I recently wrote a review of the 2014 Wisden for John Fuller's excellent Cricket Yorkshire website.

For anyone who didn't see it there, here it is:

There is a conception of the world – chiefly a certain kind of south of England, middle-class conception of the world, but a conception of the world nonetheless – which tells us that one of the first signs of the coming of spring in England is the publication of a squat hardback book with a chocolate cover, housed in a yellow dust jacket.

I'm not sure that this is true any more, if indeed it ever was. Over its many years on the bookshelves of the world, Wisden has been admired, it has been revered, it has increasingly been fetishised. It has even, in some cases, been read. However, when all has been said, it is simply a book about cricket.

Wisden's chief virtue, though, in both physical and psychological terms, is as a source of stability in a changing world. Since Wisden first appeared in 1864 (with its scorecards, of course, but also with its rules of Knur and Spell, and its concordance of the canals of Britain and Ireland, and its lists of the winners of classic horse races), the game of cricket has evolved through the legalisation of overarm bowling, the development of Test cricket, Bodyline, the World Cup, and, most recently and probably most significantly, Twenty20. It is easy to know when these things happened, because it is in Wisden (pages 1529 to 1532, since you ask).

The world has moved on too. Global wars have come and gone and technology has burgeoned to a degree which old John Wisden, sitting in his shop near Leicester Square stroking his whiskers, could only have dreamed of: photography, telephones, moving pictures, ultimately television and, most recently and probably most significantly, the World Wide Web.

The contemporary world of cricket is circumscribed by many of these things. Wherever you look it is on television, though you may have to pay extra to watch it. Where it is played live, people photograph it, they film it, they write about it. Increasingly this is not for newspapers; it is for websites and for blogs, or, in a more abbreviated form, on Twitter.

This is the world into which Wisden emerges every April. Because of people's awareness of the way in which the world has changed, its annual appearance is increasingly seen as a test; a test of format, a test of style, a test of relevance.

How, then, does Wisden shape up?

Over recent years, especially under the editorship of Lawrence Booth, Wisden has changed. In years gone by, while there were always feature articles in Wisden, the writing was rarely as good as it is now, and its primary function was at least as much as a document of record – history, statistics, laws – as a mirror on the world game. Aspects of it were absurdly cumbersome and archaic – until quite recently, its coverage of overseas cricket was a year behind – but now, largely thanks to Booth and his predecessors Scyld Berry and Matthew Engel, it occupies a distinctively independent niche, somewhere between cricket's traditional media arena of newspapers, magazines and ghosted autobiographies, and the wide world of the Web, with all its opportunities, triumphs and flaws. Of course, the statistics and the history are still there, but the real strengths of modern Wisden lie in the quality of its writing and its images, and the pungency of its comment.

Booth is a skilled, and, from personal experience, distinctively courteous editor, but he is also a sharp and distinguished writer. In his editor's notes, he takes aim at the way in which India, England and Australia conspired in early 2014 to alter the ICC's governance structures to ensure that they would receive a larger share of international cricket's income. It is obvious that Booth views the much maligned BCCI as the leading villains of the piece, but the smaller boards fail to escape censure for their response to the proposals and the ICC, of course, gets it in the neck. Booth's criticism focuses on its vacillation over the semi-mythical World Test Championship – if you ever see this take place, let me know – and what it says about the unhealthy relationship between world cricket's governing body and that of the country in which the game is most popular. Further on in the book, cricket's greatest contemporary writer, Gideon Haigh, delves deeper into the 'carve-up of world cricket' with characteristically forensic scepticism. In the scepticism at least, as Haigh makes clear, he is not alone. With admirable balance, Wisden allows Giles Clarke right of reply; he puts the ICC's side of the case well, but ultimately fails to convince.

We will hear much more about this.

Elsewhere in his notes, Booth broadly concurs with the England management's decision to terminate Kevin Pietersen's tenure in the England team, dutifully covers England's era-defining defeat in Australia and pays tribute to Andy Flower and the man who, perhaps more than any other, ultimately did for him and his team, Mitchell Johnson. To lighten the gloom (from the viewpoint of an England supporter), the achievements of England's women's team, twice Ashes winners over the past year, are given their due, and Booth pays a short but sweet tribute to the departed Sachin Tendulkar, while politely acknowledging his doubts about the manner and location of his departure. The continued absence of Test cricket from terrestrial television in Britain is also mentioned. And, quite rightly in my view, not in an approving way.

The rest of the book's Comment section contains a range of contributions which, while all interesting and well-written, do not quite match the standard of some of the landmark articles which Wisden has carried in recent years such as Christian Ryan's truly remarkable Jeff Thomson is annoyed from 2013, or Peter Gibbs' sublime and resonant memoir of Sydney Barnes (2012).

