Rare footage of early Ashes icons revealed
Australia's National Film and Sound Archive restores 19-second clip of legendary England batting pair from turn of the 20th century
31 May 2017, 12:29 PM AEST
Less than six months before one of world sport's oldest and most celebrated rivalries resumes, rare cricket footage has been restored that provides a glimpse into the game as it was played in the first days of the post-colonial era.
The 19-second clip of legendary England batting pair and close friends Charles 'C.B.' Fry and Kumar 'Prince' Ranjitsinhji, the India-born Maharajah of Nawanagar, engaging in an informal centre-wicket session at their English county team Sussex's ground (believed to be Hove) was filmed in 1901.
That makes it among the oldest cricket film to be preserved and restored, and is even more rare because it was originally shot for use on one of the first 'home video' entertainment devices, the Kinora reel that was operated under the same principle as a cartoon 'flip' book.
Fry and Ranjitsinhji were among the biggest names in cricket at the turn of the 20th century, the latter having scored an unbeaten 154 in his debut Test against Australia at Old Trafford five years earlier and the former becoming the first cricketer to plunder six consecutive first-class centuries in the year the footage was captured.
Only Sir Donald Bradman (1938-39) and South Africa allrounder Mike Proctor (1970-71) have since matched Fry's feat, with former Sri Lanka captain Kumar Sangakkara falling 16 runs short in his bid to join the select group this week.
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Fry, a sporting polymath who also represented England at football, played in an FA Cup Final for Southampton and for a year jointly held the world long-jump record, was regarded as something of a purist in his stroke play that netted him more than 30,000 first-class at an average above 50.
By contrast, Ranjitsinhji was an innovator with the bat – and is widely regarded as introducing the leg glance to the game as well as being an early exponent of the late cut – who averaged 56.37 across 307 first-class matches and was captain of Sussex from 1899-1903.
But neither player shows the strengths for which they were renowned in the brief clip that NFSA Film Curatorial Officer Jeff Wray claims was designed as an early promotional vehicle to capitalise on the popularity of the cricketers to drive sales of the Kinora units.
Ranjitsinjhi is seen executing a wristy cut shot and then aiming a full-blooded blow through mid-wicket, while the technically correct Fry – with sleeves rolled up and sporting a broad-brimmed canvas hat to suggest it was a warm day on England's south coast – plays and misses at two deliveries to his obvious frustration.
The somewhat bemused wicketkeeper has been identified by Sussex County Cricket Club as Fred Parris, an allrounder who played 105 games the club and went on to become a Test match umpire but never served as a specialist gloveman.
Australia Bupa Support Team men's batting coach Graeme Hick, who scored more than 40,000 first-class runs in his 25-year career, studied the archival vision and noted "fluidity and freedom" with which the pair swung the bat.
Images that indicate Test cricket was played with great flair in its formative decades.
"It's interesting to see how high the hands and bat are at the top of the back lift, a great position to strike the ball from," said Hick, who is currently in the UK with the Australia team for the upcoming ICC Champions Trophy.
"These days, I'd say the hands are a bit tighter and everything a little more compact.
"I'd like to see a defensive shot or two, and if their hands were in that same position, but maybe they didn't play many in those days."
Wray said while moving pictures shown by the Kinora machine could only be viewed by one person at a time, they became a popular item in affluent households around the turn of the 20th century and featured sporting celebrities, vaudeville acts and news reels of royals to widen their appeal.
"Ranji and Fry were quite the couple at that time in the cricketing world, and if you were wanting to get an audience in they were certainly two characters that would do that for you," said Wray, who added that the original Kinora reel was purchased from a collector in the UK by cricket historian Glenn Gibson.
"It would have been a traditional camera, on a clunky tripod and more than likely hand-cranked to get through the film.
"And it would have been a training session, you couldn't get out there during a match because you have to be quite close – there was no zoom or telephoto lenses back then.
"We have footage of Ranjitsinhji batting in Sydney in 1897, which is pretty exciting, and we've also got quite a lot of pre-1914 cricket footage featuring the likes of (former Australia batsmen) Clem Hill and Victor Trumper.
"But to find images of Ranjitsinjhi and Fry in full flight is quite a find, certainly in the format that it was captured makes it even more unique and unusual."
Upon receiving the reel containing the 465 individual images that made up the 19-second footage, technicians at the NFSA then set about creating their own version of the Kinora machine, which was rendered largely obsolete by the rise of cinema in the early 20th century, to view it.
While a number of Kinora machines, invented by France's Lumière brothers who were pioneers of modern cinema, still survive intact the NFSA only took possession of one after the cricket film had been painstakingly digitised and enhanced.
"We originally thought if we could play then we could film it as it ran through then we would have something like that finished product, but there was a fair bit of motion blur when we played it," Wray said.
The solution involved modifying an existing film winder onto which the brass spindle holding the images was loaded, enabling technicians to scroll through the 'frames' with a metal ruler used to hold each individual image in place so it could be digitally photographed.
The footage was then compiled frame by frame, as well as being stabilised and centred to smooth out the jumps and bumps that had developed though use over the years.
Wray believes there were one or two other Kinora reels made from the filming session with Fry and Ranjitsinhji, but none has yet been recovered so the restored footage remains the only existing record of the two greats – whose closely intertwined careers were about to forge divergent paths – batting together.
"They were both at their peak in that period, but Ranji then had a poor series against Australia in 1902 and never played for England again, while Fry was in a patch of form where he was scoring centuries left, right and centre," he said.
"So comparatively, as to where their respective careers were at that point, this represents a nice historical snapshot as well."