Stroke of Genius: review

If you’re reading this, you’ll know the picture. You’ll probably know it by the name of its subject: Victor Trumper, for the image and the man have become melded in the cricketing imagination, reduced and enlarged to encompass each other. It shows a cricketing Vitruvian man, the batsman extended to his limits, balanced and bursting with potential energy. The front foot is raised, poised to land, a step committed to, but with all the possibilities of success and failure as yet unrealised. The crease is a yard behind his back foot, the abandoned abode of the cautious.

Gideon Haigh’s wonderful new book, Stroke of Genius, is a history of an image, charting the creation and influence of “Jumping Out”, George Beldam’s iconic photograph of Trumper. It is not simply a biography of the man, because the image has consistently changed in meaning since Trumper’s death. Moreover, it is a history of how cricket has been seen, how a game which is inherently difficult to watch has had to be brought closer to the spectator, in a process which is still ongoing. It is also a history of how cricket, and sport more generally, has contended with its inherent tension between aesthetics and achievement – how, or how many?

One of the reasons for the appeal and wide dissemination of “Jumping Out” is its malleability; posed outside of a match, it is contextless and therefore far more flexible than an image of a “live” moment. Trumper becomes an ideal cricketer, representative of “how the game should be played”. During his lifetime, this exposed the tensions between amateur and professional, but over time, Trumper became a symbol of prelapsarian innocence.

The lack of match context reflects the conditions in which the image was created – the photograph had to be carefully staged. The photographer, George Beldam, was himself a first class cricketer, and dismissed Trumper in a match not long after taking another series of photographs of Trumper. There is a hint of the modern bowler, armed with the knowledge of a batsman’s technique thanks to the demystification of technology. It is not the only suggestion of today’s relationship between camera and cricket. Beldam’s first cricketing photograph was of his uncle batting in the garden. Beldam’s uncle was notorious for never accepting the word of whoever was umpire, and so the photo captures the exact moment he is struck on the pad. It looks exactly like a modern freeze frame (it only needs the stumps to be superimposed), and the removal of doubt, the technological judgement, is similarly modern.

Beldam’s ability to capture cricketers in action, however posed, also allowed the study of technique to develop. Two leading batsman, CB Fry and Ranjitsinhji, set the standard for aesthetic batsmanship, with Ranji’s exoticism and Fry’s careful study announcing a shift to visual appreciation of batting, tied into the new revelations of photography. Trumper was crucial to this. Previous stars of batting like WG Grace had been notable for the volume of runs and the stamina required to score them. Trumper was notable for how he looked. This trope was to reappear when Bradman began to dominate the game. Bradman was regarded as cold and mechanical, lacking the exuberance of Trumper – usually based on “Jumping Out”, Trumper’s visual legacy. Bradman himself compared the two men, writing that “Trumper got one century every 9.8 innings, where I obtained a century every 3.4”. Well, quite…

Bradman’s batting was often seen as a product of its age, batting Fordism as opposed to Trumper’s fin de siècle vitality. This is particularly notable in the mythologizing of writers such as Neville Cardus, whose suspicion of modernity led him to eulogise the “Golden Age” of Trumper and co. Yet this is misleading. “Jumping Out” is a deeply modern image. To begin with, it was taken at The Oval, seen then and now as the “people’s ground”, far more accessible to a mass audience than exclusive Lord’s. Moreover, the ground was accessible in a practical sense, served by the new tube and tram network, and surrounded by the buildings of the city – the famous gasholders and factories, foundries and breweries. Trumper himself grew up as a street cricketer, breaking Sydney windows. “Jumping Out”’s amateur elegance came from an urban background, and was set in an urban setting. This was a long way from the pastoral reverie of Cardus.

The composition of “Jumping Out” is also striking. Trumper’s swing was often interpreted as the carefree elegance of the “Golden Age”, as compared to Bradman’s mechanised manner. But the image fits more comfortably with modern art than with traditional cricketing imagery. Many of Beldam’s photographs capture the details of technique. But “Jumping Out” goes beyond that, technology enabling the capture of the aesthetics of batting. Beldam’s photograph brings to mind the new range of modern art depicting sport as an aspect of modernity, overlapped with industry and advertising, and loaded with motion. The looming “Sporting Life” banner hints at Robert Delaunay’s 1913 L’Équipe de Cardiff; the blurred crowd foreshadows Jean Metzinger’s 1912 Au Véledrome. As a moment of sporting stillness, it prefigures Harald Giersing’s Sofus Heading of 1917. Victor Trumper, bourgeois Australian, becomes avant-garde at the crease. As Haigh puts it, Beldam pre-empted the “whole grammar of athletic motion and of mass spectacle” in the modern sporting image.

With hindsight, we see that Trumper is not the antithesis of professionalism, but rather part of a tradition of batting that blends prodigious output with aesthetic charm. As CB Fry’s wife, Beatie, wrote, Trumper was “a poet of cricket”, but “his timing has the exactness, rhythm, and fit of the oceangoing ship’s piston-rod”. As both “poet” and “piston”, Trumper reached the heights of athletic prowess, memorable for style and for efficiency. Beldam’s photograph was crucial to this, establishing a visual shorthand for the aesthetics of good batting. It is this that Haigh traces so successfully – how an unchanging, iconic image can be used to symbolise so many different things. Haigh traces the afterlife of the photograph carefully, but also does the important job of emphasising the conditions in which it was produced and recentring its contemporary interpretations. In doing so, he reclaims the modernity of the picture, drawing it out of nostalgia and linking it firmly to the present.

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2 Responses to Stroke of Genius: review

  1. Gideon Haigh says:

    Thanks Christian. That’s a thoughtful review.

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