Each April in the early stages of the English domestic cricket season, a sizeable chunk of the public keenly awaits the publication of the new Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the brightest and possibly one of the weightiest books to be found on any sports lover’s bookshelf. The famous daffodil-yellow publication, often referred to as the ‘cricketer’s bible’, now in its 159th year, constitutes a volume of record offering incredible detail on global cricket from the previous twelve months, having evolved from its origin as a 112-page pocket booklet.
Although the emphasis is on the Test Match playing nations, the 1,536 pages provide a mass of statistical information on men’s red and white ball cricket, now pleasingly complemented with a sizeable and expanding section on the women’s game. However, it also offers insights into cricketing literature, history and the laws of the game with the Notes by the Editor setting the tone for what is to come. Wisden increasingly manages to drag cricket into the twenty-first century with the current volume focusing substantially on the issues of racism, discrimination and, to a lesser degree, sexism. The publication offers a valuable contemporary insight into the place and role of Britain’s premier summer game within a cultural and sporting context, combined with sections on global cricket history, details of new cricketing publications and its very popular section on obituaries. Equally welcome is the return of the 300 pages missing from the 2021 edition on account of there being less cricket to report on due to Covid-19, though this edition offers some interesting essays on the impact of the pandemic on village cricket and the new reality for players experiencing “living in the bubble” in order to ensure the continuity of the game, especially at international level.
Although sporting almanacks, regardless of their country or sport of origin, are widely recognised as being essential reading for fans and spectators, the level of expectation and interest in what the latest Wisden offers extends beyond those familiar with the elements of intricate field placements and reverse swing, or the impact of changing rules of country residency on the future composition of domestic and international teams. This is because of the appealingly idiosyncratic nature of the volume, which, this year, not only includes substantial sections on the state of the game, more especially its ingrained racism, but also ensures that cricket’s hinterland is duly acknowledged by many of its contributors. Emma John and Alex Massie consider the changing language of cricket, while two articles consider the plight of cricket in Afghanistan following the return of the Taliban to power and another explores the progress of cricket in Ukraine.
However, in the late 1980s, as I drove across the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia in a car with Dutch registration plates, the East German border guard was convinced that Wisden was a code book and treated me with the utmost suspicion.
Lawrence Booth, the almanack’s editor, has included some powerful reflections on the conduct and management style of the England and Wales Cricket Board, with particular reference to its handling of racism and the abject behaviour of Yorkshire County Cricket Club in its treatment of Azeem Rafiq, a former player and one-time Twenty20 captain of the county side. Booth has chosen to devote a sizeable amount of space to this episode and its ramifications. This has stirred considerable reaction, particularly from the historian and journalist Simon Heffer, who claims that the current edition is the most depressing since 1917 on account of the state of the management of the domestic game and the disturbing of the balance of content between sport and politics. However, the reality is that he continues to view the game through rose-tinted spectacles.
Many readers contend themselves with updating their knowledge of trends in the domestic game, be it at first-class or national counties level, or in the considerable space still devoted to the game in the public school sector. Others choose to dwell on the value of its vast treasury of match records and some readers are drawn to the wider canvas of the international game and how the sport is extending, albeit more in the white than the red-ball format, as cricket continues to wrestle with the need to ensure commercial viability and the need to locate and maintain a new source of fans. This constitutes the ongoing struggle between the modernists and the traditionalists. In recognising the increasing commodification of cricket, and players in particular, through the growth of the game in South Asia, especially India, Wisden has a separate almanack which, now in its ninth year, has chronicled the changes largely brought about by the mushrooming of the Indian Premier League with its enormous implications for franchise cricket across the world.
Growing up, receiving a copy of Wisden became a birthday tradition for me and I slowly consumed the volume over twelve months, making it last as long as possible, yet now I dive into it immediately and always take it on my travels be they in the UK or abroad. However, in the late 1980s, as I drove across the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia in a car with Dutch registration plates, the East German border guard was convinced that Wisden was a code book and treated me with the utmost suspicion. An unwieldy explanation in my fractured German got me through a tense hour of grilling that included a comprehensive inspection of the car and a check that I was not hiding someone in some secret compartment. Today, it is quite possible that German border guards are a little more familiar with the game as a result of the influx of Afghan refugees who have done much to spread the game across the German nation.
Wisden remains unique as a volume capturing a diverse range of issues. Even though it is possible to disagree with some of the pronouncements very strongly in past editions, most notably on the subject of apartheid, it rightly retains its place and status within the canon of sports writing, now displaying a stronger willingness to engage in issues from which it often preferred to shy away. One particular issue receiving deserving attention is climate change, where the reader is alerted to the wider threats to the future participation of some locations and cricketing nations in the international game.
During this century, Lawrence Booth is the third cricket journalist to take on the mantle of editor and his immediate predecessors have helped the volume’s evolution into a publication that is still worth purchasing over 150 years on from its founding. The content has shifted in balance from statistics to words, yet it remains a publication whose reputation far exceeds its sales and whose appeal is likely to extend to a growing readership as the sport is taken up by an increasing number of countries and quite possibly the Olympic movement. The Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is a key component of cricketing history which contributes immensely to our collective sporting memory.
Copyright © Russell Holden 2022