The Agony Of Choice – A Look At UK Cricket MagazinesMartin Chandler |
The humble periodical rarely gets much in the way of critical acclaim, and is generally rather better appreciated once it has gone. The history of cricket literature is littered with failed projects, and with a new player in the marketplace with a familiar name there may well be another one joining them soon. So perhaps now is the time to take a quick look back at the history of the genre before trying to assess whether both of the current pair might survive.
A quick glance at Padwick tells me that Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game was not the very first cricket magazine, but it was certainly the first important periodical devoted to the game. It was started by Charles Alcock, long time secretary of Surrey and a man who has left a lasting legacy to British sport in the form of the FA Cup, a competition whose creation he was largely responsible for.
Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game ran from 1882 to 1914. As the title states, it appeared weekly during the summer and, generally, monthly in the winter. As to the form and layout of the magazine itself it took its inspiration from a periodical that started in 1877, in the USA of all places, The American Cricketer, which ran until 1929.
Between 1892 and 1895 Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game had a rival, a very similar publication called The Cricket Field, but the interloper couldn’t win the circulation battle and stopped after four volumes. By Edwardian times Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game was in trouble too. For its final year it rebranded itself as The World of Cricket and AC MacLaren came on board (although almost certainly didn’t put any money in). By the end of August 1914 the magazine decided it was inappropriate to continue during the Great War, and that was that. It never reappeared.
Much like the earliest annuals these Victorian magazines command high prices. The last time a full set of The American Cricketer appeared at auction was, as far as I am aware, two years ago. The successful bidder at Christie’s had to shell out more than £23,000. Annual volumes of Cricket – A Weekly Record of the Game turn up regularly at auction, usually singly. It is obvious then how the sales declined as time wore on. The earliest issues can be had for £100 or so, rising gradually over time before the upward curve accelerates in the last few years, culminating in the final volume costing around £800. Surprisingly, but one in the eye for ebooks, the value does not seem to have been adversely affected by the whole lot being digitised and available free of charge via the ACS. The Cricket Field is rarer but, perhaps, not so desirable – a good set of the four volumes will cost a purchaser around £1,000.
Three years after peace returned Plum Warner helped to found The Cricketer, still with us today. Initially the magazine appeared weekly in the cricket season and was buttressed by a Spring Annual and a Winter Annual. Not so many years ago a full bound set would cost £2,000 or more, but that has all changed. Also digitised (by CricketArchive and free to its subscribers), dealers struggle to sell the magazine itself and, for those well endowed with storage space, a full set should cost no more than a few hundred pounds now.
In 1960 Playfair, who had been publishing their well known pocket annual and tour brochures since the late 1940s, brought out Playfair Cricket Monthly. After a few years The Cricketer fell into line with the monthly format and eventually won that battle, swallowing up its rival in 1973. A full 13-year run of Playfairs in their distinctive red and black binders will cost just a few pounds.
The Cricketer had the market to itself for six years before its own former Editor, David Frith, was the driving force behind a new rival that appeared in June 1979, Wisden Cricket Monthly. Later the Almanack would buy the magazine, but to start with the name and the familiar Ravilious wood cut were used under licence. Rather more historically biased than The Cricketer, certainly at the beginning, the new boy appeared for the last time in September 2003. The cricket magazine that appeared the following month was styled as The Wisden Cricketer as the two magazines merged. The original Wisden Cricket Monthly is full of good reading, but even a full set in binders is not guaranteed to find anyone willing to collect them for nothing, let alone pay anything more than a nominal amount.
At the point when the magazines joined forces, the owner of The Wisden Cricketer was Cricinfo, which in turn was part of the Wisden Group. In 2007 the magazine was sold to BSkyB and then, at the end of 2010, by BSkyB to Test Match Extra. After that sale it became The Cricketer once more. Lord Marland, who a year or so earlier had unsuccessfully challenged Giles Clarke for the Chairmanship of the ECB, made a significant personal investment in the magazine which certainly led it to up its game considerably.
