Sport doesn’t lend itself to the surreal. Yes, the comic, the incongruous, the miraculous even, but not the weird or the unreal. Even then, great sport tends to the elevated rather than the transcendental. The structures that make games workable, both formal and informal, discourage revolution. Sports photography struggles to capture the rare appearance of the surreal, often a feeling or personal connection, constrained by their inability to control or intrude on the subject.
It is a mark of Patrick Eagar’s skill as a photographer that he captures the surreal in Jeff Thomson, producing an image both bizarre and essential. It is a famous photograph, Thomson stretching and twisting, totally unlike a bowler and the logical endpoint, bowling intensified. Button-up shirt unbuttoned, prog rock hair, face gaunt like Dore’s Satan. The ball visible between his legs, a Freudian hint at the virility of fast bowling. It is an image that captures force and grace, Thomson as gymnast and hitman.
Christian Ryan, the fine Australian cricket writer, has previous with Thomson, the man who, he wrote in Wisden, “bowled faster probably than anyone in the universe ever has, and faster, perhaps, than the universe wanted him to bowl”. For his new book, Feeling is the Thing that Happens in a 1000th of a Second, he has discussed a series of photos from 1975 with Eagar, exploring their imagery, technology and context. The Thomson one is probably the best known, and one which speaks to an era ripe for discussion. The English summer of 1975 was, in cricketing terms, one of the cusp of revolution, the helmets, floodlights and coloured clothing of World Series Cricket just a few years away. It was the summer of the first World Cup, and Eagar captures both the incipient modernity of the rapidly evolving limited overs game and the vestiges of tradition, the cadences of English summers little altered.
Whilst cricket’s revolution was yet to come, it is striking to see Eagar’s photographs presented together with those from the rest of the world. What Eagar sees in front of him are starched shirts, heavy sweaters and warm beer; even the modernism of the Trent Bridge office block is municipal. Eagar’s first photo for the Cricketer appeared in the Cricketer in 1965, a pastoral scene of Fenner’s, complete with suited undergraduates, overshadowing trees and Fred Titmus, black and white of course. In the very same week, Sports Illustrated published, in glorious technicolour, a famous photograph of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston, Ali yelling, gloves scarlet, spectators craning in. As Ryan puts it, “the timing… may be one of the century’s strangest sports photography coincidences”.
The contrast is certainly striking, but Eagar was not simply a reactionary, retreating to the comforts of the traditional. He received a fine training in photojournalism. He travelled to Vietnam in 1966, taking photos in military hospitals. But he chose to continue to photograph cricket when he returned. It seems that this is what Ryan is probing, questioning: what did Eagar see in cricket that caught his attention? What kept him focussed on the game when he could have chosen to photograph the global great and good, the social shifts of the second half of the twentieth century? At times, the political is inescapable in Eagar’s photography, especially in his images depicting Viv Richards and other West Indians, proud black men at the pinnacle of their sport. At other times, Ryan’s nostalgia for Eagar’s photographic pinnacle seems problematic. About the only woman in the photos of Eagar’s selected for the book is one walking past the sightscreen in the Fenner’s picture. The images depict a male world and its homosocial spaces – the congratulatory gathering of players at the fall of a wicket, the inner sanctum of the changing room. The Chappell brothers recline, moustachioed and smoking, captured in their element by Eagar. The power of the images is undeniable; they seem, however, remote, as dated as the helmetless heads and buckled pads in their stern intimacy.
This intimacy is the main quality of Eagar’s photography, what draws Ryan to them now. Eagar tells him of his affinity for umpires, without whom the game “unspools”. The umpire is the person intimately involved with the game who most resembles the observer: their slight detachment, the mundane nature of many of their tasks – counting, checking, adjusting, their physical ability and appearance less intimidatingly distant than that of the players. The photographer is necessarily distant, the playing area bounded and exclusive, unlike the umpire, their role as watcher and recorder requiring proximity. These roles have become blurred in the age of television line calls and referrals, but for Eagar in 1975, all his skill and technical expertise were required to capture the intimacies and intricacies of the game.
Eagar might have got lucky occasionally, but, as Ryan recognises, he “had to dream up the possibilities of the photograph in the first place”. Photographs like the one of Thomson contain the magic of possibility, of momentary unknowing. There is one of Phil Edmonds bowling a hat-trick delivery on debut, where the ball hovers inches from his fingers, a deep breath that watching live or on television cannot prolong. Similarly there is one of Roy Fredericks’ hit-wicket dismissal in the 1975 World Cup final. The eyes of the batsman and the square leg fielder are fixed on the ball sailing to fine leg, but the bails lie disturbed at the base of the stumps. It is a similar moment of unknowing, one that only a photograph could capture.
These fragments of play, shots of time and possibility, are what Ryan engages with, alongside the emotional resonance of faces captured in action. There is a surreal photo – again! – of Asif Iqbal seeming to laugh as his off stump is knocked out of the ground; another which captures Ross Edwards’ anxiety as his eyes track the ball towards the slip cordon from his edge, the earnest concern of a parent or teacher on his middle-aged face.
It is in these images that Ryan searches for art and asks Eagar for exposition or additional meaning. The text is a rich one and can be read rather like the accompanying essay in the catalogue of an exhibition. Ryan’s prose is characteristically engaging, but acts largely as a prompt to consideration. Eagar’s pictures, so full of emotion – brotherhood, nostalgia, energy, potential – and grace both explore a moment and a sport. 1975 in cricket, the year of the first World Cup and the last Ashes before World Series Cricket, sits apart from cultural change, yet also reflects it. But Eagar’s photography also questions our ways of seeing cricket, from the emotions of players to the contortions of bowling actions. This is the great strength of Feeling in the Thing …: two people who stretch our conceptions of the game, question our understandings and – literal – perspectives, in conversation. This search for meaning perhaps explains Eagar’s return to cricket, post-Vietnam – a recognition that sport, even English cricket in the 1960s, can reveal much of the human experience. If 1975 seems distant, its cast faded in the memory, the sharpness of Eagar’s work retrieves it and continues to ask questions for cricket’s present and future, of its aesthetics and its meanings.