Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2002
Edited by Graeme Wright John Wisden, 1,632pp, £35
One is supposed to review Wisden with comments about rising sap or cuckoos or the smell of newly mown grass. That would hardly be right this year, with its editor Graeme Wright rather limply advocating inter-city (rather than inter-county) cricket; Simon Heffer even more limply proposing a return to the 1950s (can we wipe Thatcher out of history while we're about it, Simon?); and Simon Hughes (ex-Middlesex, but an ex-fast bowler long before that) rambling on about the joys of Hawk-Eye and other examples of modern technology.
But nobody ever bought Wisden for the kind of articles that could be found in any weekend sports paper. Its joys are hidden - in the "Cricket Around the World" section, for example. There, we learn of the Luxembourg fielder who, within eight overs, dropped the same batsman five times in three different fielding positions. Or of the Venezuelan team who, not all being able to afford the travel expenses to the South American championships in Buenos Aires, asked to borrow three players from Argentina - and got them, aged ten, 12 and 14. Or of the Azerbaijani cricketers who, to the obvious disgruntlement of Wisden's correspondent, Alum Bati, seldom produced two full teams for a match because they decadently preferred "the beautiful lushness of the countryside".
As Wisden struggles to find space for ever more meaningless one-day internationals, such delights are apt to disappear. The almanack long ago ceased to print the scorecards of Railways, Pakistan Customs, Biman Bangladesh Airlines and other such interestingly named teams in the overseas domestic competitions. This year, the full batting and bowling averages for the English counties' second elevens have gone, too.
I take comfort that my favourite section, the obituaries, remains. My socialist hackles have always risen slightly at this feature because of its suspiciously high proportion of entries for men with double- barrelled names who played only in Oxford, Cambridge or armed services matches. I fear that there are many plain county professionals whose deaths - perhaps because their relatives do not think to inform Wisden - go sadly unrecorded.
Yet the obituaries, briefly recounting long-forgotten dreams and disappointments, remain the most poignant section of Wisden. I learn that the solitary first-class match played by John Perigoe Haynes (died March 2001, aged 74) was "a discomforting experience" in which he made two ducks and failed to take a wicket in ten overs; and that Raymond Thomas Robinson (died November 2001, aged 61) had just one game for Somerset "and, despite failing to score in either innings, was able to enjoy their . . . win over Nottinghamshire". I long to know more about this Haynes and this Robinson. Did they dream of glory the nights before their solitary matches? Did they have girlfriends with whom they shared those dreams? Did they have country-dwelling aunts who, with trembling hands, picked up the Daily Telegraph at breakfast on those faraway summer days and turned expectantly to the sports pages - only to find a bleak zero against the names of their dearly loved nephews?
This is the true magic of Wisden, and the reason why, for a week or two, it always tops the bestseller lists: it reflects how cricket, uniquely among team games, highlights individual success and failure. Among that dry recital of figures and facts, the imagination can roam over the little triumphs and despairs of one small section of humanity.