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The culture of almanacks: Wisden turns 150

Roar Guru
14th April, 2013
4

Almanacks are the jewels of culture. They tend to exude eccentric promise – trivia, bits of information that would not reason to have a home other than a person’s curiosity.

When Benjamin Franklin compiled his collection of wise sayings in Poor Richard’s Alamack, he was performing an act of mighty fine synthesis.

“Light purse, heavy heart” to “Great Talkers, little Doers” are examples of this. They still read like gems off the page.

The sporting almanack was another proposition, though not without similarities. Wisden Cricketeters’ Almanack, which turned 150 last Thursday, is the exemplar of the sport boffin’s compilation.

Fittingly, it is the sport of cricket, one heavy with statistical trivia and idiosyncratic reflection, that finds such expression.

The first issue from 1864 was not dedicated to cricket pure and simple. Evidently, John Wisden, a bowler from Sussex who was known in sporting circles as the ‘Little Wonder’, felt that 112 pages should at least make some reference to the then raging American Civil War.

Then again, that was also the year the Schleswig-Holstein question was tackled, and overarm bowling in the game commenced.

In 1889, the distinguished and long serving editor Charles Pardon embarked on an experiment that has since stuck – the selection of the Almanack’s Cricketers of the Year.

At the turn of the century, Wisden went political – at least in terms of campaigning for changes in the game through pointed commentaries.

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Pardon was never short of a word, describing the choices of England’s selectors in 1910 for the Ashes series as “touching the confines of lunacy”. But if it wasn’t giving the selectors a lashing, or the team tactics a bullocking, it was certainly a form of salvation and reassurance – that the sun would never set on empire, even as it was making its inexorable dip.

Reading the Almanack is much like taking a seat in a time capsule, however ‘modern’ an edition might seem.

The game, certainly as described between the covers of the publication, has always reeked of purity – or at least the pretence of it.

“Cricket… must not be tampered with to please the people who vainly think that it can have the concentrated excitement of an hour and a half’s football,” proclaimed Pardon. It is an attitude that has seesawed over the years.

Not even the publication of Michael Vaughan on the front cover in 2003 altered that purity principle, despite the briefest of stewardships under Tim de Lisle.

Yes, it might have been deemed heretical, but all heresies assume the existence of a mighty orthodoxy to begin with.

The 150th issue itself will not disappoint. Think stolid reliability and consistency. “Wisden arrives, more reliable harbinger of summer than the first summer,” suggests Andy Bull for The Guardian.

A chapter by Chris Ryan on Jeff Thompson details a spell the lightning speedster bowled for Bankstown against Mosman on December 31, 1973. The difficulties of Kevin Pietersen in the last year are chewed over. The physics of what it might be like to play cricket on Mars is considered by the late Sir Patrick Moore (“bowlers would be unable to find swing”).

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Ten moments over the period are also named, with few surprises.

W. G. Grace receives a mention in 1871, there is the birth of the Ashes (1882), the D’Oliveira Affair which “exposes apartheid” (1968), the pace revolution of the 1970s, and then, somewhat sadly, the commercial bent – first Hanse Cronje’s match fixing (2000) and the launch of the first IPL which “puts a price on everything.”

The game for its sake, and the game for a buck (or a shilling), have always been poles in conflict.

150 on the scoreboard of years is an achievement for any publication. In terms of County Championship matches, 22,000 have been reported, with 2,000 Test matches. There have been 570 Wisden Cricketers named and honoured.

The Cricketers’ bible, at 1584 pages, remains healthy. May it continue to thrive under the direction of Lawrence Booth.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and was recently in Zürich. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com