EXQUISITELY TIMED SHOTS
In a digital age it’s easy to forget the professionalism and skill of history’s great sports photographers, writes Mike Atherton
It was a beautiful image. As if obeying an order from a legion of cameramen, Jonny Bairstow lifted Moeen Ali up above the tumult so that the unbridled joy on his face would be captured forever. Stage left, the umpire, Joel Wilson, had raised his finger to confirm the “out” decision; in the background the crowd had started to celebrate too, along with the England team, whose members were jumping with delight to touch the golden arm of the hat-trick hero.
In an era of the moving image, it is the still that captures the moment for eternity. Whenever Ali’s hat-trick is mentioned, this photograph — taken by Mike Hewitt, Getty Images’ excellent photographer — will be reproduced. Or maybe a similar image from Tom Jenkins, The Guardian’s outstanding snapper, or Philip Brown, one of the best cricket photographers around, or a half-dozen others who had gathered in the business area for the final moment of the match. Take your pick.
All got their image, with slight variations. This was unsurprising: it was an umpire decision review system call, after all, so almost as if it had been staged. The players gathered, watched the screen and waited. The snappers waited, too. Given their skill, professionalism and equipment, it was no surprise that the images were outstanding.
Brown tells me there was one other important factor: this was one of the few occasions when a break for DRS had not brought the substitutes, with their fluoro tabards, on to the field with drinks. That would have ruined the moment. Luckily, they stayed away.
Looking at these images the following day, I was thinking of another photographer who was not at the Oval. Patrick Eagar, the genius photographer of cricket’s modern era, has retired now, leaving behind a treasure trove of images.
Some of them will be reproduced in a book, to be published this month, about the summer of 1975, when Australia’s fast bowlers came to terrorise England, and the first World Cup was staged. Written by Christian Ryan, it is a fascinating study of Eagar’s art, before the internet and the digital age.
I think of Eagar as a photographer who spent time at the cricket, rather than a cricket photographer, such was his skill and eye for the moment and its context. Compared with now, the early 1970s presented problems and opportunities. He told me once that at a Leeds Test in 1972, he had just one over to get a photograph for The Sunday Times’s first edition, as a courier arrived at the ground at 11.30am to take the film on the train to the London offices.
Equally, players did not wear helmets, so you could see their faces and reactions; there were few sponsors’ logos to ruin the purity of the image. The story told by Ryan of Eagar’s summer of 1975, and the images taken on 35mm black-and-white negative and colour transparency film, reveal a different era.
The image on the front of the book is one of his most famous: Jeffrey Robert Thomson in full cry, slingshot at the ready. The front arm is outstretched, taut and sinuous, pointing at the target; he is looking over his front shoulder, eyes also fixed on the target. That photograph is cropped; the full image is reproduced inside.
The making of the photo is what was hap- pening between Thomson’s legs, as it were: Eagar had noticed that such was the arc of Thomson’s bowling arm, you could sometimes see the ball in between his legs from a sideways position. He captured the moment perfectly.
Eagar judges England’s MCC Photograph of the Year competition, alongside Chris Smith, the photographer from The Sunday Times. I talked to them before last year’s competition. What, I wondered, makes a great photograph?
Eagar talked of the necessities — being there, form and composition being sound — then the bits that made a photograph stand out, such as the unexpected mood or lighting, and then, in his self-deprecating way, of luck.
I asked Smith about his stunning photograph of Barry McGuigan in Las Vegas in 1986, at the end of the boxer’s fight against Steve Cruz in temperatures of more than 100F (38C). This is what he said: “I saw this complete disintegration. It was hot, coming to the end of the fight, and Barry had gone. I could see it in his eyes as he was sat there with the corner man tweaking his ears. I missed it at first, but when he came back from the next round, I had changed my lens and was ready. But of course I didn’t know whether I had it, and I remember saying to the sports editor, ‘I think I’ve got an extraordinary photo but I’m not sure.’ I didn’t know whether he had blinked — and of course it was all about the eyes, the dead eyes ... ” He didn’t know whether he had it. In 2000, to celebrate the new millennium, cricket bible Wisden asked Eagar to select 10 images of the century, one for each decade. Under pressure from the editor, he was asked to include one photo of his own, and the picture of Thomson — the power and glory of fast bowling, taken on June 1, 1975 — was it. The others are a combination of the well known in the cricketing world — George Beldam’s shot of Victor Trumper stepping out to drive and Herbert Fishwick’s Walter Hammond driving through the off side — and the not so well known. My favourite of Eagar’s choices? Ron Lovitt, of Melbourne’s The Age, who captured the moment of the tied Test between West Indies and Australia in Brisbane in December 1960, the first tied Test in history. Bruce Postle, a longstanding colleague of Lovitt’s, told the story of it two years ago, highlighting the challenges that a earlier generation would have faced, and reflecting on the uncertainty elaborated on by Smith and his photo of McGuigan. Lovitt’s camera, a 5x4 Graflex, was known as “Long Tom” and for the whole day he had only 24 negatives to use. For the start of the last (eight-ball) over, during which Australia needed six runs to win, and West Indies three wickets, he had just one negative remaining. The first six balls produced five runs, two wickets and a dropped catch. Lovitt held fire. After the seventh ball, as Joe Solomon ran out Ian Meckiff to tie the match, Lovitt pressed down on his shutter. Did he have the image? Lovitt was not to know until he got to the Brisbane offices later that evening. Looking through the negatives of that day’s play, he recognised the one of his final shot and held it up towards the light. His heart must have been pounding as he did so. A colleague two rooms away heard Lovitt’s roar of delight. It remains one of the game’s most iconic images. Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second: A Season of Cricket Photographer Patrick Eagar, is published next month by Quercus.
George Beldam’s shot of Victor Trumper during the 1902 England v Australia Test series