Five pictures

How much can moments captured in still frames tell you about the people in them? More than you can imagine

Christian Ryan

A photograph can slow down the slowest sport played by human hands. But were a legspin bowler to float a ball up in line with middle stump, drift it a few feet one way with the wind, spin it equidistance the opposite direction until it clips the off bail - well, a photograph cannot handle that. It can freeze the static-looking ball in flight. And it can capture the aftermath. Except "aftermath", the way we usually think of it, is not the aftermath we're slap-eyed privy to in the photo above - legspin bowler floats, drifts, spins… nearby women start hoisting and yanking off their clothes.

Shane Warne has male company. But the guy's face is hidden: her boyfriend? A pen dangles between Warne's fingertips and thumb: is he signing for the boyfriend, who's clutching a black folder of some description, or is he autographing her arse? Either Warne has just accepted the pen, or is about to give it back. Nor is it clear who he has received or is returning the pen from or to: that crooked index finger could be the woman's, or the boyfriend's. Probably the pen is the boyfriend's. She has nowhere to keep a pen. She is, was, wearing a pear-coloured dress and the pear resemblances keep going from there. And the boyfriend… but we don't at all know who here's good, who's bad, if he is pimping her out to the greatest spin bowler the world has seen, or whether the hitching of her dress is her decision, spur of the moment. Except - she appears to be wearing no knickers. Presumably she had been, and took them off, and if so she planned this, whatever this is, either with the boyfriend's approval, or without. We do not concretely know that the guy is her boyfriend.

In nearly every Warne photo, barring injury photos and disgrace-laden press conference photos, Warne holds the power, and in this photo, which is the exception, power is with any one of three, or possibly it's two of three, people.

And, out of nowhere, a fourth person, the grinner - but of course he came sliding into eyeshot from the beginning, only for us to push the idea of him away, one complication too many. Here's a complication upon a complication: the fourth person, this grinner, is a dead ringer for Mark Waugh.

The grinner cannot be Waugh. Waugh, Warne's team-mate, would have been out on the field. A doppelgänger, then? Or twin? The real Waugh, many people reading will know, actually is a twin. And his non-identical twin Steve would have been out on the field as well. There's this, too: the Waugh, Mark, who's being doppelganged in the photo was not merely Warne's team-mate. He was also Warne's co-accused during the "John the Bookie" affair, when phone conversations with John from Delhi about the state of the pitch and local weather conditions proved so inadvertently lucrative that John could not be hanged up on.

The grinner is seated in row S. Two "S"s - which may be meaningful, or not. Shane. Sex. Or, Simone* and Shane. We voyeurs are like desert interlopers pulling back the curtain on a forgotten clan's sacred mating ceremony, and fumble and sweat as we might to draw the curtain shut, it won't go, just jangles and bounces in the railing - I found the photo, no photo credit attached, in a newspaper, not the sport section, next to an article that wasn't about Shane Warne… Naturally I ripped it out and stuffed it in a filing cabinet.

Taken on Australia's 1997 tour through South Africa, there's a lovely old cricket ground feel to it. Peeling paintwork. Evening shadows. Little about this photograph seems certain. Certainly, though, Warne's and the woman's eyes are locked on each other. In Warne's face is not a hope I might shag her look but something more delicate. It is a hope I might fall in love with her look, and we feel for him, this sheikh of tweak, into whose orbit opportunities to fall in love come constantly crashing, and you only have to fall in love twice simultaneously to be in a mountain of trouble.

© Mark Ray

The life's loves of Doug Walters are nearly all catered for in this Mark Ray photo. A question - who put them there? - is a two-minute Skype call away. The answer might wreck the photograph.

On a pre-remote control-era TV, with a twist-turn knob, the horses have an otherworldly quality, probably because Ray has caught them rounding the bend and so shockingly close. No thing or feature in this picture is dispensable. Removing one would risk wrecking, again, everything. The coil-up '70s telephone, his sideways-slicked betting shop haircut, the tabloid form guide, the supersized radio that crispy-skin old blokes can still be seen lugging beside their good-hearing ears along St Kilda Esplanade on slow weekdays... what's missing? Inserting the thing that's missing would be the third likely way of killing the photo.

