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GIDEON HAIGH: Stroke of Genius - an extract

28th October, 2016
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15 Jumping Out Recreated: Credit Beldam Collection and use the copy from the book as explanation: “Stages in the Trumper straight drive shown ‘to perfection’ across a double page in 1905’s Great Batsmen by Beldam and Fry.
Expert
28th October, 2016
3

This is an extract from Gideon Haigh’s latest book, Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Shot that Changed Cricket.

You can find his latest book at all good book stores. It might make a good Christmast gift for the cricket lover in your life!

To continue his study, Beldam now pursued Trumper to The Oval. Exactly when went unrecorded, but it was almost certainly before play on a day of Australia’s game against Surrey, which spanned 11–13 May 1905. We know Beldam was present because the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News the following week published a photograph of Beldam in street attire standing at cover with his camera while Clem Hill played to leg on a pitch marked at the eastern edge of the square – from this can be inferred the services of a bowler. We know also that the game had a noon start with no tea break, and the shortish shadows in the photographs Beldam took of Trumper are consistent with their being taken in late morning.

The Oval was a location pregnant with meaning: the venue where Australians had made a fortune in 1878, lost a great Test in 1880, and won a great Test in 1882; the home of one of the county clubs that had recently sought to recruit Trumper. It was also a vision of the future of cricket watching, served as it was by the world’s first electric tube and a brand new tram line, surmounted by a superb pavilion hosting 400 000 visitors a year. Overshadowed by the gasholders of the South Metropolitan Gas Works, increasingly encircled by factories, foundries and breweries, The Oval’s playing expanse now had a rus in urbe quality, a remnant of the days when Kennington had been open fields and market gardens.

With the King as patron and the Lord Chief Justice as president, Surrey County CC was at a zenith of self-estimation. Secretary Charles Alcock had just published a sumptuous history billing the county as ‘the Cradle of Cricket’, dismissing the traditional claims to that title of the village of Hambledon, and also subtly puncturing the pretensions of Marylebone. Socially exclusive Lord’s might headquarter cricket’s high councils, believed Alcock, but The Oval was the ground of the people, providing ‘a great education for them in every possible way’. In a verse in Fry’s Magazine, the Surrey amateur Digby Jephson saluted the diversity of Oval crowds:

There are soldiers, sailors and postmen there,
There are clerks from their high-backed stools.
There are tinkers, tailors and booing brats,
And swells of The City in silken hats
And men from the clubs in immaculate spats
But all of them know the rules.

Their own rules were an attendance to pleasure of utmost seriousness and decorum. In the Jubilee Book, Ranji had reported the astonishment of a German visiting a county match at The Oval at ‘the extreme orderliness of the many thousands’ in the presence of a mere ‘five policemen’ when ‘abroad it would require at least 300 policemen to keep such a large crowd in order’. When Neville Cardus later argued for cricket as the ‘national art’ of a people ‘prone to be ashamed of living the life aesthetic’, he gestured not towards St John’s Wood but Kennington: ‘Go among the shilling crowd any fine day at The Oval and what do you hear? Little technical jargon, little talk of off-breaks and the position of the left funny bone in the late cut. Instead you will hear many delighted cries of “Beautiful stroke – Beautiful!”’

That day at The Oval, Beldam was pursuing his own ‘beautiful stroke’. His photographs at Lord’s had been of different shots from more or less similar angles, just either side of straight. Now he sought the perfect encapsulation of the perfect drive down the ground. Peering down through the grid of his viewfinder, he worked his way around a 180-degree arc, stopping to take pictures at five points between mid-on and second slip, in the process exposing a background panorama of the ground: low-level terraces fringed by distant houses; the exoskeleton of the gasometers; the silhouette of a solitary tree beside the pavilion’s solemn bulk. The passage of time can be sensed from the lesser and greater concentrations of onlookers, presumably building up as game time approached. In some images, smudged figures appear on the outfield, including a woman with a parasol, perhaps Annie Trumper.

A recurrent detail is noticeable: Trumper’s front foot poised in midair as the bat flourished at the top of its swing, inspired perhaps by Beldam’s successful picture of Ranji the previous year, as if to stress the subject’s balance and light-footedness, and also the instantaneity of the medium. In no other photographic sequence of Beldam’s would this prove such a motif – there is a sense of him exploring his camera’s limits as he documented Trumper’s.

