Book Review: A trump card jumps out

The book is well presented, but is it too meandering? If you look at it from Gideon Haigh’s point of view, he has been driven by a Trumper passion, nay an obsession! And you can’t circumscribe a man who is in the throes of such an emotion. We will have to give Haigh considerable leeway, as he strives to give a wholeness to the Trumper story.

Don Bradman is bowled for a duck by Eric Hollies in his last innings in Test cricket.   -  Getty Images

Inspired by history... Steve Waugh, the Australian team skipper, wears the replica green cap from 1900 while talking to the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, before the first day's play of the third Test against India at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in 2000.   -  Getty Images

STROKE OF GENIUS

Victor Trumper and the shot that changed cricket

By Gideon Haigh

Simon & Schuster

Pages 315

Price: £18.99

In the last paragraph of this book, the author, Gideon Haigh, writes: “Has Smith heard of Victor Trumper, I wondered? Possibly. George Beldam? Definitely not. Never mind: he sort of knows them anyway.”

Now, who is Smith? It’s Steve Smith, the present Australian captain, who was the understudy to Michael Clarke last year, when Haigh saw him practising at the Oval during the Ashes series.

Who is Victor Trumper? It may be regarded as sacrilege to even pose this question, but just as Haigh is doubtful whether Smith knows about Trumper, not many may even recall this star Australian batsman, who passed away in 1915 after having supposed to have been born on November 2, 1877 (supposed because no official records are available).

 

Now what was so special about Trumper? In his heyday, he was the most popular cricketer in Australia and acknowledged to be the best batsman in the world. Albert Knight waxes lyrical in a passage from The Complete Cricketer (1906), which appears as an epigraph in Chapter 5 of Haigh’s offering, “In Victor Trumper we have seen the very poetry and heard the deep and wonderful music of batsmanship. Not the structures of a great mentality, not the argument of logic, but a sweet and simple strain of beauty, the gift of the gods alone. Stylish in the highest sense, orthodox, yet breaking all canons of style, Trumper is just himself.”

It’s time to take a look at George Beldam. An amateur batsman of merit and a photographer with ideas who improved as he went along, Beldam hit pay dirt in the English summer of 1905 at the Oval when he captured on his Adams Videx camera Victor Trumper in practice, jumping out with bat raised in preparation for a straight drive. The batsman’s right foot is partially grounded while the left hangs in the air.

To get this picture, Beldam moved to the point position in relation to Trumper and changed his camera setting to landscape from portrait. Beldam had shot a similar picture the previous year featuring Ranjitsinhji, but that jumping out picture was taken from a straighter position with the camera in portrait setting.

So Beldam’s creative juices were working when he moved further left on the field to shoot Trumper than when he had captured Ranji. And the switch to landscape was another inspired move.

The result was a picture, which when published in a book called Great Batsmen, as Plate XVII with the caption, “Jumping out for a straight drive. Shoulders, arms and wrists will all come into the stroke,” proved a runaway hit and which still holds sway more than a century after it was taken.

Haigh dissects the picture, thus: “That the image marks no special innings and relates to no particular match may account for some of its durability: it conjures an era, an attitude; it both harks back to cricket’s first imaginings of itself and anticipates a present day where action can be arrested by a keystroke. That front foot is still to land, just as there is always, in cricket, something about to happen.”

The picture is also an apt example of Trumper’s approach to batting, that of dominating the bowler by messing up his length!

Ninety-four years after Beldam’s marvel, a sculptor, Louis Laumen, cast ‘Jumping Out’ in bronze, a statue 2.5 metres high.

No wonder Haigh says, “Trumper is the earliest sporting luminary to have been, in the main, visually bequeathed: he is as much his picture as Sir Donald Bradman his statistics, and perhaps even more so, as what first illuminated and complemented Trumper has almost replaced him altogether, culminating in its final transfiguration into an art object, inspiring paintings, prints, plates and figurines, helping to sell beverages and bands alike.”

‘Jumping Out’ also hangs on the walls of innumerable museums, cricket stadiums and private homes all over the world. So widespread is its popularity, perhaps due to the phenomenon described by German philosopher Walter Benjamin as the “optical unconscious,” which enables us to identify with people whom we have not seen at all.

Strangely, despite engendering such a masterpiece, Beldam was not adequately recognised or recompensed. He was one of the pioneers of ‘Action Photography,’ and his Trumper was shot some six decades before another famous Australian sports image, the dramatic finish of the first Tied Test by Ron Lovitt.

 

Trumper’s salad year was 1902, when in a wet English summer he plundered 2570 first-class runs with 11 hundreds, at an average of 48.49 without a single not out, the highlight being the century before lunch in the fourth Test at Old Trafford.

The star batsman didn’t leave behind any memoirs either, save a Diary, which recorded most of the 1902 tour of England and which is now carefully preserved at the Melbourne Cricket Club Museum. Even here, the Diary is as modest as the man, with mostly cryptic entries and no sweeping narratives.

An innings of 335 in 165 minutes in Sydney grade cricket for Paddington against Redfern is another unforgettable Trumper innings, the knock containing 39 fours and 22 fives, the five being the precursor of the six. One of the fives was a monstrous 140-metre hit that broke the windowpane of a nearby shoe factory.

Another breathtaking innings was a 293 while on a private tour of New Zealand.

Trumper was easygoing and generous by disposition, gifting bats and money freely. But even such a personality fell foul of the selectors, who dropped him from the Australian team. The friction persisted with Trumper later declining to tour South Africa.

But he was as dignified in death — at an unbelievably young age of 37 — as he had been in life, seeking pardon for any wrong that he may have committed. And he was liked by even the inveterate foe, England, with W. G. Grace showing extremely good grace in gifting Trumper an autographed bat. To this day players and writers visit his grave to pay homage to a cricket soul nonpareil!

