Saturday, May 12, 2012

Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2012, edited by Lawrence Booth

The 2012 Wisden has arrived, its yellow cover for us in New Zealand representing autumn leaves rather than spring flowers.

Each almanack records a cricketing year, but when you have 45 yellow jackets on your shelves, as I do (46 if you count the 1964 edition that I picked up from the second-hand-book stall at the Basin Test a couple of years ago) you find that each Wisden represents another notch on the stick of your own mortality.  I mention this because the 2012 edition is the first to be edited by Lawrence Booth.
37-year-old Lawrence Booth.

That is to say, Wisden is now in the charge of a man who has no recall of the first two World Cup finals, the Test match career of David Steele or Headingley ’81, and who never watched cricket in black-and-white. Booth is the first of the Good Book’s sixteen editors to have made his name, in part at least, through his on-line writing, for The Guardian’s over-by-over coverage of Tests and its email newsletter The Spin (an email newsletter – how quaint). That seems to be the way in these days. Talented young sports writers such as the Daily Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew and The Guardian’s Barney Ronay serve apprenticeships in front of television screens in newspaper offices in the dead of night before being allowed out to file from a proper press box.
Lawrence Booth’s appointment is a response to the question “What is Wisden for?” Throughout the twentieth century the answer was so obvious that the question was not worth asking. Wisden was the game’s record, unrivalled in its breadth, depth and completeness. Then the internet arrived and Wisden suddenly found itself as contemporary and useful as a powdered wig. Like most cricket followers, I turn first to CricInfo and Cricket Archive for statistics (which are up-to-date to the second) and scorecards, and when I get around to owning a smart phone it will probably be with a view to having all this information at hand when I am spectating at the Basin.

Wisden was, in fact, an early adapter to the digital age, or tried to be. It had a website going early in the new century, and experimented with a paywall for access to its archive, but that did not work so it bought CricInfo, saving it from financial oblivion (and allowing a few of us in distant corners of the world to be paid when we had almost given up hope). A few years later CricInfo was sold to ESPN and Wisden appeared to be left on the platform waving a handkerchief as the age of electronic publishing sped towards the horizon.
Lawrence Booth’s brief is to ensure that Wisden catches up and remains as indispensable in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth. Not that the Almanack is in commercial decline. On the contrary, sales have held up well, and it remains one of the British publishing’s most bankable titles. But it cannot remain immune to the effects of changing times, which will see any number of familiar titles ceasing to appear in printed form over the next few years.

So the 2012 Almanack is the first to be available as an ebook. Booth has also initiated Wisden Extra, an online pamphlet full of good writing, but which can only be easily read if printed out, which seems to rather miss the point. The content of the Almanack is also increasingly influenced by on-line competition, though some of these changes pre-date Lawrence Booth’s accession to the editor’s chair by several years. The records section has migrated to the back of the book, reflecting the loss of its status as the main reason to buy the Almanack. The Wisden website will henceforth update records in real time, but it would be a mistake to put much effort into duplicating what is available elsewhere.
Almost all scorecards of English domestic one-day and T20 cricket appear in potted form. All hell was let loose when the Sunday League scores for 1976 appeared in this form in the 1977 Almanack, as this removed the only collected source of these records. Now the omitted scores are freely available on-line, so nobody cares. But brief reports, not necessarily easily available with the full cards, are retained, which is sensible.

And there we have the reason why Wisden remains relevant, essential indeed, in digital times. It’s not the numbers, it’s the words.
The biggest change in Wisden in the period represented on my shelves is the quality of the writing, for so long pedestrian, now often outstanding. I reached for the 1972 edition for comparison. The features give the impression of having been written in a particularly dusty corner of the Carlton Club for a readership in another part of the room. The editor’s notes have the dull air of the bowls club AGM about them. Norman Preston, editing his 22nd edition, is sniffy about the success of Ray Illingworth’s Ashes-winning side because of “unsavoury” incidents that occurred during the series.

Though not yet aspiring to the heights of pontifical infallibility achieved by Matthew Engel, Lawrence Booth’s notes are intelligent and pleasingly written. They lead a consolidated comment section of more than 200 pages, a book in its own right and more than double the ration of forty years ago.
The overall standard is so high that it is almost invidious to nominate a favourite. Mike Brearley’s insightful piece on depression among cricketers contends. So does Gideon Haigh’s account of the development of the International Cricket Council from the time 20 years ago when it was housed in a converted canteen at Lord’s to its present location in luxurious premises in Dubai. Haigh nails it by the second paragraph in which he notes the appropriateness of the proximity of the animal so often described as a horse designed by a committee.

