Book review: Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack (John Wisden & Co, £40)

Cricket is still reverberating from the shock of the murder of Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, during the World Cup, so it is good to have a reminder of the constant values of the game, however under threat they might be, in the shape of the 144th edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. Perhaps cricket has now become a game that ends up killing people. But it is also, as this book reminds us, a game of endless fascination you will learn here of the team that required 19 runs to win off the last ball, and tied, and also about the day when David Cameron refused to wear cricket whites.

There is also much about the more lovable traditions of the game, which remind us that it has spawned a culture that is almost bigger than the game itself. The radio critic Gillian Reynolds, a discerning cricket lover, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Test Match Special, and reminds us why it would be akin to losing the crown jewels for the BBC to take the programme which is often so much better when rain has stopped play than it is when a match is in pro-gress off the air.

This Wisden, covering the year 2006, must also commemorate the death last July of one of the game’s most loved, formidable and legendary figures, Fred Trueman. Readers have a treat, in that a thoughtful and beautifully written article by his fellow Yorkshireman Michael Parkinson is complemented by an equally entertaining notice in the obituaries section. Trueman (in his own, and not entirely humorous, description of himself (‘T’greatest bloody fast bowler that ever drew breath’) was the first cricketer to take 300 Test wickets, and would have played more games had he not been so disrespectful to the stuffed shirts that ran the game in the 1950s, when he was in his pomp. One story told about him here, which may be apocryphal or, on the other hand, may not be gives the flavour of him. At a dinner at which the Indian High Commissioner was present, Trueman is alleged to have asked him: ‘Pass the salt, Gunga Din.’

Although the almanack’s comment on the game is now much more extensive than ever before, and written to the highest literary standard, it still serves its historic purpose as an authoritative record of the game in the past year, and of the records for all time. There is one important innovation. Normally, a Test tour that did not finish until 2007 would have been recorded in the 2008 edition. However, with great dispatch, England’s benighted Ashes series of last winter is included in this edition, so that we can read about it while our painful memories of the debacle are still all too fresh.

It is no wonder that the editor, Matthew Engel, suggests that the Ashes urn itself should no longer live permanently at Lord’s, but should be taken to Australia when that side is in metaphorical possession of the trophy. Mr Engel says that the humiliation of an ’empty plinth’ at Lord’s while the urn is Down Under might just be the extra spur needed for us to win it back.

His ‘Notes’ are astonishingly wide ranging. As well as proclaiming that the coach of the defeated Ashes side, Duncan Fletcher, must be sacked, Mr Engel also finds time to abuse prominent players such as Kevin Pietersen and ‘Freddie’ Flintoff who smother themselves in tattoos: they might, he argues, like to keep their ‘self-mutilations’ to themselves.

Such things are about the game setting an example to others, a notion that, in recent times, seems to have become almost hopeless. Wisden still, however, celebrates the great cricketers, and choose the Sri Lankan Muttiah Muralitharan as its ‘leading cricketer in the world’, an accolade it began only four years ago. It also asked a panel of experts to choose, on the basis of each season’s performance, who the leading cricketer would have been in each year since 1900. Sir Donald Bradman would have won it 10 times, and Sir Garfield Sobers eight. It is wonderful that the game has such a rich history, and that we have Wisden to celebrate it. In dark hours for the game such as these, the familiar yellow bible has never been more necessary, or more welcome.