The word “unique” has been devalued by its overuse in the media – by sports journalists in particular – along with many other words such as “tragedy”, “genius”, “brilliant”, “fury” and “refute”.
Next week, however, is a landmark in the history of a truly unique sporting institution: Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, founded in 1864, will be publishing its 150th edition. And few other organisations have worked harder to ensure that words such as “unique” are used only when appropriate.
In the countries where cricket is important (and, since India is one of them, they include almost a third of the global population) the word “Wisden” conjures instant recognition. “He’s a walking Wisden,” one might say of someone crammed full of cricketing facts. “The Bible of cricket,” it is called to the point of cliché – to which one former editor would reply that maybe the Bible was the Wisden of religion. It is also described as infallible – frequently and erroneously.
I know about its fallibility because I was that former editor – for 12 years, in two separate terms between 1993 and 2007 – and was associated with it for almost 20. Every one of the book’s mistakes was like a hammer-blow to me: we will come to the story of the “Wisden willie” later. However, the book does work exceptionally (perhaps uniquely) hard to eliminate errors, which is one factor in its reputation.
Only one factor, though. At first sight, Wisden is a dauntingly fat book (1,584 pages in 2013), full of stats and small type about a complicated sport. It began as a 112-page pocket book and, although two of the dimensions have remained stable, you need a very wide pocket to contain it now. Deep too: the original edition cost an old shilling (5p) and this year’s retails at £50 – an increase that is 12 times the rate of inflation.
The original edition looks useless: the scores it reported were mostly ancient, and the pages were eked out with bizarre extraneous matter such as the lengths of canals, the rules of quoits and the battles of the Wars of the Roses. One might also say that the 2013 Wisden is useless, since the gamut of statistical information is available free of charge from other sources on the internet.
All of which is to miss the point. For a start, Wisden has actually been a spectacular hedge against inflation. The record price for an entire set of originals is £130,000. An 1864 edition alone can go for up to £25,000.
The chief reason for Wisden’s endurance is that it kept appearing. No. 23 failed to emerge in 1886, but it popped out a year later, along with the 1887, so that the chain remained unbroken. At the time, it was just one of several competing Victorian cricket almanacks. Its rivals withered; Wisden never missed again, even in wartime, when the match reports were fewer but the obituary voluminous.
It was founded by John Wisden, a small (five-foot-nothing) but very skilful bowler known as “The Little Wonder” who eked out his earnings from the game by opening a “cricket and cigar depot”. The almanack was just an adjunct to what became a successful sporting equipment business. He died in 1884, aged only 57 and heirless, which could have been an obvious cue for the book’s disappearance.
Rescue came in the shape of a young man called Charles Pardon, who took over as editor, salvaged the 1886 edition and began pepping up the contents. And though Charles died even more prematurely, aged 40 in 1890, he was succeeded by his younger brother Sydney, who was to remain editor for 35 years.
The Pardons just had an instinct. They created a book that at once strove to be authoritative, accurate and complete, yet encompassed a discreet whiff of showbiz. In 1889 Charles published the first sepia portraits that would mutate into the Five Cricketers of the Year, cricket’s definitive honours board. In 1901, Sydney began the editorialising that would become enshrined as Notes by the Editor, still seized upon as a quasi-papal sermon on the state of cricket – a game with an exceptional gift for finding itself in perpetual crisis. (Sydney once accused the selectors of the England Test team of “touching the confines of lunacy”; I trust I was as trenchant, if more subtle, when commenting on the egregious International Cricket Council.)
Wisden seems to be the exact opposite: a model of unflappability. It offers the illusion of timelessness, which is at the heart of cricket’s appeal. The book has changed, but (except for a big bang and very overdue redesign in 1938) has almost always done so discreetly, thoughtfully and only a bit belatedly. In 1981, when John Woodcock became editor, its literary quality began improving. Later, the tone became lighter and the balance shifted towards words rather than stats. The current editor, Lawrence Booth, has brought in a new generation of writers.
Yet Wisden has mastered the Catholic Church’s skill (indeed, of late, it has managed it rather better) in giving its random accretions of tradition an aura of holiness: the ex-cathedra Notes; the sacred Five; the solemn but anecdotal obituaries; the daffodil-yellow cover; the woodcut of two old-time cricketers on the cover; keeping the pedantic final k on almanac; even the hideous Playbill title font, in which “WISDEN” appears as on a Western wanted poster (I should have got rid of it). The first picture on the cover (2003) was greeted, semi-seriously, as an act of sacrilege. All this disguises a frantic, sometimes panic-stricken, production process.
By rights, Wisden should itself be history. English cricket, having sold itself to satellite TV for short-term financial gain, has lost much of its audience – and overseas, Wisden’s prestige has always far exceeded its sales. The traditional long form of the game, the almanack’s stock-in-trade, is under threat globally. The internet could have been the final blow. In fact, sales peaked at 50,000 as late as 2006, when Wisden reported a thrilling and long-awaited English triumph over Australia. And though sales in more humdrum years have been drifting down closer to 30,000 than 40, the pace of decline has been so gentle as to defy gravity. It remains profitable, if not very profitable.