But this is a matter of personal taste; from this year's book I particularly liked Martin Crowe's Time to smell the roses, which is a timely counterpoint to what might be seen (from the game's fringes, or 'the outer' as Australians used to say) as prevailing professional opinion about sledging. There is little doubt that Crowe's call for cricket to rediscover the virtues of competitiveness without vitriolic personal abuse will receive much approval from those of us who feel that the amount of unnecessary verbal interaction between bowlers, fielders and batsmen has demeaned the game and the reputations of many of its leading protagonists for too many years already. Crowe also, intriguingly, describes Michael Clarke as 'a gentle, misunderstood man'. Well, misunderstood, perhaps.

Sachin Tendulkar is the almanack's cover star, and he is also the subject of a perceptive and finely-crafted tribute by Tunku Varadarajan which pays welcome attention to the man beyond the arena, and a further piece by his former Test match colleague Aakash Chopra, which describes what it was like both to play with him and to mix with him off the field. Tendulkar, as he always does, emerges with shining credit from both, and leaves one with the thought that if more international cricketers had his level of humility the problems described by Crowe would be substantially alleviated.

As anyone reading this will probably know by now, the Five Cricketers of the Year are Shikhar Dhawan, Charlotte Edwards, Ryan Harris, Chris Rogers and Joe Root, while the leading cricketer in the world is named – and it is hard to argue against unvarnished greatness – as Dale Steyn.

This year's five feels like a low-key selection, and, as such, perhaps reflects the fact that the English summer of 2013 wasn't, in strictly cricketing terms, all it was cracked up to be. The (male) Ashes series was disappointingly one-sided and relatively pedestrian, and, unlike many previous years, none of the candidates absolutely demanded inclusion. That said, Dhawan deserves it for his brilliance, Root for achievement and potential, Harris and Rogers for persistence and Edwards for brilliance, achievement and persistence.

Indeed, the selection of Edwards (and a fine feature article by Tanya Aldred) emphasizes another of the virtues of the modern Wisden. It is inclusive, and it is democratic. Another aspect of this is the writing competition, inaugurated by Booth in 2012 in order to open up the possibility of publication in the almanack to a wider range of writers, and won in its second year by Liam Cromar, with a clever Shakespearean take on the old game of hypothetical team selection.

Over recent years Wisden has become notable for the quality of its photographs. This year is no different, even if the monochrome pictures which precede each of the book's sections aren't quite as outstanding as in 2013. An exception to this is the picture of Ricky Ponting, batting for Surrey against Sussex at Arundel, which appears before the section on English domestic cricket. Ponting, with head level and still, awaits the ball in a manner prescribed by any textbook; the majority of the crowd and the umpire watch his every move, knowing they are witnessing the last days of a great player, but far away, on the grass bank to Ponting's leg-side, a solitary spectator stands with his back to the cricket and gazes into the rural distance. It is about the importance of everything and nothing.

Elsewhere there is a range of outstanding pictures of both Ashes series, and the winner and runners-up in the Wisden-MCC photography competition. The winner, by Atul Kamble, shows Tendulkar emerging from the Wankhede Stadium dressing room to resume his final innings in Test cricket. The picture carries echoes of a Renaissance painting, the arms of Tendulkar's worshippers raised as if in supplication (although, in reality, each one holds a digital device), with the man himself bathed in sunlight from the back of the stand as he looks into it to atune his eyes. It captures a singular moment; if it had been taken a split-second earlier or later, it would not be the picture it is. This picture is so astonishingly brilliant that it would be entirely justified to buy Wisden 2014 for it and it alone.

There is a pithy and well-timed appreciation of Graeme Swann by Vic Marks – just in case anyone has forgotten how important he was to England and how difficult he will be to replace – and a moving interview with Mark Boucher about his leaving of the game and his battle to regain the sight in his left eye. If you are a wicketkeeper and you read this, you will never again stand up to the bowling without wearing a helmet.

The obituaries, as always, are beautifully judged and written. I have long held the view that the best way to learn about a cricket personality is to read their Wisden obituary (if they're dead, of course). Nothing changes.

However, more generally, as has been said, these are changing times. Wisden has reacted to them. The laws were dropped in 2012 and the records section is now much nearer to the back of the book than it used to be. While it is usefully arranged, there is little if anything in this which cannot be found online, and it is out of date as soon as it is drafted. To take an especially telling recent example, no mention is made of the re-writing of New Zealand's Test record book by Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling; that will have to wait until next year.

Now in its 152nd year, Wisden endures. It still has its importance and its gravitas and its detail; most importantly it has its writing and its photography. It also, in a way it never used to, has humour. The final page of the book carries an 'index of unusual occurrences' which contains such entries as 'county player injured by medicine ball' and 'batsman dislocates shoulder celebrating hundred'.

Whether you start reading it from the back or the front, Wisden, as a result of skilful adaptation to a changing environment, is still as relevant as it ever was.

Perhaps, after all, it is a sign of spring.


Cricinfo said...

Mind blowing post and thanks for written review of the 2014 Wisden.
great post

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks very much. Not sure about the 'mind blowing' but I hope I got across some of what Wisden's about, both this year, and in general.

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