Apr 102013

There was never likely to be an article about “coming out” in the first edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 150 years ago, as Steve Davies has provided in the latest volume which hits the shelves today. The inaugural offering came out, in the publishing sense, “for the year 1864 being bissextile” but this meant it was a leap year rather than anything that might have shocked Victorian sensibilities.

Similarly you might think there could be no equivalent to that very modern cricketing creature, K P Pietersen (though the use of his initials is thoroughly in keeping with the venerable tome). But this year’s piece “It’s tough being Kevin” could perhaps have applied to another brilliant batsman and controversial character also known by his initials: a 15-year-old called W G Grace had just turned out against an All-England XI. His fame and infamy would grow along with his whiskers.

That first book came in at 112 pages and the editor, W H Knight, issued an apology in his preface: “Should the present work meet with but moderate success, it is intended next year to present our readers with a variety of other matches which the confined nature of the Almanack precludes us from doing this year.” His successors kept his word, and this year Wisden weighs in at 1,584 pages.

However, Knight was being economical with the truth: some 30 pages had nothing to do with cricket, and included a list of university rowing fixtures, the rules of knur and spell (an old English ball game), and the dates of the Crusades and the 12 battles in the War of the Roses.

By the time of the “Jubilee Number” of 1913, the achievements of the founder, John Wisden, himself are celebrated. “The Little Wonder”, at 5ft 4in and 7st, bowled underarm, sent down unplayable grubbers and achieved the unique feat of taking all 10 wickets in an innings clean bowled. He retired the year before his first Almanack, and just in time too, for overarm bowling arrived in 1864.

He died in his bachelor’s flat in 1884 and the editor of the 50th edition, Sydney Pardon – who ran the show for 35 years – reflected on the period darkly: “The Almanack fell upon evil days”. He can have had little notion of how the concept of evil was about to be redefined. His book, however, published throughout the First World War with obituaries making up for the lack of cricket. By 1913 the Almanack had grown to 606 pages, with vast swathes of advertising. Indeed, the title page sat opposite a eulogy to the J T Tyldesley Abdominal Protector – “used by all the leading players”, which sounds distinctly unhygienic.

But these were more innocent times, and the tributes to John Wisden included one from fellow Harrovian, Sir Spencer Ponsonby Fane, who noted that Wisden was the first man to cast off the traditional white “topper” in favour of a straw hat, while Revd H B Biron recalled him scoring an all-run seven and doubted if the feat could be repeated by a contemporary player: “Have the Sybaritic luncheons to do with this?”

Some things never change, not least concerns about change. Even in the game’s “golden age”, Pardon could not help but worry about its health in relation to its popular cousin. “Cricket… must not be tampered with to please the people who vainly think that it can have the concentrated excitement of an hour and a half’s football,” he said.

But by the 100th Wisden in 1963, a seismic shift was about to occur which to the modern eye seems rather absurd. The second great figure among the editors, Norman Preston (who ran the shop for 29 years), bemoaned the demise of amateur status and the loss of the gentleman cricketer the previous year: “Cricket is in danger of losing the spirit of freedom and gaiety which the best amateur players brought to the game.” He also mentions a failed plan to widen the wicket, which seems rather more revolutionary.

Even as the gaiety was fading after 100 years, another controversial figure cropped up. A certain Geoff Boycott had made his debut against Essex and was about to start infuriating all and sundry in a rather different way from W G and K P – though not because he only had one initial. Indeed, there was much concern at the time that cricket had become boring; soon the Indian spinner Bapu Nadkarni would bowl 21 consecutive maidens against England and Boycott was not even in the team. It was almost as if the Yellow Bible was demanding a new impetus. The section called Dates in Cricket History noted that while “coloured shirts disappear” between 1880-95 – not to be revived until Kerry Packer’s World Series in 1977 – by contrast in the intervening 68 years there had been “very little change”. The Almanack did not know it yet but 1963 saw the staging of the inaugural Gillette Cup, and one-day cricket was born.

In that centenary edition, “Through the Crystal Ball” envisaged the reader of the 200th anniversary Almanack, “oiling his bat and debating whether it’s going to be the Moon again for a holiday this year”. With the help of cryogenics Sir Geoffrey (surely knighted by then) will no doubt still be harping on about his grandmother batting with her trusty stick of rhubarb.

But for this 150th year we might look little further than the very end of the 1864 Laws of Cricket, which enshrine the rules on betting. It would be as well to sort out an amendment before the first lunar one-day internationals.

Wisden’s 2012: Players of the year

Michael Clarke, Australia; Nick Compton, England; Marlon Samuels, West Indies; Hashim Amla, South Africa; Jacques Kallis, South Africa; Dale Steyn, South Africa

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