Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 1956 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

My Khandallah correspondent is on form. For my recent birthday I was presented with a copy of the 1956 Wisden, the 52nd edition on the shelves of the library at My Life in Cricket Scorecards Towers. It is not the oldest there; the 1955 edition was an earlier gift from the same discerning source. As she says, if you’d told her two years ago that she’d spend her time hunting down the Almanack in second-hand bookshops and on websites she’d have thought that you had escaped from somewhere.  

Norman Preston had succeeded his father Hubert as Wisden editor in 1952; this was his fifth edition. Preston was a Derek Pringle among editors: solid, reliable, but unlikely to surprise or excite (I mean Pringle the cricketer; Pringle the writer would make a fine editor, I’m sure).

The format of the 1956 Wisden was that of every other of the 28 editions that Preston edited. It begins with a 63-page index. Nobody is keener on a well-honed index than My Life in Cricket Scorecards, but this is too much of a good thing. Yet there it stayed at the front of the Almanack until Matthew Engel came along. He shifted the index to the back in 1993 and did away with it altogether two years later, replacing it with detailed contents pages for the book as a whole and for the records. In his 1995 preface Engel anticipates complaints, but I doubt that there were any. He did more than anybody to make Wisden fit for the 21st century, not least by adding authority and panache to Notes by the Editor.

In 1955 the Notes were more by way of summing up with any opinions expressed meekly lest someone at Lord’s be offended. Preston does express concern that cricket in the mid-50s could often be dull. Even here, he was not sufficiently confident to say this in his own voice. Instead, he tugged his forelock and agreed with the views of MCC President Viscount Cobham (soon off to be Governor-General of New Zealand).

The main feature article takes up this issue. Bill Bowes—former Yorkshire and England bowler turned writer—leads, followed by a paragraph or two from leading players and administrators. The focus of the debate was the lbw law, which required the batsman to be struck in line with the stumps to be given out. This meant that batsmen could pad up outside the off stump at will. Some did so, for hour after hour in some cases.

Some contributors called for a return to the lbw law as it had been before a change in 1935 that allowed the bowler to obtain a dismissal from a ball that pitched outside the off stump. It might seem odd, in the pursuit of more positive play, to narrow the law, apparently in the batsman’s favour. The rationale was to encourage bowlers to bowl stump to stump, thus compelling batsmen to play shots.

Nothing happened of course, at least not until 1972 when the current law was introduced to allow a batsman playing no shot to be out when struck outside the off stump. Just seven years before the inauguration of the Gillette Cup, nobody proposes one-day cricket as a curative for English cricket’s torpor.

On the face of it, the progress of the test series between England and South Africa makes you wonder if the debate was necessary: South Africa pulled back a two-nil deficit only for England to take the decider at the Oval. But the run rate in that game was well below two an over, so they had a point.

Basil D’Oliveira would have brightened things up. On cricketing ability he should have been one of the first selected for the South African touring party, had it actually represented South Africa rather than only the minority white population. Wisden makes no mention of this.

The best writing in the 1956 edition comes from Neville Cardus, paying tribute to Len Hutton, who had retired. The article shows why Cardus is regarded as one of cricket’s greatest writers. Here he describes the young Hutton on one of first appearances for Yorkshire:

After a characteristically Yorkshire investigation of the state of the wicket, the state of the opposition bowling, the state of mind the umpires were in, the state of the weather and barometer, and probably the state of the Bank of England itself, Mitchell and Hutton began to score now and then.

Young Hutton was feeling in form, so after he had played himself in he decided to cut a rising ball outside the off-stump. Remember that he was fresh to the Yorkshire scene and policies. He actually lay back and cut hard and swiftly, with cavalier flourish. He cut under the ball by an inch, and it sped bang into the wicket-keeper's gloves. And Mitchell, from the other end of the pitch, looked hard at Hutton and said, "That's no ...... use!" This was probably Hutton's true baptism, cleansing him of all vanity and lusts for insubstantial pageantry and temporal glory.

This and other features are available on CricInfo:

The fifties were grim for Kent. The thirteenth place in 1955 was bettered only three times in the decade. With Colin Cowdrey on test duty for much of the season, forty-year-old Arthur Fagg was leading scorer. Kent’s first professional captain, Doug Wright (41) took most wickets.

My friends Allen Hunt and George Murrell would have suffered the season at eight home grounds: Gravesend, Blackheath, Tunbridge Wells, Gillingham, Maidstone, Canterbury (but not until the end of July), Dover and Folkestone. They probably took the train to some of the away venues long since disappeared from the schedule: Yeovil, Hull, Hastings and Clacton. George in particular would have taken a certain ascetic satisfaction from these proceedings.

The 1956 Wisden was primarily a publication of record, as Wisden remained until well into the nineties. It would be pleasing to report that it led debate on the issues of the day, rather than following rather breathlessly behind, but perhaps that is to expect more than readers did at the time. The great thing about any Wisden is that it becomes more fascinating as it gets older, each page a memory-lined tunnel to the past.

Note to my correspondent: Christmas is coming.

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