Wisden 2003: A bible without commandments

Imagine purchasing a nice new copy of the Bible, and flicking through in search of the Ten Commandments only to find that they had been removed “for space reasons”. Such is the problem with the 2003 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Known widely as “the bible of cricket”, the annual – now into its 140th consecutive year of publication – is regarded as the most comprehensive reference work on the game. Yet the 2003 edition, a record 1760 pages in size, has no room for one its most fundamental and valuable resources.

If you want to look up the no-ball rule for throwing, or find out when five runs are awarded to the batting side, or maybe just look up the ten types of dismissal, you won’t find them in this year’s Wisden. You’d need to look up (or indeed buy) last year’s almanack, where they occupy 46 pages, or invest in a copy of the excellent “Tom Smith’s Cricket Umpiring & Scoring”. Or wait till next year to see if there is enough room again.

The Laws are missing, writes editor Tim de Lisle in the Preface, “owing to pressure of space”. Enough reason in itself to strip Wisden of its title as the “bible”.

Forty year-old de Lisle, like Neville Cardus a music critic who dabbles extensively in cricket, comes to the almanack as editor for one year only as a stopgap until Matthew Engel (editor from 1993 to 2000) returns from other activities which included a US posting for The Guardian. De Lisle won an industry award for modernising the Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine in the late nineties, before sitting in the editor’s chair during the ill-fated 2001-02 incarnation of the Wisden.com website.

Being at the helm of the almanack for just one edition hasn’t stopped him from making some significant changes, some long overdue and some simply obnoxious. The decision to put a black-and-white photo of Michael Vaughan on the front of the dustjacket caused a few gasps of horror for its break with a sixty-five year-old cover style. But all it’s done is replace a 1938-ish design with a 1958-ish design. A waste of time and effort, but a trivial matter.

More important is the emphasis on navigation through the almanack. Wisden has been historically notorious for poor indexing, but an improved structure means that greater attention is given to the various sectors of the book. A two page “Guide for New Readers”, which precedes the Contents, gives an excellent overview of the book, which, as it explains, is really four books in one: a set of essays, a work of reference, an annual and a miscellany. Most of us would be familiar with the second and third parts.

Teasers for some of the quirkier items in the almanack appear on the foot of many pages. For example, at the foot of page 1046, the start of the Minor Counties roundup, we see a shaded box: “‘Come on guys’, extorted McKenzie, as Tweedie took Kwazulu-Natal past 700, ‘a wicket always falls on 702.’ But it didn’t.”, and are then invited to page 1462 for more about the Supersport Final between Kwazulu-Natal and Northerns.

These teasers represent an excellent innovation which is to be applauded and which is ideal for casual browsers. Even if the drab cover photo is ditched next year, let us hope that the teasers are retained.

As always, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has comprehensive reportage of Tests, one-day internationals and English county cricket in the period September 2001 to September 2002. However, publication was delayed this year for a month from its usual release in the first week of April, so that news of the World Cup, held in February and March 2003 could be squeezed in. And squeezed it was, with potted scores, a brief summary of each game, and no stats. Why bother, and why take the unusual step of delaying the almanack’s release for a fortnight after the start of the England domestic season?

The World Cup will be covered properly in the 2004 Almanack, as is consistent with past events. The book is a work of reference, not a timely magazine, and the stop-press reportage of the World Cup is an unnecessary waste of space that could have been given over to things such as retaining the Laws of Cricket.

The coverage of schools cricket has been compressed to 34 pages in this edition, but considering the importance of the public school system in producing international players these days, it probably should have been trimmed by another 20 or 30.

Women’s cricket gets short shrift, with a total of ten pages covering the last year, summarising the international (both home and abroad) and domestic English game. A total of 22 women’s one-day internationals and one Test played around the world in 2002 are simply not reported. The Rose Bowl is women’s cricket’s answer to the Bledisloe Cup, but if you want to know who won the trophy in 2002, you won’t find it in Wisden. (Australia beat New Zealand by five matches to one.)

