Slabby, but not flabby, the 149th Edition of Wisden was my weekend companion – so how did we get on?
Lawrence Booth’s first Editor’s Notes are as pithy and pertinent as one would expect, his eye being cast from Earlsfield to Eden Gardens, from Tests to Twenty20, from Swanny to Kohli. There’s a balance struck between concern for the traditions of the game and its headlong rush towards the future most evident in the game’s embrace new technologies, new tournaments and new teams that may, or may not, be a good thing – history, as ever, will be written by the winners.
A scepticism over the motives and judgments of cricket’s administrators runs through much of the Comment section of the Almanack. Nowhere is it more elegantly put, nor more meticulously evidenced, than in Gideon Haigh’s account of the rise and rise of the ICC from a couple of desks at Lord’s to a Dubai office block with a cast as big as Aida’s. There’s excesses described that might even shame an early 21st century banker and we all know what happened them – and nowhere do they know it more than in Dubai. Not that mere knowledge will lift noses from troughs or lend perspective to eyes focused on the main chance – money.
On a happier note Harry Pearson reviews cricket books with the earthy Northern charm that stays just the right side of whimsy, until he releases a few well directed bouncers at Fred Trueman, all the more affecting for the gentle humour that pervaded Pearson’s previous pages. That doesn’t stop Harry awarding Colin Waters’ biography of the almost too typical Yorkshireman the accolade of Book of the Year – and it must be a helluva read if it beats the other tomes lined up on Harry’s shelf.
Northern, if neither earthy nor charming, is an adjective that fits Michael Henderson, who writes of his lifelong love of Lancashire in their Championship season. Not everything can please everyone in a Wisden and this piece (like John Crace’s on cricket media) doesn’t please me. No surprises there and enough said. There’s nostalgia more to my taste in Colin Shindler’s look back to the ending of the amateur / professional divide now fifty years distant in the past – though it might as well be 500 years ago, so much has changed.
Happy notes are absent in a nevertheless magnificent section on cricket and depression, led off by the erudition of Mike Brearley (the man with the “degree in people” lest we forget) brilliantly supported by Kamran Abbassi’s overview of current research in the field and, less predictably, by Mike Yardy (working with Bruce Talbot) whose account of his own battles with the black dog are heart-rending. Pro cricketers, like pro cyclists with whom they share a frightening rate of early deaths at their own hands, are often away from home spending time in team environments (within which they must perform as individuals) and are, until recently, cast adrift in their mid-thirties without much to fall back on. I trust a few pundits happy to pronounce on depression from the vantage point of that rarest of things, common sense, will reflect on this section before doing so in the future.
Guardian writers Rob Smyth and Andy Bull write with their usual easy facility on a couple of favourite things – Smyth on his nights at home with a can of Relentless and his best friend, Mr Statsguru and Bull on one of the game’s obscure byways: the origin of the phrase, “It’s not cricket”. Both hit plenty of half-volleys to the boundary in a couple of pleasing knocks. Claire Taylor also writes about a love of hers in the perfectly titled, “From Culottes to Contracts”, charting the transformation in the women’s game she graced for so long.
Two sections that will be read straight after the editor’s notes by many, are the Five Cricketers of the Year and the obituaries. You’ll know the five lucky ones by now and all are honoured by elegant profiles, the pick of which is Tanya Aldred’s Tim Bresnan – there’s nothing quite so pleasing as having one’s (good) prejudices confirmed is there? At the time of writing, I’m only part way through the obituaries, but I fully expect Basil D’Oliveira to get the respect given to Trevor Bailey – does any sport honour its dead more beautifully?
Amongst writers migrating from the web to the page, Jarrod Kimber and SA Rennie provide a couple of lovely pieces: one a tale of the Aussie leg-spinner who wasn’t Warne nor even MacGill, but wasn’t Bryce McGain either; and the other a review of cricket’s best blogs, written with an affection and eye for detail missing in John Crace’s piece on other media.
The best I have left to last – as one should. RDJ Edwards tells the familiar, and grim, story of the trial that led to the incarceration of three Pakistan Test players. We all know the sorry tale, but Edwards’ almost Dickensian eye for the detail of legal proceedings and their workings on the principals cast a whole new light on one of cricket’s darkest passages. There’s grotesque, pathetic and painful in there, but humour, slyness and a naive Del-Boy sharp practice too. One feels as though one were there – and that one needs a shower to wash it all away, once Salman Butt realises the gravity of his offences and Mr Edwards stops writing.
Even that tour-de-force is trumped by Peter Gibbs’ extraordinary account of his couple of days with an extraordinary man – the inimitable SF Barnes. Gibbs, a recent Oxford Blue, was playing for Staffordshire against Bedfordshire in 1964 when his captain spoke. “Sydney’s come for a day out. I’d like you to look after him. It’s not every day you get a chance to impress one of the greats.” What follows is a vivid pen portrait of the nonagenarian genius supported by two photographs and a reproduction of portrait that would rate any film 15 and possibly 18. What must it have been like to mark a guard, look up, and see, well, that? For the vast majority of Wisden’s readers, SF Barnes is more myth than man –it can’t all be true, surely? Gibbs’ piece brings the man to life and sits him down next to you and – you know what – it is all true. Make sure you have your helmet close to hand.
So that’s a weekend with Wisden – 185 pages read (it would have been more had I not got a last minute ticket for Wembley) and 1367 to go. If cricket is a microcosm of life (or maybe if life is a microcosm of cricket), then Wisden is our microscope. And I must get back to it. Baldock, Darrel John, AM, died on February 2, 2011, aged 72…
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