Yet even the air of permanence is an illusion. The ownership pattern of John Wisden & Co, which remained a brand of cricket bats until recent times, was always tortuous (as explained in a beautifully written corporate history, by Robert Winder, commissioned for the 150th). Even during my association with the almanack, it fell under four different owners.
The consortium that originally employed me sold the book in 1993 to Sir Paul Getty, the third-generation oil billionaire converted to cricket by Mick Jagger while recovering from drug addiction. Getty was at that time eyeing up Britain for ailing good causes to support. Wisden was not in that much distress, but it needed an owner who would love it, which this one did, in an eccentrically detached, romanticised way. The regime was short on strategic direction, but it was a glorious era to be Wisden’s editor, partly because the owner’s patronage gave me access to the best contacts book and the best salon in London: the Getty box at Lord’s, where the company outshone the cricket.
And Paul was wholly innocent of our unfinest hour: the night circa 1995 when a delegation visited an attic in some London college where a young man was operating a cricket scores service for the benefit mainly of Indian expats in the US. This operated via something called the internet, of which we had vaguely heard. Unfortunately, that night this magical system failed to work, and we went away shaking our heads. When I asked how one might make money out of this thing, the young man scornfully told me that his company, Cricinfo, was interested only in the good of cricket.
In June 2000, the idealistic collective sold a quarter of its shares to an Indian company in a $37m deal, and became paper-millionaires, at least briefly. Three years later, after the dot-com bust, Wisden bought Cricinfo for buttons. At the same time, Wisden’s own cricket magazine bought out its only rival. Wisden’s future, as I returned to editing after a stint in the US, looked set fair.
At that moment Paul Getty died. He had shied away from a plan to hand Wisden to a trust, and instead bequeathed it to his son Mark. In Paul, the Getty entrepreneurial gene had skipped a generation; in Mark it returned with a vengeance. He fattened up Cricinfo, sold it very profitably on to US giant ESPN, sold the magazine to Sky TV and in 2008 offered the rump of the almanack to Bloomsbury Publishing, inviting no other bids. The Getty intervention, designed to save Wisden, ended up enriching the family and enfeebling the book. Its independence gone, it is now one book a year among Bloomsbury’s thousand.
Things could be much worse. Bloomsbury is a sympathetic owner: executive director Richard Charkin was on the old Wisden board. The deal gave Wisden instant reference-book siblings including Who’s Who (founded 1849) and the general reference Whitaker’s Almanack (1868). “Wisden’s in a place where we cherish publications,” says Charkin. “And it makes money, which is its best protection.” There is now an Indian edition and other spin-offs, but still no worthwhile website. And Bloomsbury, as a medium-sized public company, is vulnerable to takeover. Wisden is already at the whim of internal committees full of people who understand the publishing orthodoxies of the moment but not the mysterious nature of Wisden’s success.
Yet I am not sure anyone quite understands it. What I have learnt is that it appeals most to people who love books first, and cricket second, not the other way round. That collectability is crucial. And that what readers love most is the way, searching for one fact, one gets diverted for hours: it is a reference book double-plus. Plus there is that solid, distinctive name: as Australian writer Murray Hedgcock once pointed out, Wisden would never have worked had the founder been John Smith, Jones or Robinson.
And somehow the almanack has just been lucky. For its millennium edition in 2000 I came up with the wheeze of choosing Five Cricketers of the Century to match the five its editor chooses every year. This involved setting up a worldwide electoral college of experts – and much secrecy. The result aroused terrific interest and five truly great names emerged: Sir Donald Bradman, Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Jack Hobbs, Shane Warne and Sir Vivian Richards. There was, however, a small explosive device lurking in the deep folds of the almanack. This was the Wisden willie.
It was the custom, until then, for Wisden to include team pictures of county squads. In the 2000 Leicestershire photo, one of their most obscure players was laughing, having chosen to expose himself to the camera – his only contribution to cricket history. The Leicestershire squad was large; the page was small; so was our editorial team; and so was the appendage. No one had noticed.
Had the furore broken on publication day, it would have destroyed a year’s hard work. As it was, no one else noticed for a week. Then the headlines starting rolling in: “Exposed: the first man out this season”; “Anyone for spotted dick?” And so on. Livid though I was at the time, I now recognise two things: first, that the publicity was yet another sign of Wisden’s special place in the national pantheon; and second, it was all to the good. Had the exposure been exposed a week earlier it would have destroyed the launch. Instead, it was a marketing bonus.
And so I have faith that Wisden will continue to survive and thrive, and that in 2063, when I will not expect an invitation to the annual publication day dinner, there will still be cricket worth celebrating, a book to celebrate it and an audience to enjoy reading it.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, edited by Lawrence Booth, £50
‘The Little Wonder: The Remarkable History of Wisden’ by Robert Winder, £25 (Both published April 11, by John Wisden & Co)