Missing is a cigarette. Think of two classic-feeling Walters images. First, Walters padded up and waiting, on a bench, a Gray-Nicolls Scoop between his legs; next, Patrick Eagar's detail-crammed exposé inside the Australian dressing room at Edgbaston in 1975, a mutton-chopped Walters bent over a cribbage board while playing cards with Rick McCosker. The cigarette, in a hand, behind a ear, being vigorously puffed on, is a Walters staple. This is not purely because Walters was smoking all the time. Walters had a job with Rothmans so actually it was a reasonably pioneering bit of product placement. And it is because he was smoking all the time. The cigarette drapes things, though, like smoke spiralling, in a faintly jokey, piss-takey haze. "It is hard," the critic Geoff Dyer has noted, "for photographers to be funny… but they can be witty." The cigarette emits no wit while giving those photos - jewels, both - a not-quite-laugh-worthy twist. Which is probably not what the photographers were hoping for.

When Mark Ray was a boy whose heroes included cricketers, he'd sit on the Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground, glancing and wondering in the direction of the dressing rooms: "What are the players doing in there? What is their world like?" For a while he became a dressing-room insider with an outsider's eye, opening the batting and bowling slow left-armers for two states, and now he is as outside as can be, resident in China, still taking photographs. His Walters picture is from the WACA Test of November (is the race the Melbourne Cup?) 1993. If he contrived it - and I'm not loading Skype up, but I'm leaning towards he didn't - then temptation must have been burning hot behind his forehead to do the completist thing and offer Walters a cigarette. Ray resisted.

Another Walters photo, no cigarette: in 1965 after a dramatic debut century against England he was dispatched by some newspaper back to his home town of Dungog, to the ant-bed pitch in the backyard, his mum May keeping wicket in front of the outdoor toilet while 19-year-old Doug re-enacted a typical scene from childhood. The photo should be poignant, and nearly is, and would be if Walters wasn't wearing white thongs (nobody bats in thongs). And in all the pictures of him batting during serious Test matches, pull-hoicking respectable deliveries by accomplished operators, something rubbery and exaggerated about his muscular hitting hints to us that Walters is play-acting still, and in our minds we're back in the 19th century and he is posing for GW Beldam, the legendary photographer, Beldam bowling at Walters with his right arm and popping a cord-connected electric release shutter with his left.

In the Ray photo, that's where magic lurks. We are tugged towards Walters' one eye, which is searing, and sad-looking, though probably it is just him concentrating on the cricket. It is as if all the other stuff that's gone in his life is flaking off him, right here, in some anonymous box in a grandstand, behind glass. He is not looking at the horses. He is watching the cricket. What matters is the cricket.

Except - and I still doubt the photo's a set-up, but are the players on a break? Only two spectators are visible. There are rows of abandoned seats.

And it hits me, days later, that the horses are galloping clockwise** round the track.

Each of the five pictures reproduced and 12 mentioned in this piece are in a book*** I did. While doing it, though still at the doing-it stage that predated lightning hitting a sheep's head and me having an idea what I was doing, I remembered a photograph I'd sighted once, been thrilled by for a minute, then filed away. Taken in 1992, Geoff Marsh's last summer at the top of Australia's batting order, he and his dad Ted can be seen on the family farm at Wandering in Western Australia. This farm has luxury: a practice cricket net, which is where Geoff and Ted are standing, smiling. Green matting is glued onto concrete. A kerosene container's the wicket. The net itself is chicken coop fencing, held up by logs and reinforced with black tarpaulin in the areas where Geoff hits his tens of thousands of drives and clips. Weeds, wheat (I think), an old Gray-Nic in Geoff's hands, mud on his knee, drying damp on his jumper - there's been morning rain - and this photo by Rod Taylor smashed me in someplace unmistakably exact, way below the heart, the head, above the groin: in the gut.

Then - same time thereabouts, same winded solar-plexus sensation: Don Bradman and Viv Richards inside an Adelaide Oval dressing room, 1980. Viv has either just hit or is about to hit a 76 that was maybe his most coolly menacing innings ever, not that anyone ever says so and even though that's another story. Sir Don's in a suit, Viv is still in his cricket whites, 44 years Don's junior. The master encounters the Master Blaster. Together the pair is holding, thrusting Viv's bat - an SS Jumbo - lightsabre-like towards the camera, a black hand clasped around a small white hand… wrong. Seeing it for the millionth time I notice now they are inches apart. Viv's two hands are wrapped mid-handle and Don's left hand is gripping the upper part of the bat's blade, his right hand meanwhile tucked inside a trouser pocket, so why didn't the photographer ask them to shuffle their hands closer, or maybe the photographer did, in which case who baulked, wordlessly perhaps, at the touching of skin, Sir Don or Viv?

That spontaneous smashing feeling - in the gut - that was not something imagined. It was visceral. Not even women did that there; music didn't; watching actual, live, moving cricket didn't either. A cricket photograph could.

