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

Field of dreams.

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

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.