Mas­ter of his field, just like the writer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cather­ine Mc­Gre­gor

ner with whom I shared a plat­form along­side Gideon a few years ago. I re­marked to Faulkner. “He is the best cricket writer ever, isn’t he?” Faulkner, no mean poly­math him­self, and an ac­com­plished his­to­rian of the game, gently up­braided me: “He is more than a cricket writer, com­rade. He is sim­ply a ma­jes­tic prose writer. Bet­ter than David Marr.” I bit my lip at the lat­ter, which smacked of “Warne was a freak. Bet­ter than Johnny Watkins on his day.” I di­gress.

Prox­im­ity to rare ge­nius can ob­scure it. We are slow to ac­knowl­edge prophets in our own land. I am now happy to as­sert Haigh is the best cricket writer in the world and prob­a­bly ever. I have long ad­mired him and been in awe of the unique eye through which he views the game. He can ex­trap­o­late from a sin­gle, an­o­dyne statis­tic ma­te­rial for an ex­tended trea­tise on an emerg­ing trend in a par­tic­u­lar match or, just as of­ten, a meta-trend in the global game.

Last sum­mer, he tal­lied the sheer vol­ume of Test ap­pear­ances and runs em­bod­ied in Sachin Ten­dulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Lax­man, Jacques Kal­lis and Shiv­nar­ine Chan­der­paul, all of whom had ex­ited the game in short or­der. Through the prism of their de­par­tures he ex­am­ined the state of the global game. It was a stroke of ge­nius. On a rainy day ab­sent a ball be­ing bowled he will con­jure a piece of cricket writ­ing wor­thy of the greats.

I know of no other writer, with the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Ed Smith, whose mind works in such an in­no­va­tive, per­cep­tive un­ortho­dox way. Haigh never writes about the ob­vi­ous. But when he ex­am­ines the ob­scure it sud­denly seems blind­ingly ap­par­ent. Over a sum­mer he de­liv­ers such shrewd anal­y­sis ev­ery day. He es­chews con­ven­tional wis­dom and delves into the so­ci­etal im­pact of the ac­tion and the sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship be­tween game and our lives. His voice is unique, and au­thor­i­ta­tive.

So what of Trumper and that shot? Only Haigh could have cre­ated a book of such am­bit- ious scope out of a sin­gle still im­age. One wet win­ter night in Can­berra last year I met him for din­ner after he had been work­ing all day in the Na­tional Li­brary of Aus­tralia and we dis­cussed his in­ter­est in Trumper, no­tably the where­abouts of a bat that had be­longed to the great man. I was in­trigued at his line of in­quiry but at some­thing of a loss as to how one could de­rive a ma­jor work from it.

A sin­gle pho­to­graph of a long dead player? Surely there was some­thing more in­ter­est­ing, such as a his­tory of Ro­tary, to de­mand his at­ten­tion? Of course, like Gideon, one of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries of cricket was that very shot of Trumper in an Alan David­son cricket book, next to a lovely study of Wally Ham­mond ca­ress­ing a cover drive, white wil­low flash­ing like a wand. In 1964 they looked less an­ti­quar­ian than they do now. But in the so­cial me­dia age surely peo­ple would pre­fer to watch Chris Gayle smok­ing sixes on­line rather than read­ing about a fad­ing sepia im­age of a man with a bat the size of a tooth­pick, wear­ing an Aus­tralian cap that, rather than re­sem­bling the sa­cred baggy green, looked like that worn by cub scouts? A whole book ded­i­cated to this? No way.

But I un­der­es­ti­mated the span of Haigh’s tal­ent and abil­ity to draw con­clu­sions from dis­parate trends and dis­cern pat­terns among them. We fi­nally get to the Oval with Bel­dam, Trumper and the cam­era via paint­ings of vil­lage games at Hove, the siege of Se­bastopol, and the ruc­tions be­tween am­a­teurs and pro­fes­sion­als in both cricket and pho­tog­ra­phy as each of the crafts evolved amid the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion.

Hence Jump­ing Out is merely the prism through which Haigh ex­am­ines all th­ese con­verg­ing themes. In­deed, my ini­tial am­bi­tion for this re­view was to try to em­u­late Haigh in us­ing Stroke of Ge­nius as a prism through which to ex­am­ine his over­all con­tri­bu­tion to cricket lit­er­a­ture. It was a task be­yond me. His tal­ent is too vast. His body of work is too enor­mous and eclec­tic to con­dense it into a sin­gle re­view. Bel­dam cap­tured Trumper. But Haigh eluded me. His body of work un­doubt­edly war­rants a dis­crete study. Per­haps an earnest doc­toral stu­dent may at­tempt this, thus es­tab­lish­ing a nexus be­tween Haigh and our ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor that hitherto has not ex­isted.

