Monday, 9 October 2017

Book Review - Stroke of genius by Gideon Haigh

Stroke of genius - Victor Trumper and the shot that changed cricket by Gideon Haigh

London: Simon & Schuster, 2016                ISBN 9781471146800

Stroke of Genius: a phrase that could be employed on more than one occasion to describe the cricket books penned by one G. Haigh. The Cricket War and On Warne are two of the best books I have read on the game: they are now joined by Stroke of Genius.

I suspect that, like me, Haigh's first memory of Victor Trumper would be of seeing the Beldam image "Jumping Out". Stroke of Genius is a book about Trumper, Beldam, that photograph, and so much more. While strictly speaking not a biography of Trumper, we learn enough about his life beyond cricket to know that it was really cricket that was his life.

Haigh unpicks the legend, describing Trumper's run-ins with both cricket and rugby officialdom, and his tenuous business life, which involved runs of debt and insolvency. Haigh also gives us a wonderful history of the development of cricket imagery and action photography, and how Beldam made many advances in this area prior to World War One. In fact if it wasn't for Beldam we wouldn't have many of the iconic Edwardian cricket images at all.

Like all legends, Trumper's has been used by many people to support their cause or beliefs. Lauded  by Cardus and others as the epitome of amateurism, Haigh demonstrates that Trumper was very much the cricket entrepreneur and tried many schemes to make money from his skill. Used as an exemplar of the way Australia plays attacking cricket, Haigh explains that, until Trumper came on the scene, Australian bats were known as dour accumulators. Used by the cricket establishment as a symbol of their tradition, Haigh argues that - like Bradman in his early years - Trumper stood for players rights against the power of the hierarchy. Used by some as a stick to beat Bradman with, Haigh definitively shows them as different cricketers. Trumper's early death in the midst of war helped set the stage for the legend to build.

So it is good that another thing Haigh does very well is bring the reader an idea of just how great a player Trumper must have been. The praise heaped on his playing by those who knew what they were talking about, when brought together, is extraordinary. What struck me is how many who saw him ranked him above Bradman, for his artistry if not for his statistics. So many writers exclaimed that words could not describe his ability. The word " genius" was not in Edwardian times used in the field of sporting endeavours, and yet it was used often in attempting to describe Trumper.

What we do have are the photographs, which if studied closely, begin to give us some idea of his ability. Statistics don't always convey reality, and as Haigh points out, until Bradman came along they did not carry the authority that they do now in assessing the ability of a player. I don't know how many arguments I've engaged in where the stats are used as a final arbiter (...and I still think Mark was the superior Waugh at the crease, no matter what the numbers say).

Trumper must have been a magnificent player to watch. He must have had complete control of his technique, and a wonderful ability to demolish an attack - a cross between Gilchrist, Greg Chappell and the aforementioned Mark Waugh. Haigh has brought the modern cricket lover closer to Trumper, as well as yet again showing us cricket's intricate, sometimes brutal, yet often beautiful, history.

Another tour-de-force from a man who is surely the Trumper of cricket writers.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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