Gideon Haigh, Stroke of Genius: Victor Trumper and the Stroke that Changed Cricket, Hamish Hamilton, (Penguin Random House Australia), Melbourne 2016, RRP $39.95. ISBN 9781926428734
Stroke of Genius is perfect for a book that lives up to its title. Gideon Haigh, in a marvellous piece of detective work, unpicks and reveals the life story of the greatest batsman of his day, Victor Trumper, while deconstructing the significance and influence of the photograph of the man that has come to symbolise his style and impact. So it is a cricket story, a photography story, and a brilliant evocation of an era written by a master at the height of his powers. This is no mean feat since so little is known of Trumper himself. His brief diary of the 1902 Ashes tour is spectacularly uninformative, but Haigh extracts every piece of value from it. Much of what has been written about him is hagiographical and often wrong. Now he is back in context and his brief and charismatic life story is the centrepiece of a riveting tale.
Everyone who only cricket knows, knows Trumper, but few know George Beldam, the photographer who immortalised the master, with a carefully constructed image. Beldam was no mean performer himself, playing first class cricket for Middlesex and London County, but he was the man who took sports photography to new and interesting places. Before Beldam, cricket photography was static, long distance, indecipherable and not a patch on the work of artists and cartoonists. Beldam made it come alive by technology and artifice, and not a little artistic brilliance of his own. Imagine lugging a brickie’s load of glass plates, unwieldy and heavy cameras, stands and paraphernalia around England’s cricket grounds and persuading flighty and mercurial sporting stars to enact carefully crafted shots which turned a work of record into a piece of art. No shooting a hundred shots and picking the best of them with an iPhone, for this man. All the work could be wasted by missing the key moment or because of a glitch in the technology.
All this and more is carefully explained by Gideon Haigh at his fluent and wide-ranging best. So we get vignettes of the relationships within the Australian cricket team and a sense of the awe in which his peers regarded Trumper, who seemed to be able to do anything on the cricket field with an engaging and unique style. Yet the outpourings of prose and poetry about the man are subjected to forensic scrutiny. Haigh gently debunks some of Neville Cardus’s flights of fancy about Trumper without demeaning either of them. Jack Fingleton and Ashley Mallett are also put under the microscope.
But the main underlying theme of the book is how images and stories are constructed amalgamations of fact, fiction and artifice. Trumper lives, and lives for generations who never saw him, because of this iconic, manufactured photograph. The photograph has meaning and significance because the best batsman of his generation is the centrepiece of a constructed image at the forefront of the technology of the day. The timing is critical because this was a golden age of cricket in an era that has always had magic sparkling around it because of what followed. Trumper died only a decade later during the First World War at the age of 37.
There are numerous sub-plots to this story, not least the way in which a man who had a good sense of his own worth and who was a critic of those who tried to set themselves up as the cricket establishment became the darling of that body in their subsequent reconstruction of him. The uses that ‘Jumping Out’—the iconic picture—has been put to by designers, publicists, jumpers-on-bandwagons are multitudinous and several of them appear here, as do many examples of Beldam’s work on cricket and cricketers, golfers and tennis players, so he was not just a one-code man. Like another genius of his age, C.B. Fry, he seemed to be able to turn his hand and curious mind to anything and mastered the means, technical and practical, to produce valuable results.
Trumper captivated Gideon Haigh when he was a boy. This story has probably been rumbling about in Haigh’s consciousness ever since, but it took the accumulation of deep knowledge about the game, about journalism, about the technology and the business of photography to bring all this to life in Stroke of Genius. If you only buy one sports book for Christmas, this is it. But if you run to two, get The Doggies Almanac. [If you can manage three, add Roy’s Games Goals Glory – JTH]
Games Goals Glory is a colourful history of the A-League. Copies are available through Roy Hay. email@example.com