond image is better than the Trumper one. “He (Trumper) makes a majestic sight as he sets himself to drive the ball straight. But this stroke is not so beautiful as Hammond’s front foot off drive because Trumper is playing with both legs braced and his torso upright.”
It’s not only batsmen, of course. The iconic picture of Bishan Bedi in his delivery stride was taken by Ken Kelly after he followed the bowler around for four years.
“I could always sense his right thumb firmly levering the ball into his left-hand grip just as his arm unwound to come over, an amazing final unconscious check to establish that his purchase on the ball was exactly perfect. Or was I imagining it?” the photographer wondered in an interview later.
No he wasn’t, as his picture showed.
“I could never have posed for that, because I never realised I did it,” was Bedi’s reaction.
The partnership between player and photographer is one of the most enjoyed but least appreciated in cricket.