Ken Kelly took his first picture of Don Bradman 60 years ago. Soon he was changing the face of cricket photography
'Aye, I would have too,' the old man says, and he stares into the faraway and repeats softly to himself, 'aye, that I would have...'
Kelly has been gone half-a-century from Yorkshire, but has lost none of the inflections of his Tykeish roots. He was born in 1921 at 197 Kirkstall Lane and there aren't many better cricketing addresses than that. Ken was nine when, in that backyard, Bradman hit 309 in a day in 1930; he was 14 when The Don made 304, and he was photographing him when the maestro came back to score 103 in 1938, and 173 not out 10 years later. By then the batsman and the photographer had become the firmest of friends.
They have corresponded regularly ever since. In his button-bright dotage, Kelly is now curator of treasures at Edgbaston's resplendent new museum, The special glass cases devoted to Bradman's 90th birthday are particularly doted on. 'The Don was a beautiful timer of the ball, but it was his placement which took the breath away, always with a twinkle in his eye -- and I was privileged to see that more sharply than anyone else on the ground through the magnified lens of my Long Tom.'
Ah, the Long Tom: sports photography's break-through from the prehistoric studio cameras of Hawkins of Brighton, George Beldam, and WA Rouch. It was the earlier war that did it: after 1918, lenses made for air reconnaissance, mostly German Zeiss or Dallmeyer of up to 50in focal length, were fitted into great unwieldy long wooden boxes which housed the single glass slides and the half-plate reflex camera. They looked like mediaeval cannons precariously perched on pavilion balconies.
By his early teens, Ken had already mastered the Long Tom's 'single shot' intricacies. His printer father had a pal, Jack Slater of the Yorkshire Evening News, who would take him round the county's outgrounds in school holidays and, later, to the local College of Art, where he trained as a designer. Inevitably, the boy joined the paper, and in no time he was being considered a talented disciple of the great agency cameraman George Frankland, the father of modern cricket photography, who knew not only of art but also of cricket. In his time, Kelly became a similar prophet to the generations that followed him -- as Patrick Eagar, Graham Morris and Adrian Murrell would readily testify.
It was richly rewarding to sit with Kelly in the evocative Edgbaston kingdom he has newly created, and to rifle and riffle through, ponder and pore over his portfolio (not that he'd ever use the word portfolio). 'Snippets of my life down the years,' he calls the pile. All his working life, Ken was also a top-class, award-winning general newspaper photographer. But it is his beloved cricket for which he is famed. He was the buddy, travelling with and recording for posterity both cricket's commoners and the kings.
Who's this tubby leftie? 'Hey, take care of that one, that's a 60-year-old print, It's Maurice [Leyland] of course, who else? Can't you tell the lefthander's hall-mark, the punchy drive past mid-on, four runs, no trouble at all. Maurice was a great bloke, a happy go-lucky Yorkie, not like some of us who can be so dour.'
Ken stopped going to the Scarborough Festival there and then after he'd met Leyland in his retirement. 'Maurice was stood at the bar, shaking. He had Parkinson's. It upset me so much that thereafter I always went to Hastings with Dick Spooner.'
His other Yorkshire pal was Hedley Verity. 'Another man full of goodness, but a different bloke to Maurice, very studious.'
In the war, Kelly was an expert decoder and cipherman. 'I found myself on a Sicilian escarpment, spotting for the gunboats HMS Roberts and the Abercrombie. There was a hell of an infantry battle raging down on the plain, I knew the Green Howards were up against a Goering division and knew Hedley and Norman (Yardley) were getting a roasting, And, oh my God, I saw the Germans set fire to the cornfield where our boys had taken cover, then picking them off one by one as they ran from the conflagration. Poor Hedley died of wounds in Caserta a few days later.'
Kelly ended the war working behind enemy lines with Sir Fitzroy Maclean's Yugoslavian resistance army. On his way back to demob via Rome, he visited Verity's grave at Caserta, which had been identified and tended by two other Yorkshire players, Frank Smailes and Phil King.
The day after photographing the epic Bradman-Morris run chase at Leeds in 1948 - they needed 404, 'and they got them with almost 20 minutes to spare' - Kelly moved to the Birmingham Gazette & Despatch group, and a happy new confraternity. 'I went all over with the Warwickshire boys, sometimes with captain Tom [Dollery] in his Morris-Oxford - he'd drive like the wind.'
Eric said he made the lamp-posts look like a wicker fence. 'Most often I was with my two best northern buddies, Reg Spooner and Norman Horner, two wonderful fellows, I had digs in Norman's house, and was regular baby-sitter to Reg's three nippers. When we buried dear Reg last year at Torbay, Dennis Amiss came with me and couldn't understand why Reg's kids were calling me "Uncle Ken".'
At his Long Tom, Kelly perfected no end of innovations. 'I wanted to make a "strip" of Eric's action, half-a-dozen shots or more of his approach, from the smear of his hair, the timeless hitch of his trousers, the waddle into the delivery stride itself. So I asked Tom one lunchtime if he'd put Eric on at the Pavilion End for the first three overs after lunch.
