Reviewed: The Little Wonder - the Remarkable History of Wisden by Robert Winder

Field of dreams.

The Little Wonder: the Remarkable History of Wisden
Robert Winder
Bloomsbury, 464pp, £25

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2013
Edited by Lawrence Booth
Wisden, 1,584pp, £50

Around 50,000 people, it is claimed, buy Wisden annually and, since 1966, I have been one of them. These days, I can rarely be bothered to attend cricket matches but can happily spend hours browsing Wisden scorecards, re-creating matches I have never seen in my mind’s eye.

The latest almanack brings me the lowly Leicestershire against the lowly Glamorgan on 5 to 7 April 2012 at Grace Road, where I spent much of my boyhood supporting a team that was even lowlier than it is now. From the catastrophic start – the first three wickets lost for just one run – through the brave half-century by the veteran Claude Henderson and the 12 wickets taken by the fearsome fast-bowling of Robbie Joseph to Glamorgan’s last-wicket partnership of 25, I am transported back in time, following every twist and turn of a stirring victory. Alas, Leicestershire won only two further matches in 2012. Lowliness is their lot for the foreseeable future.

Wisden allows me to dream and if I find insufficient thrills in the 2013 edition I can reach for those of 1976, 1997 and 1999, whisking me back to seasons when Leicestershire really did win the championship. The first was largely secured by J C Balderstone who, in an away match against Derbyshire, left the Chesterfield ground as a not-out batsman to play in midfield for Doncaster Rovers. The next morning, Wisden recorded, he returned to complete a “remarkable” century. The adjective is telling: not “brilliant” or “exciting” or “beautiful”, just “remarkable” because it was “the first time . . . that anybody played county cricket and League football on the same day”.

Wisden’s greatest strength, as Robert Winder observes in his amiable 150th-anniversary history, is that it sticks to the unadorned facts. A bowler taking five wickets in ten balls or a batsman scoring 52 runs off 14 balls is carefully noted but the shouts, the cheers and the despair of opponents are left for the reader to imagine.

Wisden has elegant essays but the facts sit at its heart. It doesn’t give an extended lament about the miserable summer of 2012. It has an index for the weather that, last summer, recorded 455, the lowest this century, but not as bad as 1879, which recorded an all-time low of 309. As the historian David Kynaston writes in his introduction to The Little Wonder, Wisden represents “cautious empiricism and patient, incremental accumulation, mistrustful of theory or rhetoric or even the grand gesture”.

Facts redeem Wisden because, in truth, its judgement has rarely been sound. It defended the amateur-professional divide to the end and opposed the isolation of South Africa in the apartheid era. It ignored the first Test match ever played, paid scant attention to the northern leagues, even when they were packed with world stars, opposed overseas players in county cricket and third umpires using technology. Many of its writers take it as axiomatic that the country is going to the dogs. Winder quotes the editor in 1989, as English cricket entered a period of decline: “There is no reason why, in a country where it is often impossible to have building work done or a motor car serviced properly, its sporting tradesmen should perform any better.”

But Wisden’s crusty opinions would never cause me to cast it aside. I am already absorbed in this year’s obituaries, rightly elevated from the back to near the front of the book. As always, I find both the unexpected and the poignant, sometimes in the same entry. Gone, as the TV commentators would bark, is Philip Snow on 96. The younger brother of the novelist C P Snow, he wrote several times to Wisden, enclosing a biography that recalled that he had played five firstclass matches in 1947-48, captaining Fiji on a tour of New Zealand. He thus achieved his ambition of a Wisden obituary, the almanack drily observes, but not a greater one – “the advancement of Fijian cricket”. Indeed not. I turn to the “Cricket Round the World” section and learn that Fiji has sunk so low that it faces “elimination from global competition”. Once again, the facts tell the story.

John Wisden, successful fast round arm bowler and founder of Wisden Cricketer's Almanac, in 1865. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.