‘Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack’ celebrates 150 years of excellence, and it’s a joy to read

2013-05-11 00:00

IT’S one of life’s pleasures and when it is published in April every year, the anticipation of receiving a copy has adrenaline levels running high.

This is an expensive item but one well worth budgeting for, even if it has to be purchased against the pound. When that parcel slip arrives in the post, the trip to the post office and standing in a queue are minor details in a busy schedule. It’s all about getting your hands on that prized item.

That prized item is the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack, this year all of 1 584 pages, a hefty item deserving pride of place on any bookshelf, instantly recognised by its bright yellow cover.

This year celebrates 150 years of the great publication and it does not disappoint. The mind hits overdrive when flicking through the pages and absorbing but a trickle of what lies between the covers. It’s all there — news, views, records, births, deaths, scorecards, photographs, history, comment — whatever pertains to the great game is found on a superlative journey which is never completed as the inquiring mind finds more to feed off, more cricketing questions to lay to rest.

Most readers, if not all, would require glasses or a magnifying glass to zone into the small type, but it’s worth the effort. It might be said that “the Poms are crazy”, but there is no denying they have preserved what can only be described as more than an iconic representation of cricket and what amounts to a herculanean effort every year.

This year is no exception. In 2000, the almanack took a look back at the past century and was littered with greatest moments, the best ever photographs and, of course, the five cricketers of the century. These were Sir Jack Hobbs, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Viv Richards, Sir Donald Bradman and Shane Warne. All these moments and men of the game were selected by panels of cricketing minds that had spent a lifetime from playing the game to commentating and reporting on it. These were and are the people who contribute to the game perhaps more than the players: their pens, phones and keyboards spread the gospel of the game to all corners of the world.

The 150th celebration of the first published Wisden in 1864 will stand tall in the almanack’s journey towards its double hundred.

Nothing has been left to chance, and looking back at the history of the book itself is a story on its own. The little yellow book has survived near bankruptcy, two world wars, bodyline, match fixing — everything that could be thrown at it — yet it presents the broadest of bats each year, adding more to its already respectable score.

Cricketers of the Year, an honour that cannot be bestowed more than once on a player, were introduced only in 1889. That means for 25 years, one sixth of its life, players were not recognised.

This gap in the ranks as such has been put straight this year thanks to the cricket brains compiling their five cricketers in the period 1864 to 1888 who would have been deserving of the honour. For the record, they are Alfred Shaw, who played in the first Test match in 1877, bowling Test cricket’s first ball; George Ulyett, who hit a ball over the roof of the old pavilion at Lord’s; Alan Gibson Steel, the first batsman to score a Test century at Lord’s; William (Billy) Lloyd Murdoch, Australian captain and scorer of Test cricket’s first double century (211 at The Oval in 1884); and the “demon” bowler Fred Spofforth, whose 7-44 in bowling England out for 77 at The Oval in 1882, when England needed 85 to win, gave birth to the Ashes.

That’s only one of a couple of sections that tap into the history of the game and throw out interesting stats and facts that even those without too much of a passing interest in the game cannot help but study and appreciate.

Over 150 years of the game there have been countless moments either for the good or detriment of cricket, and again, Wisden does the job. In picking its top 10 defining moments, Hansie Cronje’s admission to match-fixing gets a nod. It’s not a top 10 finish to be proud of, but it showed and continues to show an aspect of the game that burns the souls of its purists and custodians.

Past editors comment on what it meant to them to be in the hot seat, delivering a top-class product to the world, and there is also a piece on Wisden’s top-hatted gents, a nameless batsman and wicketkeeper who adorned the cover of the almanack for 76 editions, including this 150th.

The image became one of most recognisable in cricket history, but not many paused to think of where it came from or who its creator was. This is answered with a piece on Eric Ravilious, an artist commissioned to produce an engraving to redesign the 1938 edition. It became synonymous with the publication and was replaced in 2003 when a photograph of Michael Vaughan adorned the cover.

Traditionalists were rattled; it returned the following year and continues to adorn the spine of the book.

There’s plenty more and that would constitute a book in itself. As a tasty titbit, there are accounts about collectors of the almanack, Sachin Tendulkar’s century of international centuries, the ups and downs of Kevin Pietersen, Jeff Thomson’s devastating speed, Surrey wicket-keeper Steve Davies on his life as the first openly gay cricketer, book reviews and obituaries, including a homage to Tony Greig.

For South Africans, it’s about Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn being cricketers of the year, but, as the adage goes, no player is bigger than the game. These great cricketers are part of a game that has fascinated and continues to fascinate millions. They are where they are thanks to the game — and thanks to Wisden for persevering with and preserving what in most instances is all that is good and noble in the game.

Wisden 2013 slots into its place of pride on the bookshelf with its fellow editions, standing tallproud, deservedly so.

There is simply nothing like it.

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