"What!" Dollery affected outrage. "Just for some pictures, when we're trying to win a Championship?" But he relented: "OK, but just for two overs, mind." So at once Eric comes on at the Pavilion End. In those two overs, he took three wickets. I get my perfect strip, Eric stays on and gets three more, and Tom comes in and says, "Thanks, Ken, next vacancy for captain and your name's top of the list."'
In 1973, Kelly was named Photographer of the Year by the Royal Photographic Society for a portfolio which included the celebrated shot of Ron Headley's bat-losing flinch during the Gillette semi-final against Gloucestershire at Worcester. A slice of rubber is also flying from the handle.
'That was a 600mm lens but, tell you what, every picture editor the world over ignored my caption because they couldn't believe it, and said that Headley was facing Mike Procter. But in fact the bowler was David Graveney, very slow. It just popped to surprise Ron.' (Nicely, the RPS award was presented to Kelly by Sir Roger Bannister - 19 years after Ken, one of only three cameramen at Oxford that day, had taken the best of the immortal shots of Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.)
India's Madan Lal being howled by Mike Hendrick at Old Trafford in 1974 remains one of cricket's most intriguing pictures. A big indipper clatters the off stump at such a precise angle as to flick the middle stump with no more than a billiard-ball 'kiss' before careering into, and flattening, the leg peg. Leaving only middle upright. Apparently a Professor of Geometries in Sydney saw the pie and wrote a paper on the phenomenon.
The shutter was triggered in that instant by a single shot from a deadly and artistic marksman. 'That is the joy of it, and the satisfaction...waiting, waiting for that split-second precise moment...utter concentration, utter satisfaction when it works. In the old days, I would use scarcely more than a dozen plates in a whole day's play, so you knew you just had one chance to fire and one chance only. Working for four or five daily papers, I had to have at least eight or nine perfectly usable top-grade shots of incidents that mattered.
He said "Oh, I can't be bothered with doing that." So he sends his 17 rolls to the office, and they've got to sift through reams and reams of mostly meaningless contact sheets. No wonder they seldom choose the right one.'
I pick up a shot of umpire Syd Buller coming off for an Edgbaston rain-break in the 1970 match against Notts. He's chatting to Dave Halfyard as they approach the Pavilion gate. 'To this day I still don't know why I took it, no remote rhyme nor reason to it. Syd had coached me at council school, then we became the firmest of friends. He was a wonderful man. A few more strides and he was into the Pav, and he popped straight into the lavatory - where he collapsed on the spot and died. What can have been the instinct that inspired me to take the shot?'
In the mid-sixties, Kelly left Birmingham for a two-year sabbatical to travel the world. In Tokyo, the monarch of the Long Tom bought a 35mm camera, a 400mm lens with a 2x teleconvertor - and thrillingly at Sydney in 1966 his very first roll with it captured his friend and England captain Mike Smith holding a catch in David Allen's leg-trap. Thus Kelly became pioneer of a brand new era, and he never went back to the poor ton-weight Tom. The new gear was more precise than the human eye, and sharp enough to have umpire Dickie Bird admitting afterwards that Dennis Amiss might have been out, not in, when Wasim Bari claimed a run-out at The Oval in 1974. The lens could pinpoint in perfect focus Ian Botham's wolfish grin of certainty, same arena, 10 years later, when Jeff Dujon nicked a riser high to Tavare at slip for his 300th Test scalp; and the fact that Australia's Wayne Phillips, a year later, was caught by David Gower off Allan Lamb's calf - 'although Wayne still swears it was a bump ball in the first place!'
Very best of all, probably, is Bishen Bedi of India: a ravishing action shot of a spin-meister at work, surely one of the finest and most definitive sports shots ever taken.
'Capturing Bishen took me all of four years, an exercise in self-discipline, patience and dedication. I followed him around, studied him from every angle, 'What, you again?' said Bishen every time. Eventually, in 1974 I got it, I could always sense his right thumb firmly levering the ball into his left-hand grip just as his arm unwound to come over, an amazing final unconscious check to establish that his purchase on the ball was exactly perfect. Or was I imagining it? Then, wow! Suddenly there it was on a perfect print! "Well," said Bishen when he saw it. "I could never have posed for that, because I never realised I did it." But he was doing it - for 1,560 first-class wickets-worth.'
The twinkling old man of cricket photography stares contentedly out from his museum oasis, surrounded and coddled and comforted by the game's past as well as his own. His windows look down on the famous field, 'Increasingly,' he sighs with that mischievous glint of his, 'I reckon here inside is where the real cricket is - it's the fantasy cricket that is played out there these days I'm afraid.'
His mother's mother came from Connemara, his father's father had to leave County Cork to feed his children, Irish-proud Ken has asked his beloved Kath, when the time comes, to scatter his ashes over the West Coast coastline - 'as the first Irish-Yorkshireman from Warwickshire to go home as a free man.'
What is unquestionably certain, you tell him, is that he is Ireland's finest-ever cricket photographer and then some more. And the genial leprechaun laughs, like a young man would, fit to burst.
This article was first published in the January 1999 issue of Wisden Cricket Monthly.