Most of the regular features of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack continue to appear in the 140th edition. The records section is comprehensive, although the list of fastest first-class centuries continues to omit cases subjectively classified as being the recipients of “declaration bowling”. Cricket Around The World gives brief roundups of the game in 44 countries, including Antarctica.

The Obituaries go into great depth on the passing of Ben Hollioake and Hansie Cronje, and they also note two victims of international terrorism. Former Guyana batsman Nezam Hafiz went missing, presumed dead, in the World Trade Center, while Mark Parker, son of NZ Test batsman Murray and nephew of John, was on his way home from a club season in England when he was caught up in the atrocities at Kuta Beach, Bali.

It used to be an unwritten custom for the Five Cricketers of the Year to include at least one much-loved but unspectacular county stalwart approaching his retirement. None of Michael Vaughan, Matthew Hayden, Adam Hollioake, Nasser Hussain and Shaun Pollock fit into that category, as de Lisle continues a trend initiated by Engel to make the awards more international in focus.

Among the essays at the front of the book, Simon Barnes writes about Steve Waugh, and Derek Pringle about the impact of marriage upon the international player. The colour plates include a dramatic photo of a club game being played at Cessnock, New South Wales, while a bushfire rages in the background.

The editor’s notes, while perhaps an obligatory indulgence at the start of each edition of the almanack, are historically one of the book’s low points, to be remembered only if the editor starts talking bollocks. (John Woodcock’s 1982 justification for not changing WG Grace’s stats despite fresh historical research is perhaps the all-time classic.) The 2003 edition follows this tradition, with de Lisle talking bollocks twice in taking cheap shots at the ICC.

De Lisle claims, in his “Notes by the Editor”, that the greatest threat to the game’s fabric is “corporatisation”, and places the blame fairly and squarely at the feet of ICC chief executive officer Mal Speed. Because of the ICC, de Lisle says, the game is now at its most “dismally corporate”. So what about World Series Cricket in 1977? What about Pilcom and the 1996 World Cup? And what about John Wisden & Co itself, with its takeover of The Cricketer magazine and the CricInfo website in early 2003, shortly before this year’s almanack went to press?

De Lisle may have overlooked Wisden’s own excursions into dismal corporatisation, but Alistair McLellan certainly didn’t in his roundup of “Cricket on the Internet”, which looked at the difficulties that the Wisden.com and CricInfo internet services were experiencing before Wisden bought CricInfo’s assets in February 2003.

The editor’s second case of bollocks concerned Zimbabwe’s participation in the World Cup. While no one can deny the terrible abuses of human rights taking place under Robert Mugabe, de Lisle is barking up the wrong tree when he condemns the ICC for not shifting World Cup games out of Zimbabwe in protest. The fact was that most of the participating members of the ICC either were not interested in the situation in Zimbabwe, or did not think it justified a sporting boycott, or were hostile to the thought of a boycott.

India, Pakistan, Holland, Namibia, Australia all played their World Cup matches in Zimbabwe, though the Australians at least were participating in the face of bipartisan political opposition at home, and only because they were satisfied with security during their stay. For the others, it was no big deal, with fingers being pointed at the British for taking a patronising attitude to one of its former colonies, while ignoring human rights abuses in other countries. Reported threats that South Africa would pull out of its tour of England in protest at the English boycott of Zimbabwe proved thankfully unfounded.

De Lisle – and, to be fair, he was far from alone among British media and political voices – totally failed to grasp the difficult and complex situation that the ICC and the World Cup organising body were in.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is an institution that sells itself – many who buy either the hardback or softcover edition, which go on sale simultaneously at the same recommended retail price – will do so regardless of what’s on the cover or whether there are fancy pointers to odd spots on the bottom of every other page. But if just one innovation, the “Guide To New Readers”, opens up the almanack to new followers, then the Tim de Lisle experiment as one-off editor of the Almanack will have been worthwhile.

But it will never be the essential “bible of cricket” if the Laws of the game become merely an occasional feature.

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