Patrick Eagar June 11, 2013

Patrick Eagar: cricket's visual poet

For fans who grew up before cricket was available ubiquitously through television, the photographer's work holds special meaning

Eagar captures Roy Fredericks falling on his stumps after hooking Dennis Lillee for a six © Patrick Eagar

Adulthood is accurately described as that period of your life when you find out most of your dreams will not come true: you will not find the perfect partner, the perfect job, or the secret to everlasting happiness. It's when most people will find out that their life is pretty humdrum and ordinary, marked by the absence of anything truly exceptional. (Old age is when you reconcile yourself to these disappointments.)

Notice I said "most" and not "all", for adult life is also that period when we discover, much to our unbridled glee, if our attitude is right, that we have lived through some experiences that in our childhood would have seemed like unrestrained fantasies.

I write these words because a few years ago, thanks to the marvels of the internet and the used-books clearing houses that may be found on it, I now own eight book-sized collections of Patrick Eagar's work, each bursting to the seams with gorgeous black-and-white and colour photographs, each picture capturing in Eagar's trademark style, a moment of cricketing excellence, wretchedness, despair, or triumph. (The books cover the 1981, 1982-83, 1985, 1989 and 2005 Ashes; the 1982 and 1988 English summers, with India and Pakistan and West Indies as tourists; one is devoted to Ian Botham.)

Like most cricket fans who came of age in the seventies and eighties, the most dramatic images I associated with cricket were Eagar's; indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that if my imagination ran wild over cricketing fields far away, it was fuelled in ample measure by the images that had been sent my way by Eagar's cameras. His photographs appeared in magazines, books, Wisdens. They were ubiquitous without being run of the mill. Chances were in those days that if you had a memorable freeze frame of cricket endlessly replaying in your head, it was most likely one captured by Eagar. The West Indies tour of England in 1976 remains iconic - in the truest sense of the word - because the images associated with it are; and they are Patrick Eagar's.

Every age has its scribes and poets and artists, those whose words and pictures capture its moments and freeze them in time for us, constructing a distinct portrayal of its peoples and events. Eagar was cricket's from the seventies onwards.

A good photographer is a technician and artist combined. He brings technical expertise to a domain where an artist's eye is required, and marries the two with a distinctive style. Eagar's work, especially his black-and-white work, was always recognisable. Perhaps it was an idiosyncratic combination of film and filter and exposure timings that did it, but more likely it was because he was a cricket fan, one who knew what he was looking at and what he wanted to see captured on film.

As a schoolboy with a limited allowance, one whose access to cricket books came from libraries, my ownership of Eagar's photographs was limited to those reproduced in Indian sports magazines. Sometimes I got lucky; an entire set would be reproduced and I would run home with my purchase to pore over them at leisure. Sometimes I would find out that Eagar had covered a tour - like India's visit to Pakistan in 1977-78 - for which I thought I had already seen all available photographs; the delight this discovery created can scarcely be imagined.

In those days, on more than one occasion, I would find myself thinking, "Imagine owning a whole book of his photographs. Just imagine." It seemed so outlandish, so outré. An entire book of Eagar photographs? Where would I get one? How would I afford it? Were such things even possible? Could a boy ever be so happy?

Now I don't have to daydream any more. They sit, eight of them, on my shelves, still repaying repeated perusal.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here