Not grasping how it could, but glimpsing a worthwhile aim, I decided to try filling the book with photos that came at me and presumably might hit others likewise through this dual eyes/gut entry point. Another Bradman picture's instant emotional tug was amped up by its rarity. A new (at least to my eyes) Bradman photo! By an unknown photographer!

© Corbis

That was the gist of the exhilarating feeling at first glance, although there is also a lot to look at. From behind a fence, white spectators are gazing on black fielders, at a time when vice versa was commonplace in the Caribbean and South Africa. The setting is Innisfail Park, New York, non-cricket country. That they are a non-cricket crowd is evident from their straight backs. They are not really into it. Yet through a windowless half-pane of the building beyond the point boundary, there's a hint of a ghostly face, stealing a peep.

A puff of dust near the creaseline - a tincture of fallibility - rare in a Bradman photograph; and now this picture is puncturing someplace deeper, sub-gut, than at first blow, a place it could not possibly have got near the day that it was taken… 14th of July, 1932, which, putting the pieces together, was two weeks before a famous grill-room rendezvous at the Piccadilly Hotel, London, where Douglas Jardine enquired of fast bowler Harold Larwood whether he could land balls in line with Bradman's leg stump - "making the ball come up into the body all the time" - and Larwood replied, "Yes, I think that can be done."

"Bodyline" was hatched. And with this knowledge - this amateur detective work, 82 years late - that wisp of fallibility near the creaseline carries the full force of eight decades, of an unspoken, unknowable narrative. If you look closely, Bradman is not actually out, which happens to every batsman, but rather is outwitted, which did not often happen to him. The photo by the unknown photographer, who may well have been unacquainted with cricket, is made epic with, and by, time.

A thud of non-recognition used to startle Patrick Eagar as he sat in front of the TV highlights at the end of a day's shooting. Say a batsman lost his stumps. On TV it was instant higgledy-piggledy. Hours earlier he'd photographed the same moment, in Eagar Time, which began with Eagar peering at the batsman, preferably his face, hopefully detecting some abrupt change of expression, that is, a clue, while simultaneously scrutinising the unwinding panorama for other potential clues, such as the ball's apparent direction, or how far up the pitch the ball bounced, until - if it were a sunny day - he'd spy a glimmer of yellow on a bail, the first confirmation of stumps flying.

"In my memory," he puzzled, the TV action having already moved on, "it occurred at a much slower pace." That feeling of compressed time being elongated saturates a classic Eagar photo. There are enough Eagar classics to fill a floor (the launch invitations must be stuck at the printers) of the Tate Modern. TV's super-slo-mo cannot compete with the emotional load contained in an Eagar photo. Eagar versus current-day TV's super-duper-slo-mo - with its sweat-beadlets-trickling self-lampoonery - is an even less equal contest. Of Eagar's photos, none evokes Eagar Time like this side-on picture of Steve Waugh blocking, although the label's wrong, in truth it's a study of Jack Russell wicketkeeping, where you sense the hands of a clock being tweezered to a standstill.

© Patrick Eagar

Constantly ticking, yet concealed, is the photographer's bouncing mind. "What's he good at?" Eagar, eyes fixed on a batsman, would ask himself. "What's the shot that actually killed the bowlers?"

On this day at Lord's it was Steve Waugh's block. Eagar sought out the best unoccupied nook at the ground to show it. Something in the geometry - the parallel angle of Waugh's bat, his back, the umpire's leg, and the paler shade of mowed grass - creates an aura of purity, which the ad-free stumps and clothes build on, the air grows thick with purity, Waugh's even got a cloth cap on, until… I want to take a cold shower. Lovely! Enough! Next picture! Keep looking, though, crash through that hard-to-inhale perfectness, leaching towards nostalgia, and your attention drifts up, to the umpire, Bird. And it is Bird's just-palpable admiration, Bird's unshowy seal of approval - a certain softening in his stare; a tightening of the flap of skin above his chin - that has the curious effect of isolating Waugh in the picture, of putting him to the side in a sort of cage like a… bird. A re-orienting sensation takes hold. Your eyes are freed up from Waugh, move on from Bird, and drink in the wicketkeeper.

