The decisive moment: Snapshot of the Tied Test

Getty Images had a team of 110 – photographers and editors and technicians – at the 2016 Rio Olympics. They shot 1.5 million frames, of which around 85,000 were shared with the world. Associated Press sent 61 photographers to the event, who together produced 3500 photographs a day. Armed with underwater robotic cameras, ultra wide-angle zoom lenses and miles and miles of fibre-optic networks, they joined a strong contingent of cameramen and women from around the world – the sense of competition among them as vivid as in the events unfolding before them – all jostling to ensure no second of sporting achievement was missed.

Three decades ago in Madras (now Chennai), Mala Mukerjee had at her disposal none of the technical wizardry that characterises coverage of modern sporting events. She was a spectator at a cricket match. And she captured a unique and indelible slice of cricket history with a Nikon F3, a shutter cord and a tripod – and an amateur’s enthusiasm.


It was hot and humid that September 22, 1986, in Madras. Dean Jones had been ill from dehydration, even as he batted through for his double-century in the first Test at Chepauk. Australia had put up their highest score in India. The hosts needed 348 in 87 overs on the last day for a win, and fully intended to get those runs.

At tea, the equation was 155 from 30 overs. Wickets fell. Sixes were hit. Tempers frayed.

“The match ebbed and flowed so much, particularly in the last hour,” Allan Border, the visiting captain, would say later.

Mukerjee, then a photography teacher at the Krishnamurthy Foundation of India school, had followed the five days of action at the stadium as a guest of the Madras Cricket Association and a friend of MA Chidambaram’s. Her husband, she says, “would occasionally play truant from his work” to join her, but in that final session she was by herself in that teeming stadium of 30,000. She kept her eyes on the middle and her finger ready to shoot every delivery of the final three overs. When she ran out of film, she borrowed some from a Doordarshan cameraperson she knew.

“There was an expectation that something remarkable was going to happen. I certainly smelt its whiff in the air.”

The something remarkable that happened was only the second occasion of a tied Test in cricket history.

Vikram Raju, the umpire, had his finger raised for the lbw of Maninder Singh, the last man in; Greg Matthews exulted at what his penultimate delivery had done; Border, at silly point, had recovered from the catch he thought he had missed; Ravi Shastri, at the non-striker’s end, refused to believe it was all over.

The official recording of that match was taped over by Doordarshan. The official photographers had left their seats to prepare for the post-match presentation. Mukerjee’s is the only photo of that defining moment.


Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the most influential photojournalists of the 20th century, based his book The Decisive Moment on a 17th century quote: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” In it, he described the skill he raised to an art form as such: “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give that event its proper expression.” The New York Times helpfully paraphrases this as “content plus geometry”.

Mukerjee, who considers Cartier-Bresson among her heroes, seemed to have got the content down pat that day – the mix of “ecstasy, confusion, relief and disappointment” on and off the field soon after the 5.18pm delivery was recorded for posterity. And although the photo might seem serendipitous – consider a spectator with no background in sports photography and with limited and borrowed equipment capturing what nobody else did – it perhaps wasn’t so.

“I continue to be astounded by the fact that no one else took that shot! Believe me, the ground was teeming with photographers with long tele lenses!” Mukerjee tells Wisden India in an email interview.

“You could, if you like, say that chance had a hand in the Chennai Test. After all, no one could predict it would be tied. However, I had gone prepared with my camera to take pictures of the  game. That was not chance.

“What if my friend from Doordarshan did not have a roll of film to lend me? Aren’t all outcomes chancy? What is not chance? Perhaps it was chance that I was there that day,” she explains. “But I do not think you would be looking at the picture today had it not been for my patience, my determination and my instinct – I took each and every ball of the last three overs amid all that excitement, and even begged for a roll of film anticipating I might need it – not to speak of the concentration and photographic skill in that supercharged atmosphere that went behind the making of that picture.”

In that, she shares similarities with Ron Lovitt, photographer for The Age in Australia, who took the iconic image of the final ball of the first tied Test, between the hosts and West Indies in Brisbane in 1960. A very nervous Lovitt reportedly gambled on the one exposure he had left in his ‘Long Tom’ camera, which was one more than everyone else there; but it was his skill and patience and concentration during an eventful final over that enabled him to react to history being made.

As Mukerjee says, “We all need a bit of luck, don’t we?”

About the ‘geometry’ in her image, she offers her own assessment: “I wish I had taken a sharper image of that event. I wish I had the right lens with me to do justice to that subject.”


Later that year, Mukerjee turned professional. That photo, however, was not to be a decisive moment in her own life.

On September 29, 2016, Mukerjee, who is now based in Kolkata, will be showcasing her work in Delhi. The tied Test photo will not be on display. Her work now, she says, is “far away … from these games that men play”.

“I must have held close to 100 solo and group shows of my work in several cities in India, UK, China, and also in capital cities of Bangladesh, Greece and Indonesia. Nowhere have I ever considered displaying that historic cricket photograph,” she says.

She got no royalty for the tied Test photo either: When The Hindu‘s N Ram, who was at Chepauk, came by later that evening and requested for her roll, she was happy to agree to its use in the next day’s papers. Since then, though, hers has been a losing battle with copyright violations.

The photo is available for sale on her website, inconspicuous among others more expressive in symmetry and contrast, more sedate in subject, and more careful in composition. She insists she isn’t a part of history and tends to stay away from big events – it is a sentiment that begins to make sense when one sees that most of her work is that of an observer not a chronicler, feet firmly on the outside. If anything, she concedes, she could in the history of the tied Test be “a footnote in very small print”.

Mukerjee, who counts a veritable team of cricketers from Polly Umriger and Garry Sobers to Steve Waugh and Irfan Pathan as her favourites, still attends Tests and limited-overs matches.

Unfortunately, though, she isn’t allowed to carry her camera inside anymore.

This article first appeared in Wisden India.

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