Now we come to the Don Bradman factor, with some considering Trumper to be the better batsman, even though Bradman made his Test debut a full 13 years after Trumper’s demise.

Trumper’s Test average was only 39, so there was no way in which he could have competed with the Don by way of figures, but with Jack Fingleton needling him, Bradman promptly defended himself by writing in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, “I do not want to enter into a discussion about Trumper, but perhaps in fairness to myself I may say this… On a percentage basis, Trumper got one century for every 9.8 innings, where I obtained a century every 3.4.”

On Fingleton writing that Beldam’s stills proved the technical purity of Trumper, Bradman disagreed. He included ‘Jumping Out’ in his The Art of Cricket and opined that the grip was “very high up the handle” and not in the “happy medium position!”

Haigh, however, tots up a point for Trumper when he writes, “Bradman fits snugly with an age fascinated by measurement and quantification, topping every average table, outlying every graph; Trumper’s run tallies, by contrast, lie fathoms deep. Yet this is also a visual age, of which Beldam has secured for Trumper a sizeable corner, while of Bradman there exists no single, quintessential image. The most widely reproduced photograph of the Don, ironically, is probably that of him being bowled for 0 in his final Test innings.”

The Immortal Victor Trumper, written by Fingleton and published in 1978, lauds the Australian players of the Trumper and the subsequent eras, who had been loyal to establishment cricket, in the wake of the Kerry Packer invasion, again projecting Trumper as a paragon of cricket virtue and its inspiration.

This theme of inspiration was carried forward by Steve Waugh, when as captain he re-modelled the baggy green Australian cap in the manner of Trumper’s as it appears in ‘Jumping Out.’ The Australian side trooped out in this cap for the first Test of the 2000 season. Haigh takes over, “Other leading cricketers have tapped into the image’s power, too. In December 2000, Waugh’s female counterpart, Belinda Clark, held the pose for the magazine Inside Sport… The message, this time, was inclusive. The game’s traditions were not the prerogative of a male elite — rather did they embody a spirit by which anyone could be inspired. In the first summer of his Test captaincy, Michael Clarke formed a more conventional and self-conscious link in the chain by appearing attired as Trumper on the front page of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, ahead of the SCG’s 100th Test, reinforcing the notion of a summer rite stretching back to ancient days.

“The stock of mythology appeals to both sides of politics, too. When Ashton Agar made his unforgettable Test debut at Trent Bridge in July 2013, The Age’s liberal conscience, Martin Flanagan, invoked the shade of Trumper, who had likewise played ‘without fear’ as captured in an ‘iconic photo of… him dancing down the wicket to drive, bat raised high, perfectly poised and wholly attacking.’ Artist Jim Pavlidis responded with a vision of Agar filling a Trumper-shaped hole. When Phillip Hughes suffered his mortal injury eighteen months later, the Daily Telegraph’s acerbic conservative, Tim Blair, saw in Hughes elements of Trumper, in their applying ‘unconventional methods to a sport founded on convention,’ leading lives ‘gently at odds with the moods of their respective times’ and causing ‘extraordinary mourning’ at ‘the agonisingly premature circumstances of their passing.’ Illustrator John Tiedemann positioned Trumper and Hughes at opposite ends of the same pitch.”

Now, how did Haigh begin to adore Trumper? He says he came upon Trumper and ‘Jumping Out’ in one of his earliest cricket books, Great Australian Cricket Pictures (1975) . And feasted on the picture, which appeared on Page 89, times without number.

Neville Cardus was another catalyst. Cardus, an inveterate Trumper fan, had written about the legend in Cricket: The Great Ones (1967) and this was republished in the souvenir for the 1977 Centenary Test. Haigh, all of 11 years old then, read the souvenir piece and was well and truly hooked! Hooked to the extent of naming one of his pet cats Trumper later in life!

Ultimately, Haigh was fated to write this Trumper biography some 100 years after the champion player’s death! Well it is not a biography, but an “iconography, a study of Trumper’s valence in cricket’s mythology and imagery,” Haigh says. He adds, “The origins of Stroke of Genius lie in a talk, the Jack Marsh Memorial Lecture, delivered (by Haigh himself) at the Sydney Cricket & Sports Ground Trust in January 2015: ‘He Opened the Windows of the Mind: How Victor Trumper Changed the Way Australians Saw Cricket.’”

And his research for the book, of course, took Haigh to the Oval in 2015, for he wanted to see the birthplace of ‘Jumping Out,’ which was conceived and delivered by Beldam there some 11 decades ago. Haigh hit the Oval along with a photographer and though the backdrop had changed, he was able to visualise the spot where Beldam had immortalised Trumper. And somewhere nearabout, Steve Smith was practising. Yes, the very same Steve Smith, whom we encountered in the first paragraph of this review!

The book is well presented. Well, not a surprise at all, considering that Haigh is the author of 31 books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles!

Is the book too meandering? Does it stray from its subject, Trumper, too much by dwelling on the ways of the people and on the outlook of cricketers towards their craft?

There are always two sides to the coin. If you look at it from Haigh’s point of view, he has been driven by a Trumper passion, nay an obsession! And you can’t circumscribe a man who is in the throes of such an emotion. We will have to give Haigh considerable leeway, as he strives to give a wholeness to the Trumper story.

In part, Haigh’s work is also a treatise on the art of photography in the Trumper era. But some of the pictures in the book have been badly reproduced.

And in the epigraph of Chapter 11 on Page 269, Trumper has been spelt as Trumpet! But then, we always welcome victors with trumpets!