Patrick Eagar might be the only photographer to inspire a bowling action. On 6 July 1974, during the third Test between India and England at Edgbaston, he took a series of images of spinner Bishan Singh Bedi. One sequence starts during Bedi’s run-up and continues after the ball has left his hand. These photographs were seen by a 16-year-old Monty Panesar—like Bedi, a Sikh boy, but raised in England. The elegance of Bedi’s action spurred a young Panesar to create a similarly smooth one.
Eagar, 75, grew up in Hampshire, England. He photographed his first Test in 1965. By the time he called it a day in 2011, he had racked up 325 Tests and over half a million photographs. He is perhaps the best-known cricket photographer ever. In an email interview, Eagar talks to Lounge about the importance of anticipation in sports photography, and why effortless players are difficult to shoot. Edited excerpts:
Did you start out wanting to become a cricket photographer?
I was always interested in photography. My father was captain and secretary of Hampshire (from 1946-57) and whenever Hampshire played at Lord’s, he would be sent a set of photographs by Sport & General, the agency that exclusively worked at Lord’s. I was fascinated by them since they were taken with long telephoto lenses and I didn’t have one. Actually, you couldn’t really buy one, the way you can today. By 1972, the situation had improved, although I ordered one from Nikon in April 1972 and it was delivered in September, far too late for my first Test season. The old cameras used lenses rescued from aerial reconnaissance cameras from the two world wars. They say the German lenses were the best.
Did you play yourself?
I was a devilish leg spinner with the smaller-sized cricket ball that we used up to the age of 13. I took 55 wickets against other schools in one season. Then, a year later, my fingers no longer fitted around the larger (5.5 ounces) ball and the batsmen got bigger. I was far too easily slogged to the boundary.
Who were the photographers who inspired you?
The classics—Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Capa, Edward Weston...
What was your first great photograph?
The 1972 English season was the first in which photographers other than the exclusive agencies Sport & General and Central Press were allowed to photograph Test matches. The demand for colour photographs was very small, so all the other photographers only shot in black and white. If the light was bright enough, I was able to use colour film, and, being the stubborn sort, I really thought this was something I could exploit for the future.
My first Test of that summer was Old Trafford and the sun hardly ever came out, which made colour photography very difficult. I did manage one colour photograph of a Dennis Lillee wicket (Alan Knott caught by Rod Marsh) which made a pleasing composition. A good photograph, though perhaps not a great one!
In 1972, we were told where we could sit, particularly at Lord’s. One day I found myself in the most unsuitable spot, high up in the Warner Stand. Greg Chappell made a century and returned to a standing ovation. I then found I was in the perfect position to photograph the Lord’s pavilion from top to bottom as he came off the field of play.
Did you have match-day rituals?
Not really. In the early days, I think the amount of equipment and the lenses were heavier and trolley bags hadn’t yet been invented, so car parking at the ground was a great help. On a hot day, a supply of water was helpful. You couldn’t just wander off and buy one. If you ever failed to watch even a single ball, then that might have been the image of the day gone forever.
How much does anticipation play a role in capturing the decisive moment?
With cricket, the problem is always the same in that most of the players you are interested in are 75 yards/metres away, unlike football, rugby or golf. The only thing that varies is your angle to the action, ground level or up in the stand, behind the bowler’s arm or at square leg or anywhere for that matter. Correctly anticipating the action in any single session would result in setting up all the equipment in the best place from which to work. A fast bowler with a new ball would indicate having all the slips in view. An in-form batsman with a good square cut or cover drive would send you square of the wicket at ground level.
The permutations are endless. You can shorten the odds in your favour by using a second or third remote-controlled camera; or an army of assistant photographers. Remote-control cameras have helped me a lot over the years, the second angle on any incident often being a life saver.
What kinds of players are tough to shoot? What kinds are easier?
Obviously, any player with a classic action, batting or bowling, fits into a mould. You hardly have to think about how you are going to photograph them to show them at their best or at their most typical.
Some players time the ball so well there is no visual sign of strain or effort. Michael Holding was known as “whispering death” because his approach to the wicket was so quiet and apparently effortless, his action so apparently economical that it was amazing that he regularly topped 95 mph or more. David Gower’s cover drive was a thing of perfection, no bish-bash, just an even, perfectly timed stroke. The problem with people like that, and I would include Sachin (Tendulkar) in particular, is that the photograph doesn’t always convey the power in the shot, it doesn’t look like a boundary particularly if the ball has been hit along the ground, as it so often was with the best players.
Which are your favourites among your own photographs?
I think anything that conveys a moment in a game—the more important the moment, the better the photograph. A slip fielder diving for a catch, a wicketkeeper stumping, a fielder hitting the stumps for a run-out, that sort of thing. A batsman and the winning runs. Maybe the moment that turned a match.
There’s a great story about your sequence of Bedi photos inspiring Monty Panesar.
The Bedi photographs were taken on a 16mm cine camera at a speed of 64 photos per second. I couldn’t afford the special camera that would do it on 35mm film, neither could I afford the running expenses. The photographs made a nice sequence and the quality wasn’t at all bad considering the tiny size of the negative.
Were there any moments you missed that haunt you?
You could always run out of film in the old days, each roll lasting for only 36 pictures. The trick was to reload before you got to the end, but then you wasted some film, which was an expensive matter. Also, it was possible to mis-load a film so that it never wound on at all. The best thing is to forget about the things that went wrong and look forward to the photographs you are about to take, a feeling not unlike that experienced by a bowler who bowls a full toss or a long hop. You could always hope that the next ball might be the unplayable delivery.
If you were shooting this World Cup, which players would you be concentrating on?
Obviously, you keep an eye out for the top performers on the field, but wanting to capture anyone on a given day is more difficult. You don’t really know until it happens. You have to be open-minded and take each innings as it comes. The most unexpected things happen.
I would, however, look out for the most famous players too because they are the most likely to do well. Virat Kohli is an obvious example. But what about the players in the Afghanistan team? I remember the match when Zimbabwe beat Australia in the 1983 World Cup. And after that, they could so easily have beaten India at Tunbridge Wells were it not for Kapil Dev’s innings.