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?

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.