An above-average photographer might have zoomed in on Waugh while studiously ensuring Bird's feet stayed out of the frame, the idea of including the wicketkeeper destined never to land in the photographer's head. A merely average photographer, answerable to today's newspaper editors, would probably not have photographed Waugh blocking at all. Instead he'd have waited for Waugh's raised bat to the crowd upon reaching 150 and shot that. Job done. Next day's back page (and next five minutes' webpage) sorted. As exotic as a batsman in our midst hitting 150 in a cloth cap; that's how out-of-epoch a cricket photographer with Eagar's instincts would seem now - though Eagar "would prefer, with justice", as he comments on the back-flap of 1979's An Eye for Cricket, "to be regarded more as a photographer who devotes considerable attention to cricket".

Six years before shooting his first Test he spent five months in Vietnam, for a London agency, at a Saigon children's hospital. Perhaps he was familiar with war photographer Robert Capa's dictum - if your photos aren't good enough, you're not close enough. Not that getting closer was an option in cricket. Seventy-five yards or more from the action, crouched behind a fence, Eagar was conscious of his craft's limitations, its peculiar cruelties. A degree of paranoia, neurosis, shadows his occasional short writings and interviews on cricket photography. Some days, he knows, there'll be one key wicket or scintillating shot. Miss a ball and that will be the ball it happens. Focus on one end and it will transpire up the other end. Even if you are a chance of catching it, you are dealing in tenths of one second.

Eagar shooting a cricketer was akin to the hottest, latest hope from Celebrity Street sitting for Richard Avedon, except Eagar didn't have the luxury of them sitting. He could take a quarter-second's athletic dexterity that unfolded beyond the blink of ordinary human appreciation and lift it, bend it, into something grander and more thrilling-looking than people of bone and skin could plausibly do. Eagar was a star-maker. Little wonder that the players knew him, liked him. He loved them - and the game - back. He noticed things that people who loved it less overlooked. The game's most invisible servants, for instance, the ones who are ever-present, crouching, always watching, never daring miss a ball - it is not fanciful, indeed maybe it is nearly logical, given they're in the middle and he's behind a fence, to suppose that a little of his devotion should be heaped on and into their worry-burdened shoulders, that they, the wicketkeepers, should become a rough proxy, a stand-in, for him.

A candidate for cricket's all-time wow action photo is Eagar's 1975 shot of the seal-like leap by Rod Marsh, a wicketkeeper, to catch Tony Greig in front of where second slip should be.

To look at Jack Russell now, his eyes peering down a road with no end, is to feel time coursing, flowing, sprinting.

No great photograph in known, published existence depicts cricketers at night. A bat and ball's absence; rain, war, fire's presence - these, history teaches us, are obstacles that can be surmounted. All you need is light. You have to have illuminating, transformative, non-artificial, sky-given light.

© Melbourne Museum

Thirteen students of Manangatang East School stand for a team shot in 1934. On lean child's bodies are old-looking faces. Third from left, the boy with the bat is clawing it bottom-handled, tentatively. Fourth from right is a boy with a ball that looks too big to play cricket with. The world is between wars. There's a water tank, four years after the world first heard that Bradman learned to bat against a water tank, 500 miles north-east of Manangatang, using a stump and a golf ball, four years as well after an unknown photographer sensationally snapped Archie Jackson, 20 and scrawny, unloosing the silkiest off-drive ever captured on film. Three bystanders, blurry, had their backs facing Jackson. Had the unknown photographer said, "He'll be dead of TB in three years", would they have turned and looked?

In Manangatang they were observing tradition. To this day, team shots hang on cricket tea-room walls everywhere. Wisden printed more team shots in the first 140 years of its existence than all other categories of cricket photo combined. The trick is to get everyone looking at the camera, eyes open. Our Manangatang photographer failed.

Except one boy is not squinting or hiding his eyes from the light; he has on a black coat, the only boy in the picture not wearing a vague shade of white; also, his face, of all of them, is the oldest looking.

And at the door of the wooden classroom, two girls and their teacher are watching the boys/not boys, not letting them out of sight.

*Simone Callahan - "blonde … pretty, sunny … happy … polite, pleasant, nice, lovely, uncomplicated … sincere" (P Barry, unauthorised Warne biographer) - married Shane Keith Warne 1/9/95 and divorced ca. 2006

**Horseraces run counterclockwise throughout the US, in Dubai, in most of Japan and England, and in six out of eight Australian states and territories, Queensland and New South Wales being the exceptions, so Walters in this photograph could be monitoring a race at, say, Eagle Farm or Quirindi

***Called Australia: Story of a Cricket Country - 231 pictures, 37 essays (by others), one all-time players' poll, some stats pages, 140,000-odd words and that wiped the smirk off the year 2011 for me

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy, Australia: Story of a Cricket Country and Rock Country