Forget moons, suns, solstices and altered clocks, for half the world spring officially sprang on Wednesday when the 142nd edition of Wisden was launched with a banquet at London’s Inner Temple Hall. Eighteen-sixty-four was memorably busy: down the slope from the Inner Temple, they began building the Thames Embankment; Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened; General Gordon captured Nanking; Bhutans were boldly bothering Brits, and in Africa the Ashanti were restless; Dickens brought out Our Mutual Friend and photographs by magnesium flash were taken for the first time in Manchester; Oxford won the Boat Race by a rollicking 27 seconds; in his first-ever race a white-faced chestnut Blair Athol won the Derby at Epsom; oh yes, and a 15-year-old Gloucestershire stripling and medic-to-be, Willie Grace, scored a chanceless 170 against the Gents of Sussex at Hove. The last was the probably most apt occurrence of all, for in 1864 Wisden hit the streets for the first time.
It is easy to say the 2005 Almanack is the best yet, but it probably is. At 36 quid in hardback, I suppose it should be. Cricket’s every score, average, intrigue and facet are covered; all the usual suspects and much more. With knobs on. Under Matthew Engel’s editorship the term radical-conservative lives as a bonny, vibrant, warmly nostalgic fact. Wisden has readily reckoned itself guardian of cricket’s traditional goodness, although not long ago spring’s hardy primrose annual was sniffed at by some as a nerdy faddist’s small-print trove for stat-obsessed swots. Since Engel refreshed and re-aimed the book a dozen years ago, the words have been far more trenchantly relishable than the thousands of columns of tabulated gospel-truth figures. Old ones, new ones, loved ones, neglected ones — all the ripe, rich, antique favourites remain, like the Obits, in which can lie side by side, like this year, such as the overwhelming grandeur of Keith Ross Miller and the innocence of Michael Rodney Ricketts, ‘aged 81, who played one first-class game for Free Foresters vs Oxford in 1948 and made a solitary run’. Or the always unmissable Errata col, mea culpas of long ago missed leg-byes or wides or, as this year: ‘1987, p 539: G.P. Howarth, not G.R.J. Roope, was non-striker when J.H. Edrich reached his 100th hundred’.
Engel’s Editor’s Notes are a joy — stinging jabs to leave the game’s establishment rulers giddy, crunching left hooks to floor them. In a 2005 summer free of Olympic Games or international football tournaments, the authorities have pathetically, almost criminally, crammed the Ashes series into the end of July to the middle of September and the football season, which fires a fuming Engel to quote famed predecessor ed Sydney Pardon as a decision ‘touching the confines of reason’. Engel believes cricket’s new television deal with Sky could lead to ‘potential catastrophe’ with the overwhelming majority of the British population ‘never coming across a game of cricket in their daily lives. Never, never, never, never’, and he commissions scholars Steve Barnett and Mihir Bose to spell out even more pessimistic broadcasting prophecies. A dozen other appealing essays — fretful, optimistic, sassy — spicily pepper 2005’s 1,744-pager (particularly terrific left-field pieces by Robert Winder and Malcolm Ashton). Seeing as you ask, Wisden’s Famous Five of 2005 are Giles, Harmison, Key, Strauss, and Trescothick, and Top of the Tops is wondrous one-man soap opera Shane Warne. Nice one, Warney! Nice one, Engel.