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How English cricket disappeared

This year’s Wisden chronicles and fights back against the destruction of the summer game.

By Matthew Engel

In April 1920, Neville Cardus, revered as the greatest of all cricket writers, wrote a lyrical piece in the Guardian about the start of the English season. It was filled with aromas: new-mown grass, linseed oil on an old bat, “dirty-grey pads, with the buckle off the right-legged one”. The return of cricket, proclaimed Cardus, is “the sweet o’ the year”.

Many of our springtime sporting rites are in decline. The FA Cup final, the Boat Race, the start of flat racing (traditionally heralded with banner headlines proclaiming “They’re Off!”). For cricket, the problem is more existential. The entire season seems to have vanished up its own backside.

It’s there somewhere all right; the fixture list now spreads over six months instead of four. Unfortunately, what happens in-between is increasingly invisible without an anoscope. Traditional county cricket is largely banished to the coat-and-Thermos-flask days of April and September. This year, a relishable Ashes series is being squeezed into six weeks of midsummer to leave prime-time August free for the Hundred, a multi-million-pound mess created by the 12-year-olds in the marketing department at Lord’s, which a newly installed counter-revolutionary regime is now trying to clear up.

The full-colour fixture list published by the Cricketer magazine needs two dozen shades to distinguish between the different categories and competitions, matching the full London railway map and even taxing the Pantone catalogue. Beyond England and Australia, Test cricket is dying, the crowds only boosted by British tourists. Players have become mercenaries, flitting across the world playing 20-over franchise cricket at rates national boards cannot match.

And down at the level of pads with broken buckles – I may still have one in the loft – the situation is worse. In my corner of south-west Herefordshire five cricket grounds in the 1980s have dwindled to one, which was used last year for a single match. In London, historic pitches are eyed by developers; in northern cities, old pavilions and once lovingly tended squares are being repurposed as drug dens and vandals’ play areas.

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[See also: A battle for the soul of English cricket]

So it is a comfort to turn to the 160th annual Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack which, if not unchanged since 1864, at least bears more relation to it than the Hundred does to cricket. I have a peculiar difficulty reviewing this book since I edited 12 volumes myself, a total the incumbent, Lawrence Booth, has now matched without any sign of flagging. I was, I like to think, the man who introduced Wisden to the joke. Lawrence is definitely the man who introduced it to woke.

And there is nobody more ex than an ex-editor; even a flick through is difficult without muttering, “Why the hell’s he done that?” But my main reaction is a glow of pride that the old dog has so much vigour in it. In his editorial Notes, Booth is on top of the modern game but up for the fight against mass destruction of the old. There are some brilliant articles, headed by a tribute to Shane Warne by Gideon Haigh, the nearest we have to a modern Cardus.

The obituaries are high-quality as are the book reviews, this year written by the NS’s own Nicholas Lezard. I searched for the late Queen in the obits, looking under E for Elizabeth, Q for Queen and H for HMQ; I ruled out W for Windsor as far too subversive. Then, silly me, I finally went to the front of the section, where Elizabeth II’s tangential connection with cricket outranked alphabetical order and the primacy of Adhikari, Sughakar Gujanan, who played for Bombay.

This continues an honour bestowed after the death of the last three reigning kings, back to Edward VII in the 1911 edition (“It cannot be said that he ever showed much aptitude for the game”). Queen Victoria did not get a mention in 1902 – an omission rectified by Booth, though his material is flimsy. Victoria’s entry comes above an announcement that previously-ignored women players will be featured in future editions.

The 2023 edition also carries one article on cricket in Ukraine and another from Stuart Meaker, an ex-player who went on a mercy mission to the war zone. It is probably the least crickety article ever to appear in Wisden.

But my own mantra was that the Almanack appealed to people who liked books first and cricket second. And the balance between tradition and change is crucial. As long as it remains in touch with both the game and the planet, Wisden might just keep transcending the dreadful mess of both.

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2023
Edited by Lawrence Booth
Wisden, 1,568pp, £57

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[See also: The British Class System at Lord’s Cricket Ground]

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This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?

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