When Beldam moved to point, side-on to the action, he paused with special care. This time, he wanted Trumper to commence his stride from outside the crease, his back foot a metre ahead of the line, a preliminary step to this position assumed – the straight drive potentiated, attack sharpened to a fine point. To capture it, he planned a photograph of equivalent skill and nerve, tilting the plate holder at the back of the Videx so as to produce images of a landscape rather than a portrait shape. This was something he very seldom did. In the rest of his oeuvre there are only a handful of none-too-successful attempts to work in such a way. Such a photograph required the leaving of a space for an on-rushing cricketer to fill – it risked a wasted plate, which Beldam deplored.

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It was a gesture of confidence in his subject, that Trumper had the athleticism to match the conception. It’s also possible Beldam looked at the background, for from his sideways vantage was visible a gulf in the skyline opened by the width of Clayton Street stretching away from the ground – defined on the left by a boarding house and on the right by the Clayton Arms Hotel, it was in its way the perfect frame, especially in a photograph now absent the orienting presence of stumps.

The publican of the Clayton Arms, one Frederick Brooke, had shown a shrewd understanding of the conspicuousness of his establishment and allowed advertisers to emblazon its facade: a big banner spruiked Sporting Life (‘The Paper the Professionals Read’); smaller ones promoted Rosbach (‘Empress of Table Waters’), Bovril (‘Bovril Always Scores’) and Claymore Whisky (‘Tired Nature’s Sweet Restorer’). But Beldam blurred these, and also the legend ‘Refreshments’ on the front of The Oval’s bar, by widening his aperture and shrinking his depth of field. A crowd had collected square of the wicket – all those soldiers and sailors, tinkers and tailors, orderly and dark-clad. With the twiddling of a knob, they too became an indistinct mass. Trumper would be the image’s entire foreground in a narrow strip of focus.

There survives no contact sheet or diary note chronicling the order or even the number of photographs Beldam took of Trumper’s spring from this angle. All we know is that three images survive. One he would save for his later small book Cricket Illustrated (1908). It was almost but not quite right. Trumper was just short of occupying the Clayton Street gap; his left wrist was bent just a little awkwardly; his weight had not quite fully transferred; two dark figures, perhaps police constables, loitered in the middle distance.*

It has the hallmarks of a first attempt, after which Beldam moved ever so slightly left, so that Trumper’s head in his normal stance would have reposed between the distant ogee-roofed towers of the board school on Kennington Road.

Beldam’s method was almost always to collect an image of the stroke in completed form, so he had Trumper proceed all the way to the follow-through, the bat having described more than a full circle, shoulders now completely turned. This time the framing worked better, for Trumper stopped just short of the right side of the gulf, almost vertically upright, eyes seemingly fixed on the disappearing ball. Beldam would have withdrawn the plate with a feeling of confidence. But could he get Trumper at the extent of his spring?

For Beldam, photography was often a rush, a compromise, seeking opportune moments when subjects were willing and the climate was favourable. Photography remained so novel that few had a clear idea how long it took. Beldam enjoyed relating a story of seeking permission to photograph the players at a certain county club, and the secretary asking the duration of exposures. ‘A thousandth of a second,’ said Beldam. ‘Oh well, then,’ the secretary replied. ‘You’ll soon be through with our eleven – about one one-hundredth of a second for the whole team.’

The build-up of the crowd visible through his viewfinder would have told Beldam now that time was running out. One can imagine ground staff, officials and policemen looking at their watches wondering when all this palaver would be done; one can imagine spectators looking on from afar bemused by the stop-start action; one can imagine the ball leaving the bowler’s hand, the batsman commencing to leap, and the photographer clicking to release the mirror, engage the shutter, expose the plate, and wonder . . . had he got it?

* In his personal copy of Cricket Illustrated, now owned by collector John Hawkins, Beldam annotated the image for comparison with a photo on the adjacent page of W. G. Grace, using his favoured technical jargon: ‘Well marked left arm screw but wrist joint bent (how unfortunate!). Right hand relaxed (not revolved). Symptoms cf opposite page reversed, bat face looking backward and not straight at you (due to left wrist joint) etc etc.’

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