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Wisden 2019 – A Small Complaint

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In every edition since 1950 Wisden has carried an article reviewing the previous years cricket books. The first person to write the essay was the late John Arlott and, up until his death in 1991, he did so almost every year. You knew what you were getting with Arlott. There were a handful of sentences on every substantial book published, and brief mentions for various annuals, brochures and souvenirs.

Post Arlott the articles have been entrusted to a variety of writers and, since 2003, the person concerned has selected a Book of the Year. Being within the gift of a single individual the award is not as prestigious as, say, The Cricket Society/MCC Book of the Year, but with the Almanack having sales of, as far as I am aware, the best part of 50,000 copies a year it is an endorsement that is bound to generate useful sales. This year Geoff Lemon’s Steve Smith’s Men picked up both awards – if he could have chosen just one I wonder which it would have been?

For a number of years now the format of the article has been that it has been concluded with a list of titles, I assume limited to those submitted for review – certainly it is not a comprehensive list. The  main body of the article, which precedes the list, is therefore able to concentrate on an extended look at some of the titles that appear in the list. Thus some books are fully reviewed, a few get what we at CW tend to refer to as ‘honourable mentions’, and others merely get a note of author, title, publisher and cover price in that list at the end.

This year’s choice as writer of the book review was freelancer Tanya Aldred. I am not desperately familiar with Ms Aldred’s work. She has not, certainly as far as I am aware, yet written a book herself, but she is a fine writer and I am looking forward to reading her when she does give her name to a full length book. She has, in an excellent year for books, written a splendid piece which I much enjoyed and, in respect of those titles we have both read, I found myself agreeing with her views, but I do nonetheless have one concern.

The article begins with a look at Derek Pringle’s splendid autobiography, and is followed by those of Shane Warne, Moeen Ali and James Taylor. Other UK published books to get the full treatment are Simon Wilde’s major work on the England team and the wonderful book that Stephen Fay and David Kynaston have constructed around the lives of John Arlott and Jim Swanton. All those books have two things in common. All are excellent, and all come from one of the larger publishing houses, as does last year’s anthology of Mike Brearley’s writings, which also gets a decent mention if not a full review.

It is good to see that Ms Aldred gave the Wisden accolade to an Australian published book, and she also had a long look at the book that Gideon Haigh published on the same subject. Also looked at  are an acclaimed Indian book from Boria Majumdar and, slightly to my surprise, a more modest effort from the sub-continent being a slim biography of MS Dhoni. In addition, and to her credit, Ms Aldred notices the post war political history of the game by Steven Wagg that so impressed Jon Gemmell.

My concern is at the way in which smaller publishers are either ignored completely, or confined to an appearance in ‘the list’. The two titles of Mark Peel’s published by Pitch Publishing over the year in question were both excellent. Von Krumm Publishing weighed in with a fine book by Patrick Ferriday, and later added Rob Kelly’s hugely enjoyable biography of Robin Hobbs. The specialist Welsh publisher St David’s Press gave us autobiographies from Malcolm Nash and Alan Wilkins and, in a more historic vein, Chequered Flag went back to the ‘Golden Age’ and contributed biographies of the Haywards and Teddy Wynyard and, from more recent times, David Steele. I assume, by virtue of their appearance on the list that copies of all were received at Wisden. If, as seems to be the case, none were read then the Almanack has done cricket literature a disservice.

To be fair to Ms Aldred she did notice two books on the women’s game which, I suspect by its nature, is not a subject the bigger publishing houses wish to get involved with yet. At least the ACS emerge with some well deserved coverage for Adam McKie’s look at the history of the women’s game, and their biography of Enid Bakewell. None of the Association’s other titles got more than a place in the list however.

And then there is the game’s increasing number of self-publishers. David Battersby sent as many as seven of his publications in without getting off ‘the list’ and none of Tim Cawkwell, Ross English, Jeff Nicholls* and Christopher O’Brien have their books discussed at all. It is hardly surprising that most self-publishers from outside the UK did not bother to incur the no doubt not inconsiderable sums involved in posting copies to Wisden when there is so little chance of being mentioned. 

I know not who has been commissioned to write the book review section of the 2020 Wisden, but I do hope that whoever it is decides to do something more than the obvious. Wisden aims to be comprehensive in its coverage of cricket and surely it should aspire to be the same in respect of the literature of the game, a magnificent resource without which the Almanack itself would probably not exist, and certainly wouldn’t in the form that we know so well.

*A biography of the great Sydney Barnes with some new material to go with the old – review to follow in the coming weeks

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