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?

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.