"The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there," writes JA Baker in The Peregrine. Yes.
In 1975, Patrick Eagar photographed an English cricket season that included the first World Cup and a four-Test Ashes series. Now Christian Ryan has written a book about that summer, those photographs, Eagar's art, and much else besides. He has helped us see what this great craftsman preserved from an age when taking pictures cost money and photographers knew what they had only when they had developed each roll of film. Baker's words might have served as an epigraph for this book.
There are no scorecards in Feeling, no session-by-session accounts, no chapter headings, and only the roughest sense of chronological order. There are many times when Ryan strays far beyond any of cricket's wide boundaries. There is a photograph of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston, another of the Bee Gees, and even a section of Monet's Water Lilies. The penultimate picture in the book is Joel Meyerowitz's famous shot of the North Wall of the World Trade Center after 9/11. This is appropriate, and probably intentional, not least because Feeling's title is taken from Meyerowitz's words in a 1981 documentary. It is about the only unoriginal line in the book.
To a limited extent, Feeling might be seen as a companion work to Gideon Haigh's Stroke of Genius. In both books there is a deep curiosity about the technical aspects of the photographer's craft and the skills of cricketers; one difference, of course, is that Ryan has interviewed Eagar on Skype, whereas Haigh had to discover more about George Beldam's technique by using more conventional historical methods.
There is also the distinction that Haigh's book is a biography of one cricketer, Victor Trumper, and a history of the game's most famous photograph whereas Ryan and Eagar's collaboration ranges across many players and a vast range of images. So let us be done with comparisons; there has never been a cricket book like this.
One of the best things about Feeling is Ryan's detailed commentary on specific photographs. In late May 1975 the Australians practised at Lord's. Jeff Thomson faces the camera, hands on hips, while Dennis Lillee stands a little more side-on. Ryan writes this:
"Thomson was standing, so close they were touching, beside Lillee, one's are the supple fingers of a cellist, dainty nearly, and his partner, though powerfully built, has a footman's humble air, these two most glamorous cricketers on earth. On an exposed arm, fair hairs are sprinkled. Something of their beginnings comes through, an asbestos house, anxiety nosebleeds, magpies that swooped, too shy to dance, tensed up and leaving pages blank at school exams, sport all weekend, eaten-out soup cans for golf holes, zonal hockey, fishing, soccer in the Protestant Churches League, cricket in the Municipal and Shire competition."
It is some writer who can change tenses in a sentence, risk the momentary giggle provoked by an image of shy magpies and still carry off a 98-word prose poem about what it was to be a young Australian athlete in the late-1960s. One does not need to agree with all of Ryan's observations in order to be enriched by them. And maybe it is intentional that there are white spaces at the bottom of most pages of Feeling; they could accommodate a reader's own queries and observations. It might therefore be useful to have two copies, one to annotate and one for best. This is one of those relatively rare books that seems to welcome argument. "What are we looking at?" wonders Ryan. "What did I take?" asks Eagar.
Some of Eagar's photographs prompt us to reconsider cricketers we thought we already knew. A particular favourite is the shot of Steve Waugh playing a forward-defensive shot, almost certainly to a ball from John Emburey, in the 1989 Lord's Test. Jack Russell has the gloves and Dickie Bird is at square leg. Neither wicketkeeper nor umpire repels a lens but it is Waugh's angular precision that commands the attention. Everything is right; there is a beautiful Aussie obduracy about the stroke but also a quietness. England lost 25 out of the next 38 Ashes Tests in which Waugh played.
The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there. Cricket often seems a game which is meant to be played rather than watched. We spend years of our lives watching it. And then a book like Feeling comes along, which justifies all that time and extends the parameters of our understanding.
If Six Machine is your thing, this book is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you have looked at a game of cricket or even a group of players warming up and wondered, in both senses of the word, at the narratives such moments contain, one hopes your Christmas morning may be brightened by a stocking-filler richer than ripe Reblochon.
And if you have a mild interest in cricket but know someone who is all but lost to the game, you should buy this book for them. Actually, buy two, because once you open Feeling, one doubts you'll fancy parting with it. It helps us to see and then invites us to look again. In certain respects this is one of the bravest cricket books ever written.
Feeling is the Thing That Happens in 1000th. of a Second - A Season of Cricket Photographer Patrick Eagar
By Christian Ryan