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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.