Michael Henderson writes an uncharacteristically cheerful, almost romantic, piece inspired by the moment at Taunton when
Croft of Blackpool hit the runs that threw a hoop around almost eight decades of history
and won Lancashire the Championship.

For those who moved away long ago, and will never go back, Lancashire – and Lancashire cricket – still grips us, for it is part of that personal mythology without which no human being can feel entirely fulfilled.
So true, just substitute the name of your county or team. Will Kent win another Championship in my lifetime?

Colin Schindler, another Lancashire man, marks the fifty seasons that have passed since amateurism was abolished in English first-class cricket with a few stories that suggest the move was overdue, such as that of Peter Murray-Willis, captain of Northamptonshire in 1946, who once stopped chasing a ball to the boundary because his cap fell off.
But it is PJK Gibbs – yes, Alan Gibson’s bĂȘte noire again – who tops the rest with his account of a day in 1964 that he spent in the company of SF Barnes, perhaps the greatest bowler ever to play the game. It is like somebody still living describing a day spent chopping down trees at Hawarden with Gladstone. Gibbs, a junior player in the Staffordshire team playing in the Minor Counties Championship against Bedfordshire at Walsall, was assigned the task of looking after 91-year-old Barnes, a short straw given the great man’s reputation for irascibility. Barnes was a century ahead of his time when he followed the money to the leagues when Lancashire would not pay him enough. He would play for England only if “the money was right” and would have approved enthusiastically of Chris Gayle and the like, seasonally migrating from T20 team to another across the globe.

Despite his great age Barnes’s mind and prejudices were steel-tipped.
“Batsman?” he said after a pause. “Yes”. “Oxford?” “Yes”. “Blue?” His voice had a dark, accusing tone.
His opinions on the modern game and its players were acute.

“Frank Worrell, fine player, fine man. Laker? Those pitches in ’56 were a travesty. Money for old rope. What did he do in Australia?”
Barnes took 77 Test wickets in Australia, in just 13 Tests. On that day in 1964 Gibbs got a pair.

And then there are the obituaries, the anticipation of which has kept my Blean correspondent and myself reason to live through many a cold English winter. Year by year, the number who I saw play edges up. Abberley, Bailey, Carew, Dilley, d’Oliveira, Pataudi, Reifer, Roebuck, Saxena, Titmus, only a wicketkeeper short of a team. All the notices are unsigned, so I don’t know who to praise for the outstanding piece on Peter Roebuck, which gets the blend of dark and light just right (though I’d guess Gideon Haigh). Those on Graham Dilley and Basil d’Oliveira manage to say something fresh despite the thousands of words written about both men in the days after their deaths.
But the real attraction of the obituaries is the stories told of minor figures, some of whom are included only because there is a good story to be told, not necessarily related to cricket. So the notice for Martin Searby, the Yorkshire journalist who was something of legend on the county circuit, records an exchange that took place in a cruise ship swimming pool. “Are you Martin Searby?” asked a woman he did not recognise. “Who wants to know?” “I was your first wife” came the reply. I met Searby once. “A good bloke before nine in the evening” was what I had been told about him. As he entered the Vittoria on the Whiteladies Road in Bristol – the last call of an all-day drinking session in the company of David Green of Lancashire, Gloucestershire, and the Daily Telegraph – I looked at my watch. It was ten to ten. The next hour was a long one.

Sir Roger Jowell is included on two grounds. In 1965 he was protesting at Lord’s against the team representing white South Africa, but was so taken with a shot by Graeme Pollock that he put down his placard to applaud; and “one of the Americans he succeeded in converting to the game” (this conjures up a marvellous image of him going from door to door in the mid-West, Wisden in hand) was Bill Clinton’s campaign chief of staff.
Richard Douglas-Boyd’s claim for inclusion is slim: his company published a few cricket books. But had he been omitted we would not have known that he severed his big toe with a lawnmower, or that his spaniel ate the toe before it could be recovered.

So callow youth as Lawrence Booth may be, the first Wisden in his charge matches the high standards set by his recent predecessors. The 2013 edition will be the 150th

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