Shooting the Ashes: 540 balls a day, and you can’t miss one
My mates would say to me “Are you serious? You’re being sent to watch every ball of The Ashes, and you call that work?” It sounds like a dream job ... and believe me it is. But a lot goes in to photographing cricket, particularly an Ashes.
I was lucky enough to be given the assignment of covering the last two Ashes series for News Limited. The 2005 tour of England and then the return battle in the Australian summer of 06/07. In 2005 we set off at the beginning of June and wouldn’t return until mid September. It was a monster of a tour, including the one-dayers it was almost a 15 week trip. And sadly, England won.
The first thing you need to be a cricket photographer is stamina. There is no other sport like it. 540 balls a day, the best part of eight hours of action, five days in a row, countless training sessions, and the series last for months on end.
Day after day you have to back up and be ready to expect the unexpected.
The picture or story of the day can happen at any second throughout one of those 540 balls and if I don’t get the picture that tells that story I don’t care about having the best seat in the house.
Patience is the key. As we all know there can be slow parts of Test cricket where not much is happening so you have to remain patient and hope that you are switched on for when something does.
In 2005 the first Test was at the home of cricket, Lords. Glenn McGrath was sitting on 499 Test wickets so we immediately had a milestone that had to be captured.
There are lots of things to think about when trying to record one of these moments. For starters which end is he going to bowl from. For McGrath it was easy because he always bowls from the members end at Lords but over the years there has been a lot of stress trying to capture some of Warnie’s many milestones.
We would often pester the captain, be it Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting to find out which end they would bring him on at. Our stress would often be their amusement.
I’ll never forget Warnie being on 355 Test wickets about to go past Dennis Lillee’s Australian record and Steve Waugh switching Warne to the other end.
Looking back, the sight of the stressed photographers scurrying to the other end of the ground must have looked quite funny. I’m sure a few of my good journo mates in the press box were having a quiet chuckle too but as I sometimes remind them, there are no replays for us.
For these moments I would always set up a camera in the stand somewhere with a view of the whole pitch which I would trigger by remote.
It is done basically as a backup for when something big happens. A hat-trick, the end of the match, players crowded around the bat etc.
For McGrath’s I chose to do it slightly differently and attach a smaller lens so I could see the Lords pavillion behind him. I put it towards the left hand side so I would get the slips in. England had two left hand opening batsman and I presumed McGrath would get one of them. Only trouble was we won the toss and batted!
I almost pulled the camera down but at the last minute decided against it and left it there. Lucky I did. England bowled us out cheaply so McGrath would get his chance that day.
The first over after tea he claimed Trescothick for his 500th, caught in the slips by Justin Langer. Fortunately for me the remote picture worked. Here it is:
You’re never quite sure until you make the mad dash up in to the stand to retrieve the disk to see if it fired for a start.
Anything can and does go wrong with these pictures. A fielder could be in the way or a spectator can bump your camera and you can end up with a lovely picture of nothing but blue sky or green grass.
With cricket the story is forever changing and with the deadlines we work under and now with the net we sit with our laptops by our side and spend the day constantly filing pictures as they happen.
As soon as something happens the disk comes out of the camera, goes into the laptop, I select the picture, enhance it, crop it, caption it and send it.
If you are really quick you can have a picture back to the office before the next ball is bowled.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were shooting film at the cricket where we would write our captions down on a piece of paper and place them in an envelope along with the film and race it out to the gate for a courier to take it back to the office for someone else to choose your pictures.
Or those before me that actually had to take a full darkroom on tour with them. An enlarger, chemicals, trays, paper and plenty of black plastic to block out the light for your makeshift darkroom that you would create somewhere nearby a tap.
However on Day 1 at Lords there was plenty of filing to be done, 17 wickets fell. In contrast I remember a day with no wickets falling at all. In India in 2001 Laxman and Dravid walked to the crease on the third morning in Calcutta for what we thought would be a series defeat that day. 540 balls later they walked back to the pavilion undefeated.
It’s a funny game cricket. You never know what is going to happen. But you can try and predict it and anticipate what may take place.
Although it was hard to predict Glenn McGrath rolling his ankle on a ball in the warm up before the second Test. Within minutes the phone was ringing from back home for the pictures. I was just lucky I wasn’t out the back munching on a bacon roll for breakfast.
We always get to the ground early to mark our positions. It’s first in best dressed for us. It’s something my colleagues would say I’m rather anal about. I have to be the first one there to have the choice.
For Lords, that meant just after 5am.You have to be particular about your position because with cricket generally that is where you sit for the whole day.
No use arriving late, sitting wide and have mid-off stand in front of you all day. I like to count down the minutes during a days play. I get excited when it’s ‘5 minutes til drinks’ ... ‘10 minutes til lunch’ .... or my favourite ‘20 minutes til stumps’. They are long arduous days often in ridiculous heat. But I love it. We do our best to watch every ball and I’ve been asked a thousand times. ‘Do you take a picture every ball?’... No. But I do when something happens.
We watch it so closely you feel part of it. You feel the confidence of Glenn McGrath steaming in at Lords. You feel the mind games that Shane Warne plays. You feel the concentration of Ricky Ponting at the crease. You feel the ball digging in to the ribs. You feel the passion of Langer and the heart of Haydos or Gilly.
And as with my picture of McGrath and Warne leaving the field defeated for the last time in England, you feel the pride.
There is nothing like an Ashes, particularly in England. It is cricket in its purest and best form.
In 2005 we saw some of the most incredible Test match cricket ever played. This series may appear to be different with some big names gone.
But the passion and rivalry of an Ashes battle will always remain the same.
Bring it on. I’m not covering it this time around although I’ll be watching ... but maybe not every ball.
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