Not out

164 years on, cricketing annual “Wisden” still has its eye on the ball

As uncontentious phrases go, “I like Spring” is up there with “I like food” or “I like a room with a view”. Eliot might have been somewhat negative about April in The Waste Land but I have a hunch it was mainly for effect. I like Spring because my birthday’s in it and it’s the start of the cricket season, always heralded by the daffodil-yellow cover of cricket’s Bible: Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. (For the reader uninterested or unfamiliar with the game: do not panic. This article is not actually about cricket. Well it is a bit, but I am going to some pains to make sure it remains accessible to you.)

Wisden is a short, squat book, as close to being a cube as a book can get. This year’s edition, number 159, contains 1536 pages, and within them you will find, among other things, the full details of every match of significance played in this country during the last season, and many of the matches played around the world. You will find hundreds of pages of statistics, records, and unusual achievements, for cricket is a game that loves all these things – and is often beloved by those of mathematical inclination, because numbers play such an important role.

It isn’t hard to work out the progress of a game, almost to the point of having seen it yourself, just by looking at a score sheet. It is, like the Shipping Forecast, monumentally dull – the definition of dullness, almost, if you don’t understand what’s going on, but both soothing and fascinating if you do, and quintessentially British. (With the exception, in Wisden’s case, of Scotland. If a Scot wants to hit a ball with a stick, he or she tends to play golf.)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a sporting almanac devoted to cricket since 1864 might have something of a conservative bent – that spelling of “almanack” could have tipped you off, for a start. And for most of its existence, you’d have been right. Cricket has two unchanging constants, if that’s not a tautology: it involves one person throwing a ball at someone else, and it involves a very high proportion of its spectators grumbling that the modern game is not what it was.

Over the years, I have deplored almost every innovation the game has introduced, from one-day matches (as opposed to three-day matches between counties, or five-day Tests between nations), to the replacement of the red ball by a white one when a game is played under floodlights. Then there’s the floodlights themselves, the players dressed in anything other than traditional Whites, and Twenty20 (T20), the twenty-over format of the game launched professionally in 2003. Last year saw the introduction of a new tournament called The Hundred, which introduced new terminology and laws (cricket has laws, not rules, because laws carry more weight, and are assumed to come from God, or the Marylebone Cricket Club, which is more or less the same thing).

Lately, I have become privately exercised about the adoption of the term “batter” to replace “batsman”. Batter? That’s what they have in baseball, or what you dip fish in before frying it. If you had access to my thoughts on these matters but no other knowledge about me, you’d assume I was some kind of hideous reactionary, voted UKIP and wore a blazer. But no: I like to think of myself as a political progressive, and can still never envisage a situation where I would consider voting Conservative, let alone UKIP, unless voting was compulsory and the only other candidates were actual Nazis. But when it comes to cricket, out pops the cloven hoof.

So I was very interested when I saw, in the latest edition, a piece by one Emma John called “Changing the Subject”. It begins: “The fact that you’re reading Wisden at all means I can be fairly certain that, whatever your gender, you winced the first time you heard ‘batter’ – at least in reference to cricket, rather than baseball or Yorkshire pudding.” There then followed some very good arguments about why we should now say “batter”, as a non-gendered word (seeing as the women’s game is becoming more and more prominent and indeed successful), but the clincher for me was that the word was in regular use from at least 1773 on, with “batsman” only replacing it in the mid-nineteenth century. This made me instantly happy with the word.

And elsewhere there are more examples of how the publication is dealing with the modern world. It has to, because the game has to. One of its biggest crises last year was the uncovering of deep-seated, institutionalised racism at Yorkshire county cricket club, and the disastrous effect that had on the game’s image; this is dealt with very firmly in this year’s Wisden, with thundering, unequivocal denunciations of the guilty parties. Other tricky subjects are addressed head-on: the tragic plight of women’s cricket under the Taliban in Afghanistan; the fact that a young fast bowler, Ollie Robinson, was discovered to have posted some racist tweets in the past, and the discovery nearly ended his career just as it was beginning. (He made a convincingly sincere apology.)

There’s an editorial that blasts the mind-bogglingly overpaid and useless suits running the England Cricket Board; and a transcript of a speech given by Stephen Fry at Lord’s (the “Spirit of Cricket” lecture, no less) in which he denounces “the easy, rancid, better-in-my-day, young-people-nowadays rubbish” espoused by “embittered and rancorous old men”. And they were even able to find some good words to say about The Hundred.

As I read, I felt my own prejudices and knee-jerk reactions falling away, or at least being moderated.  (I’ll never embrace The Hundred, I fear, but that’s my problem.) It was extraordinarily liberating. And it was all happening between the covers of what is considered to be one of the most conservative publications in the world.

It gradually dawned on me that what this year’s Wisden represented was the kind of conservatism that is no longer represented in parliament: a deep appeal to tradition, to fair play (those things that cricket likes to think it holds dear but so often doesn’t) while at the same time embracing the new. And yet, to look at the book, with its unchanging format, its mad devotion to the game’s arcana, the fact that it lists every single man who has played Test cricket since 1876, even the way its scoresheets ignore first names and stick to players’ initials (believe it or not, and I don’t have the space to explain in any detail, whether the placing of a player’s initials before or after the surname mattered hugely until the 1960s), the book is as traditional as it is possible to be. And yet here it is, renewing itself every spring, at home in the modern world, engaging with it honestly and thoughtfully, and paying much more than lip service to the fight against prejudice and snobbery; and I ask myself: why can’t contemporary, large-C Conservatism be like that?

Nicholas Lezard was a book reviewer for the Guardian for 25 years and writes the New Statesman’s “Down and Out” column

Arts & Culture

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