Books

Gideon Haigh
Stroke of Genius

You know the photograph. Even if you don’t know you know it, almost certainly you do. An old-time cricketer captured side-on, in full stride, his bat raised high behind him. The exquisite geometry of the image imprints itself even on an eye unused to reading cricket.

The batsman is the Australian Victor Trumper and the photo – “the shot that changed cricket” of the subtitle – dates from his heyday in the decade following Federation. His record-breaking performance in the 1902 Ashes tour of England made Trumper the first Australian sporting hero. But he died young, and pretty soon his reputation (like every other cricketer’s) would be eclipsed by that of Don Bradman. In Stroke of Genius, Gideon Haigh refracts the story of an all-but-forgotten cricketing legend through the history of photography and image-making, to show the power of preservation that a single picture can possess.

In an era when Australian cricketers were notorious for dawdling at the crease – to maximise, it was said, the duration of a Test match and their share of the gate money – Trumper stood out as a man of action. There was hardly a ball he wouldn’t take on.“Leave it alone, Vic,” his coach would implore. “That wasn’t a ball to go at.” But that wasn’t Trumper’s way: “He seems to have been loath to play defensively at all,” writes Haigh. On his first tour of England, in 1899, Trumper made a record triple-century in a match; more characteristic though was
a quick 104, then out.

He was a natural batsman – “all instinct, no calculation” – yet the particulars of his play famously eluded description. Contemporary commentators marvelled opaquely that “he has no style, and yet he is all style”, with a technique “like no other batting”. Even the longest-winded of them had to concede that “Victor Trumper is, perhaps, the most difficult batsman in the world to reduce to words”. Certainly, wrote another, it was difficult “to follow exactly what he was doing with his bat” – difficult, that is, “for the ordinary eye”.

Before 1900, sports coverage relied on words alone. To get a real impression of a cricketer – or footballer, or boxer – in action, you had to be there, at the match. Even though photography had made steady progress since the 1840s, long exposure times still precluded action shots. In 19th-century cricket photos, players pose in team portraits or, individually, lean on a bat or nurse a ball. Match photos took a grandstand vantage point, with spectators forming the foreground and players like ants in the distance.

In 1902, George Beldam, a first-class English cricketer and innovative amateur photographer, set out to capture cricket’s stars in motion – rather than en pose – for purposes both aesthetic and instructive. The result was Great Batsmen, published in 1905, featuring 600 “Action-Photographs”. The once legendary W. G. Grace, middle-aged and portly, was shown in action, as was the athletic Prince Ranjitsinhji. But no great batsman got more coverage than Trumper. Among the book’s images was Plate XXVII, captioned “Jumping out for a straight drive”, the inspiration for Stroke of Genius:

The background verticals of the three little chimney pots and the horizontals of The Oval terraces narrate the bat’s imminent passage down and through the plane of the ball; the open sky in the top right suggests an exit point for the stroke.

In its perfection, writes Haigh, the image represents both the ideal of classic statuary and “an incunabula, a first tracing of the modern action photograph, anticipating its whole grammar of athletic motion and of mass spectacle”.

Gideon Haigh first saw “Jumping out” as an 11-year-old, but he wasn’t the first to swoon over it. Simultaneous with the publication of Great Batsmen, the image
was for sale as a photogravure print, suitable for framing, which soon became a staple of hotel bars, cricket clubrooms and boys’ bedrooms. Stroke of Genius traces the image’s appropriation by intervening generations, in formats ranging from advertising to folk art, satire and statuary. The memory of Trumper, evoked by “Jumping out”, has been recruited to represent, variously, the lost innocence of cricket’s “Golden Age” before World War I; a stylistic foil to “the run machine”, Bradman; and an unsullied alternative to a game corrupted by commerce. Now, a century after Trumper’s death, man and image are inseparable: the photo isn’t of Trumper, it is Trumper.

Haigh, cricket-lover and polymath, couldn’t write a dull book if he tried. Ostensibly a cricket book, Stroke of Genius ought to engage even a reader indifferent to the summer game. Sure, there’s an abundance of cricket talk, but Haigh sets it – most of it – in a broader cultural context and, viewed from certain angles, the book equally qualifies as art and social history. Besides which, there’s the joy of encountering words such as “monopsony” and “wristy” (as in “slim, wristy Alan Kippax”).

Honestly, Haigh is a cricket writer like no other. And if he sometimes succumbs to smart aleciness… well, it only adds to the entertainment. In passing, he cites Musil’s The Man without Qualities and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s “optical unconscious”, and he can’t resist noting that the issue of Wisden that marked Trumper’s death in 1915 also reported the death of Rupert Brooke, “who left a corner of an Aegean field forever England by succumbing to sunstroke on Lemnos”. 

Then there’s the tale of how an English Test batsman, circa 1950, regarding a print of “Jumping out” in the upstairs tearoom at The Oval, dared to criticise Trumper’s rashness at leaving his wicket so exposed. An old-timer, overhearing, observed with contempt that the speaker “had never in his life been so far out of his crease” – a sledge that surely commends itself to use far beyond cricketing circles.

Stroke of Genius is supposed to be a Father’s Day book. But don’t be fooled.  FL

Hamish Hamilton, 336pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 3, 2016 as "Gideon Haigh, Stroke of Genius". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL