David Blackburn

Wisden finally merits the epithet ‘Cricket Bible’

Wisden finally merits the epithet ‘Cricket Bible’
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The man who christened Wisden ‘The Cricket Bible’ had little religion. Wisden is an unprepossessing sight: a 1,500 page tome surrounded by a flame-yellow dust jacket covered in mud brown lettering. The book’s content often matches its artless appearance; thousands of statistics and scorecards that read like the turgid genealogical passages of Genesis. Abraham begat Isaac; Jack Hobbs scored 61,760 runs.

A record of the chosen people is important; but it does not inspire belief. The record tells you nothing of how Abraham raised Isaac; neither do Hobbs’ stats tell you how he scored his runs. Bald facts contain little mystery, and what do those know of God who know nothing of mystery?

The 150th edition of Wisden defers to its forbears, at least in appearance. The colour-scheme remains defiantly ghastly. The book runs to 1,584 pages, most of which are devoted to statistics that one can find elsewhere. Yet the editor, Lawrence Booth (whose second outing with Wisden this is), has innovated to great effect. Wisden 150 is a terrific read, filled with parables from the finest cricket writers.

Patrick Collins charts how Kevin Pietersen became KP. Collins draws a balanced if unsparing portrait of the troubled genius. John Milton, in his epic poem Samson Agonistes, made Samson say of himself: ‘Sole author I, sole cause.’ KP is another big-haired but unloved champion with only himself to blame. Collins’ piece deserves a wider audience than the 50,000 dedicated souls who buy Wisden.

Mike Atherton has penned the other piece in that category. He meditates on the meaning of the word ‘talent’, with reference to the monumental achievements and bewildering failures of his near-contemporary Mark Ramprakash. Atherton’s prose is as elegant as his batting was not. The contrast between Athers of Jo’burg and Atherton of Wapping makes one consider the various talents that compete within individuals. His article contains these multitudes, although he is too modest to mention himself, except in passing self-deprecation.

There is not space to mention every good essay here. Simon Barnes contemplates sporting greatness through the prism of Sachin Tendulkar. Steve Davies, the Surrey and England wicket-keeper, writes candidly about sexuality. Duncan Hamilton is gripping about different types of Yorkshiremen. Mike Selvey is touching on the subject of loss, while remembering the life and career of his friend Christopher Martin-Jenkins. Rahul Bhattacharya’s eulogy to VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid reaches far beyond their histories and humility. And Gideon Haigh’s appreciation of Ricky Ponting contains sentences that leave you silent and content, as if admiring a view.

These pieces share Booth’s outlook, intimated over the course of his editor’s notes, that cricket is more than a game. The sentiment is expressed openly in ‘The Nightwatchman’, the new cricket quarterly published by Wisden. The first edition contains some sharp writing made all the better for its tangential connection to cricket. Jarrod Kimber describes how Australian conceptions of masculinity are changing – think Allan Border and Ian Chappell versus Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson. (The contrast makes me wonder where the likes of Richie Benaud and Lindsay Hassett stand in the annals of Australian masculinity, to say nothing of the Don.) The historian Tom Holland examines the conventions of the classical hero with reference to Kevin Pietersen. James Holland traces the final steps of England’s famous spinner Hedley Verity, who died of wounds sustained during the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Most of these pieces suggest that cricket reveals something of its players. Novelist Patrick Neate takes up the subject directly. A favourite drunken question is: which international batsman would you get to bat for your life? Neate says that England batsman Ian Bell could arrange the flowers at his funeral should Steve Waugh, mankind’s answer to Ayers Rock, be dismissed.

Neate is generous: most people wouldn’t let Bell near the funeral in case of mishap. Bell is a fine player. His natural instinct is to attack, though he is not recognised as belligerent because few batsmen are easier on the eye. Most cricketers hit the ball; some belt it; Bell strokes it. The perception is that he is a soldier for the parade ground rather than the trenches; the result of aesthetics and his failure to score centuries when the team is under pressure. This is unfair on Bell, and it says something of how statistics, landmarks and records shape our understanding of cricket.

Bell has made some vital defensive efforts over the years. One took place in Auckland last month during a rear-guard in which Matt Prior, a wicket-keeper batsman of mounting reputation, launched a scintillating, almost mad counter-attack on the final afternoon. Prior’s onslaught would not have been possible had Bell not battled for 75 runs in 6 hours (nearly an entire day’s play) earlier in the innings. It was the mature knock of an old campaigner; the benefits of which became clear when Prior set-about the tiring New Zealanders to register an unbeaten 110. Prior deserved the plaudits; but Bell merited more than the brief mention in dispatches he received, after Monty Panesar – the last man in, who survived 5 balls and nearly ran himself out.

Bell’s reputation as a bottler has persisted despite 3 years at the very top of the international game (save for a slump in form that coincided with England’s decline in 2012). This purple patch began in South Africa in late 2009. Bell scored 140 in a famous win at Durban; but his most important contribution to the tour came at Cape Town, where he saved a game that England deserved to lose. He top scored with 78 in a little under 4 and half hours at the crease against that rarity in contemporary cricket: an exceptional fast bowling attack, hunting in helpful (though not perfect) conditions.

This stolid half-century was an impressive act of self-denial from a dashing player who had, until that point, been unable to adapt to desperate situations. Bell’s cover drive is so beautiful that crowds sigh. Really, they do. He plays it, and spectators exhale en masse. It’s a wonderful thing to witness; heaven knows what it must be like to create; and the devil knows what temptations lie in the mind of the creator, especially when under extreme pressure in a foreign land and with England’s travelling faithful, the Barmy Army, desperate to exhale. Bell resisted whatever temptations lurked within at Cape Town until the final 18 minutes of the game, when he fenced at a rising ball that he need not have played and was caught at first slip. It was a lapse; but not an expensive one because he had done enough.

Bell hadn’t scored a century, and he hadn't seen it through to the end. But England would have lost that match unless he – and he alone – had passed this particular test. It was his triumph; but South Africa’s Graeme Smith was named man of the match for scoring 183 in more than six hours during his team’s second innings. Smith’s personal achievement was huge; but he was also the South African captain, and was therefore responsible for not declaring the second innings sooner so that his bowlers had enough time to dismiss England.

The Bible is more than a record of who was begat by whom. So it is with cricket.

Wisden is available for £35 

The Nightwatchman is available in print and digital formats