He is an au­to­di­dact and poly­math un­tainted by at­ten­dance at an Aus­tralian univer­sity. His skill as a re­searcher and the grace of his prose is as much a gift of the gods as Ten­dulkar’s bat­ting. Yet he has honed it alone, like a great player, through ded­i­ca­tion to his craft and an un­stint­ing pur­suit of per­fec­tion em­bel­lished by his own vo­ra­cious read­ing. In Stroke of Ge­nius we wit­ness apoth­e­o­sis.

Apart from the nar­ra­tive, which flows beau­ti­fully, this book is schol­ar­ship of gen­uine bal­last. The sur­vey of the ma­te­rial per­tain­ing to Trumper, and of the vis­ual por­tray­als of cricket in sketch, pho­tog­ra­phy and film, is ex­em­plary. Like­wise, Haigh’s ac­count of the evo­lu­tion of the art of bat­ting from the dawn of un­der­arm vil­lage matches through the zenith of the golden age of CB Fry, Ran­jitsin­hji, An­drew Stod­dart, Gil­bert Jes­sop and Trumper is ex­haus­tive.

Haigh’s di­va­ga­tions are de­light­ful but con­se­quen­tial. The jour­ney on which we em­bark with him is so en­gross­ing it is easy to for­get our ul­ti­mate des­ti­na­tion: the Oval with Trumper and Bel­dam with a rudi­men­tary cam­era. On the way we en­counter the ear­li­est hand-drawn sketches of vil­lage cricket; we see the first indige­nous team in in­con­gru­ous waist­coats and Euro­pean head­dress. We learn that Bel­dam took up cricket and through sheer ap­pli­ca­tion achieved first­class sta­tus at Mid­dle­sex.

And of course the great Trumper is sit­u­ated in the era when bat­ting came of age in the form recog­nis­able to us to­day, with its es­tab­lished tech­nique, power and shot se­lec­tion. Trumper had that in­de­fin­able aes­thetic qual­ity that pre­des­tined his el­e­va­tion to sport­ing hero­ism. But the times did suit him. He rose to promi­nence as the na­tion that adored him was com­ing into be­ing. He was the first truly Aus­tralian sport­ing hero. A lo­cal lad wor­shipped in Eng­land. With­out draw­ing too long a bow he was the har­bin­ger of an­other myth of Aus­tralian mas­culin­ity that was born in the very year he died. Trumper was the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the lithe, dash­ing young Aus­tralian lad, fear­lessly step­ping out to meet the foe. He died in 1915, aged just 37, but the myth of the dash­ing young Aussie was born.

If this re­view seems lav­ish in its gen­eros­ity, be as­sured I have ev­ery rea­son to loathe the au­thor. In his won­der­ful 2013 book on Shane Warne, Haigh dis­plays the same acu­ity of vi­sion he brings to bear on Bel­dam’s Trumper. He notes that wicked ball Warne de­liv­ered to Mike Gat­ting in 1993, dur­ing the Ashes in Eng­land. It turned vi­ciously and bowled Gat­ting around his am­ple be­hind, link­ing him and Warnie in per­pe­tu­ity on YouTube.

No mat­ter how many bil­lions of views that Ball of the Cen­tury achieves, Gat­ting will al­ways look like a guile­less mug. As Haigh wryly ob­serves, a great ca­reer was re­duced to be­ing “the straight man in Warne’s pie-in-the-face rou­tine”. A cham­pion stripped of dig­nity and cru­elly re­duced to a grade jour­ney­man for eter­nity. Haigh did the same thing to me in the nets at Can­berra’s Manuka Oval some years ago. In­deed, he added ig­nominy to in­jury.

First he broke my foot with a sear­ing drive back at me at the bowler’s end. Thus im­mo­bilised, I was a sit­ting duck for his right-arm off­spin pitch­ing on my left-han­der’s leg stump. He knocked me over neck and crop. It was starkly cap­tured on video, though I have been spared Gat­ting’s pub­lic odium. Last time I dared look a mere 426 peo­ple had viewed it. I con­trib­uted about 390 of those hits. In Stroke of Ge­nius Haigh de­scribes him­self as a ‘‘dif­fi­dent medi­ocrity’’ of a crick­eter. It is the only er­ror in the text. But I am obliged to say that, aren’t I? What­ever his tal­ent on the square, he is cer­tainly a Hall of Fame writer. Our best. Prob­a­bly the best. broad­caster.

ONLY HAIGH COULD HAVE CRE­ATED A BOOK OF SUCH AM­BI­TIOUS SCOPE OUT OF A SIN­GLE STILL IM­AGE

is a cricket player, writer and

Ge­orge Bel­dam’s fa­mous pho­to­graph of Vic­tor Trumper, left; Gideon Haigh bats up, be­low

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