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How Wisden is a Global Record of War, Plague, Racism and Environmental Change

Richard Heller and Peter Oborne peer into Wisden Cricketers Almanac for signs of the times

Photo: James Boardman/Alamy Stock Photo

How Wisden is a Global Record of War, Plague, Racism & Environmental Change

Richard Heller and Peter Oborne peer into Wisden Cricketers Almanack for signs of the times

Last week saw the publication of a major work of political and social history. 

Wisden Cricketers Almanack is not normally thought of in that way. But Lawrence Booth, editor since 2012, knows that one cannot give a true record of a year in any sport in isolation from the global environment which shapes the lives of players and supporters.

This year’s edition demonstrates that principle more than any other, and future historians in many different disciplines will find rich content within it. So will present and future lovers of literature, including those with no love or knowledge of cricket.

It is dominated inevitably by the Coronavirus pandemic, which almost extinguished cricket worldwide. Wisden’s timeline gives an invaluable moving picture of COVID’s global impact. This shows its accidental favouritism to small islands (Guernsey was the first part of the British isles to play any form of competitive cricket last year), but also gives a sidelight on the countries which handled the pandemic well and badly. Germany, a minor power in cricket, played matches sooner than England, the proud inventor and exporter of the game. 

In the event, many more top-level cricket matches, domestic and international, were played than had been first imagined. This was a tribute to cricket administrations, including England’s, who often showed more acumen and energy than their government. 

But it owed even more to the players who endured extraordinary personal restrictions cheerfully described by the England cricketer Jack Leach and elsewhere in testimony by leading cricketers such as Steve Smith and the West Indies captain Jason Holder. Wisden also records, unemotionally, the fierce penalties on players for doing normal human things such as going to a family funeral or even talking to each other in a hotel corridor.

Essays by Patrick Kidd and Steven Lynch (the long-serving international editor) give a historic depth to the pandemic coverage. Lynch shows that, a century ago, Wisden was almost in denial about the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic of 1918-20, which infected one-third of the world’s population and killed between 17 and 100 million people. (Global deaths attributed to COVID have just passed three million). English cricket then carried on regardless, celebrating the restoration of normal life after the Great War. 

The Black Lives Matter movement and the impact of racism and discrimination worldwide are huge topics in Wisden this year. It reproduces Michael Holding’s impassioned comments on Sky Sports, which transformed public feeling on the issues around Black Lives Matter. He should have been sent to the House of Lords instead of Ian Botham. 

Two pages of testimonies by former players and officials on their experience of racism, ranging from casual insult to systemic discrimination, suggest powerfully why non-white people are under-represented at all levels of English cricket. Former international Ebony Rainford-Brent, now director of women’s cricket at Surrey, offers more optimism, suggesting that English cricket is finally aware of the racial barriers in its midst, but noting how far it still has to go, especially in encouraging Afro-Caribbean cricketers.

On these issues too, Wisden offers historic depth. Harry Pearson outlines the racism encountered by Learie Constantine, the great West Indian cricketer, not least from white English professional cricketers (on many issues, including their own employment conditions, a very reactionary bunch). A fascinating essay by Tom Holland describes a mysterious artefact which may show a West Indian slave playing cricket and then follows C L R James in analysing cricket as a pathway to equality.

Students of English education and the English class system should read the perceptive essays by Robert Winder on great public school cricketers and Derek Pringle on the end of first-class status for English university cricket. 

For some years, Wisden has had a vital section by Tanya Aldred on cricket and the environment. This year’s focuses on the insensate demand created by the international cricket schedule, even scaled down by the pandemic, for travel in aeroplanes belching out CO2 and pollutants and providing a wonderful setting for viruses.

Perhaps more than any other global sport, cricket is environmentally vulnerable. Floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis have killed cricketers and destroyed the grounds they played on. More and more cricketers are being forced to play in extreme heat and poisoned air. Water shortage and mismanagement threaten thousands of grass pitches, as does the scourge of plastic. The supply of willow for cricket bats is under constant challenge.

These problems are almost totally ignored by the cricket authorities, although they threaten the game with extinction. It is therefore appropriate that Hugh Chevallier this year gives an entertaining glimpse of the Extinction Rebellion’s cricket team. It is unthinkable that past Wisdens would have covered this movement at all, let alone sympathetically.

Of course, Wisden still fulfils its mission to cricket-lovers. They will especially enjoy two “purely cricket” features. England’s Jimmy Anderson pays tribute to his long-serving partner Stuart Broad: the two have captured more Test wickets than any other pair of opening bowlers. The greatest of all, Garry Sobers, remembers his early friends and mentors Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott and Everton Weekes.

Readers can argue, as always, over its choice of Five Cricketers of the Year – perhaps the longest regular accolade in world sport.

Wisden remains the primary chronicle of world cricket (this year it even travels to Guantanamo Bay with the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith) and the ultimate source of cricket records (this year it corrects an obscure error in Wisden 1923). 

The obituaries of cricketers and cricket-lovers, edited as always by Steven Lynch, pay fitting tributes to great cricketers who have died, such as John Edrich and Everton Weekes. They also frequently compress entire novels into a few sentences about lesser-known lives, such as Alan Rayment, the Hampshire professional who taught ballroom dancing when the day’s play was over.

But, even here, the big themes in this year’s edition keep breaking through. Two Indian women cricketers are killed in an environmental disaster and Weekes’ tribute mentions the early racism he had to overcome. Wisden attributes some deaths to COVID, none more poignant than the married couple who died on the same day, side-by-side in hospital beds.

There is a powerful underlying theme in this year’s Wisden: cricket’s dependence on money. The top-level cricket matches it records were not played for the benefit of the players and officials, who endured such demanding pandemic conditions, nor for the cricket lovers who enjoyed them. They were played to meet obligations to the media and commercial interests which provide the global game with nearly all of its massive and now essential revenues.

As a result of their demands, women’s cricket was hit especially hard in spite of the booming audiences and revenues it was attracting before the COVID-19 pandemic. Men’s cricket still earned much more from the game’s paymasters and, understandably, the cricket authorities put their major efforts into saving it to avoid a financial meltdown for all forms of the game. 

However, only a few days after the publication of Wisden, cricket received a sombre warning of what can happen when a global sport falls into the control of people who treat players as tradeable commodities and teams as brands with no roots in local communities.

The European Super League has been aborted but its driving forces of greed and duplicity remain. They might soon engulf world cricket – unless global warming gets there first. 

The ‘Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021’ is published by Bloomsbury

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