I was about to settle down with the 1999 Wisden Cricketers' Almanack when a competition leaflet fell out inviting the reader to choose his (or just possibly her) five cricketers of the century for next year's millennium number. The book must wait a while. No cricket lover could resist such a challenge, because cricket, more than any other game, is imbued with a sense of its history. That is why Wisden exists: to document every first-class match (and quite a few games of lesser status), to put even the extras under the spotlight. Hence, a page to detail Durham's less-than-earth-shattering victory over Cambridge University; hence this squat, fat volume of 1,520 pages.
As a game, cricket is delightfully different; not better than, say, football, just different. In football, games are brief and careers, too, tend to be short. Cricket matches and careers are, like life, long and convoluted: it is a game that allows individuals visibly to grow (think of Mike Atherton's ten-hour vigil to save the Test in Johannesburg in 1995) and to grow old. W G Grace played for half a century, from lithe teenager to bulky, bearded late middle age: he symbolised his era as much as the queen who gave it its name.
Baseball, as the response to the recent death of Joe DiMaggio showed, occupies a similar role in the American psyche to that of cricket over here. It, too, is a mixture of poetry and pedantry - the yearning for an eternal youth of green fields and glowing sun, and an obsession with historical number-crunching. Obituarists hymned DiMaggio's hitting streaks as well as his honour, his career records along with his character.
Cricket and baseball have many similarities: they are long and drawn-out, a statistician's dream, have encouraged a lyrical literature which returns to a pastoral idyll, are preoccupied with heroes, history, halls of fame. Mark McGwire may break the record for home runs, but that is, as much as anything, an excuse to show old film of Babe Ruth; Anil Kumble may take all ten wickets in an innings but, hey, we've found someone at the ground who was also there in 1956 when Laker took his ten. The past means as much as the present; without the context, an appreciation of sport as a continuum, the game loses much of its meaning; it becomes mere spectacle - and cricket is frequently short of pyrotechnics.
There are 180 pages of records in Wisden. The anything-is- possible nature of the game is reflected in the highest and lowest first-class scores ever recorded: 1,107 by Victoria against New South Wales in 1926; and 12 by Oxford University v the MCC in 1877, and again by Northamptonshire v Gloucestershire in 1907. What other sport permits such a range of possibility, such a gap between superiority and humiliation?
There is plenty of newsiness in the 1999 Wisden. The editor, Matthew Engel, who has brought both wit and trenchant wisdom to the post since he took over in 1993, attacks the "apartheid" he believes is infecting English club cricket; Engel also calls for resignations over the bribery and betting scandals involving Australia and Pakistan; Wisden names its five cricketers of the year (a rather uninspiring bunch, and how they must regret having included Arjuna Ranatunga after his antics in Australia); and there are the Engelian oddities, such as the match between Hoveringham and the Inland Revenue in Nottinghamshire which was stopped when a naked woman rode across the outfield on a quad bike. If only Dickie Bird had been umpiring.
But you don't buy Wisden for the news - or, indeed, the nudes. You buy it because it is there: a huge compendium of facts, records, birth dates and match statistics. If you want a report of the Eton v Harrow match (the Harrow side included A T R Titchener-Barrett, J S Weston-Simons and J R F Cooke-Hurle), an analysis of the Sahara Cup (which, bizarrely, is contested between India and Pakistan and played in Toronto) or a breakdown of cricket in Hong Kong ("continuing to flourish despite the change of sovereignty"), Israel ("an upbeat year") and Luxembourg ("scarcely known for its wild enthusiasm for the game"), this is the place to look.
The obituaries are also quietly magnificent. Lord Soper is recalled because, as a tearaway fast bowler at Aske's School, he had bowled a ball that hit a boy over the heart and killed him - the origins of his pacifism, perhaps. The idiosyncratic journalist (and evocative writer on cricket) Christopher Wordsworth is memoralised as "The Man Who Broke The Only Phone At Horsham". Denis Oswald, who played two matches for Oxford University in 1931, merits a mention as "the only first-class cricketer born on the Falkland Islands".
The Almanack (the "k" is everything) is a celebration of that marvellous and eccentric world in which Samuel Beckett is remembered not as a novelist, playwright and Nobel prize-winner, but as "a left-hand opening batsman and useful left-arm medium-pace bowler who had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket" (Wisden, 1990). Despite that brief and dispiriting appearance on the first-class stage, Wisden's obituarist assured us that Beckett "never lost his affection for and interest in cricket". I think I feel a PhD coming on: Samuel Beckett and the art of the forward defensive, perhaps.
Brick-shaped, the 1999 Wisden takes its place on the shelf with the identical-looking volumes of previous years. Together they form a wall against the uncontainability of the "real" world, a safe haven where even the chaos makes sense, the statistical lunacy has logic, history a point and direction. Perhaps Beckett should have practised harder. Who needs Godot when you have Grace?