Master of his field, just like the writer
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