Reviewed by Mike Clarke
Gideon Haigh’s Stroke of Genius could be called ‘the book that changed cricket books.’ One of the finest writers on cricket, Gideon Haigh presents Stroke of Genius, not merely a book about Victor Trumper, but rather a definitive history of cricket in Australia that teases out the ramifications of influence Australian cricket had on the English version of the sport in the early 1900’s.
Not content with exploring those diverse avenues in great detail, Haigh has also included a comprehensive account of the development of sport photography.
Stroke of Genius is not a biography of Victor Trumper. As Haigh states in the introduction, it is ‘ … for want of a better word, an iconography, a study of Trumper’s valence in cricket’s mythology and imagery (xi), imagery being the operative word. The book begins with an interesting description of how cricket was presented graphically in the 1800s. ‘Long shots’ of the ground and the players was the subject matter of most paintings of the sport.
The advent of photography improved that situation, but even then, the painted image was not improved greatly since telephoto lenses were not common, or absent altogether. The players remained in the distance.
The next step in an evolving use of photography arrived with George Beldam, an English cricketer with a passion for the visual arts. Beldam was a competent cricketer but his ability at the game was overshadowed by his pioneering work as a visual chronicler of the sport of cricket.
Haigh brings in a second interesting character in the person of Charles Burgess Fry, an English sportsman but also much else. He not only represented England at cricket and football but laboured as a politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher as well.
Beldam and Fry combined in 1905 to produce a book with the title of Great Batsmen: Their Methods At A Glance. The book was 816 pages long and contained 600 illustrations, the stand out being Jumping Out for a straight drive. Jumping Out, as it was later to be known, was a posed picture of the Australian batsman Victor Trumper, side on, perfectly balanced, his bat raised behind him as he appears to have jumped out of his crease to attack the bowler with a perfect drive.
Haigh’s subtitle ‘Victor Trumper and the shot that changed cricket’ is high praise indeed for an image created in 1905, based on a reputation earned on a tour by the Australian cricket team in 1902, when Trumper was able to display his remarkable talents to the English cricketing public.
Trumper toured England initially in 1899 when he was a late addition to the team. He quickly established his reputation on that tour with 135 not out against England at Lord’s Cricket Ground. After the game the great English batsman Dr W. G. Grace went into the Australian dressing room and presented Trumper with his bat with the words ‘From the present champion to the future champion.’
But it was during the 1902 tour that Trumper firmly established his credentials. The summer of 1902 was a particularly wet one and most batsmen found the conditions challenging – but not Victor Trumper, however. In 53 innings he scored 2,570 runs without a single ‘not out’ for an average of 49.49.
The highlight of the season came when he scored a century before lunch, the first batsman to do so in a Test Match. He achieved this against England at Old Trafford. (Incidentally, the last player to achieve this feat is David Warner, the prolific Australian opener.)
Great Batsmen: Their Methods at a Glance featured two other giants of the game, W. G. Grace and Prince Ranjitsinhji but neither received the coverage that Trumper did.
Trumper’s birth date, place of birth, and even the names of his parents are not known. What is known is that he was the first Australian sportsman to have his greatness recognised in the world of cricket. He has been unfavourably compared to Don Bradman. But, as Haigh states, both men were from different eras and as batsmen had different styles.
Another well respected cricket writer and player, the late Jack Fingleton, is quoted by Gideon Haigh as saying that Bradman was a batsman who got runs whereas Trumper was a batsman who made runs. Unfortunately the precise difference between the expressions has been lost to history.
The English media were in awe of Victor Trumper. None more so than Sir Neville Cardus, the great English cricket writer, who, in a bizarre coincidence, came from a similar background to Trumper as his mother was a prostitute and his father unknown. Cardus is quoted on the rear cover of the book as saying: God no doubt could create a better batsman than Victor Trumper had He wished, but so far He hasn’t.
Both men grew to greatness in their different careers. Cardus claimed to have seen Trumper three times but Haigh contests the veracity of this claim, as on the 1902 tour Cardus would have been about14.
Trumper was a kind and generous man. Haigh has struggled to find anyone with a bad word to say of him. His generosity was to lead him to almost bankruptcy when he opened a sports store in Sydney, but gave most of the stock away to fellow players, several of whom boycotted the store in an effort to keep him solvent.
Trumper raised the ire of the cricket establishment when he joined with the famous rugby player, Dally Messenger, to form the Australian Rugby League, of which he was the initial treasurer. This event was the 1900’s equivalent of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. The consequences for the participants were very similar with life long friendships irretrievably broken.
Gideon Haigh chronicles these upheavals meticulously, no doubt calling on the techniques he used in an earlier book on the Packer series The Cricket War: The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket.
Trumper’s health declined in 1914 and he died of Bright’s disease in 1915. Despite this being a year that followed the outbreak of the First World War, over 20,000 people turned out to farewell the great man.
A stand was named in his honour at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 2008.
Stroke of Genius is not the usual cricket fan book, nor is it a biography as Gideon Haigh points out. It is a monumental body of work which clearly describes in loving detail the writing talent and the love of the game that Haigh himself possesses.
We cricket aficionados have greeted Gideon Haigh’s body of work with gratitude and take this opportunity to suggest that readers could not do much better for themselves than to read Haigh’s fine work.
by Gideon Haigh
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin RandomHouse