And there matters rested until now. There was All Out Cricket, a magazine that styled itself as the magazine that players read, and which had an association with the Professional Cricketers’ Association, but that published the last of its 157 editions in October. The magazine was published by Trinorth Limited, who also publish The Nightwatchman, a quarterly ‘journal’ of serious writing on the game that has now appeared 19 times. Like Rowland Bowen’s Cricket Quarterly and Richard Hill’s Cricket Lore it doesn’t quite come within the definition of a popular magazine, which is also why the Cricket Paper, launched back in 2013 and still appearing as a weekly newsprint title, isn’t something I am going to consider in any detail here.
From the ashes (pun intended) of All Out Cricket, however, has sprung a phoenix, and this month as well as The Cricketer, a copy of Wisden Cricket Monthly has dropped through my letterbox. Reunited with the saffron coloured book the magazine is now amongst a stable that includes Trinorth Limited, but despite having attempted to do so I cannot work out who actually owns the new Wisden Cricket Monthly. Though, other than out of mild curiosity as to the depth of their pockets, I do not suppose it matters very much who that is.
Are there enough magazine-buying members of the public to support two titles? Given that even before the internet age there wasn’t, I struggle to see how there is now so, sadly, it seems to me that either The Cricketer is going to be dismissed in the nervous nineties, or the new kid on the block is not going to last very long. I suppose there must also be a possibility that both will now fail, but that would be appalling, and hopefully will not be the outcome. Perhaps sufficient subscribers to The Cricketer will decide to go for the new boy so that both survive, but I suspect the reality is that advertising budgets are not going to double, so only one title or the other is going to go on.
When I was originally tasked with writing this article I had it in mind to recommend one title over the other but, on reflection and in the absence of any offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test from either side, I have decided to do no more than compare and contrast. Personally I will subscribe to both for the next twelve months and make a decision from there, but for those who are a little more discerning, what do the two have on offer for November 2017?
The Cricketer provides its reader with 130 pages of full colour glossy paper. As I am able to count I can confirm there are, approximately, 18 pages of advertising and another 18 which are whole page photographs with little or no text. There are fourteen feature articles. Of those, seven can broadly be described as historical, including an interview with ‘bustling’ Bob Willis. Another four are related to the Ashes series just started and the other three are a piece on Sussex, and interviews with Paul Nixon and Will Gidman. The former talks about his new challenge at Leicestershire, and the latter about the end of the career of, with all due respect to the interviewee, a man who will be remembered as a county cricketer of the journeyman variety. That apart there is the usual mix of letters, book reviews, obituaries and other regular features. Two that deserve particular mention are the Favourite Cricketer piece (Peter Cobb, a wine expert, on Derek Shackleton) and Whatever Happened To…, which this month features Fred Rumsey, the ‘60s pace bowler who appeared for Worcestershire, Somerset and Derbyshire as well as (five times) for England.
Before leaving The Cricketer there are a couple of supplements this month, no doubt timed to coincide with their rival’s launch. The first is entitled The Playing Fields of England and sub-titled An A-Z Guide To The Summer Game’s Top 100 Schools 2018. There are 76 full colour glossy pages, 15 of which are advertising and of those buying that space a number are some of the schools in question. It is rather more interesting than it might sound and clearly the schools are an area where the magazine is going to concentrate. Perhaps Ayres’ Cricket Companion* will make a comeback next year?
The second supplement was less interesting to a non-player, a 36-page effort about touring with 10 pages of adverts, but it will doubtless interest some. Also present in the package was an equipment catalogue, but that has no editorial content and is therefore 100% advertising. I did find it interesting though, even if it just made me despair for the future when I saw the prices, out of the reach of pocket money and well beyond the budget of Theresa May’s JAMs (the club bag needs to make a return). Whilst the county clubs and their players may not all be rich in financial terms, I do hope that their used but still serviceable kit readily finds its way into the community.
The all new Wisden Cricket Monthly on the other hand is a little slimmer, coming in at 116 full colour pages. The paper is not the same glossy product used by the opposition. I would not, however, suggest the quality is any way inferior, simply different. There are 16 pages of advertising and 11 others comprise full page photographs.
The remaining analysis is a little trickier because the layout of the magazine is inevitably unfamiliar but, based on the contents page, there are 11 features. Three of those are big name topical interviews; Messrs Cook, Root and Smith. Also interviewed is Mike Brearley; there is a look back at the 2010/11 Ashes and pieces on Ben Stokes (his cricket not his travails), Herschelle Gibbs, Nottinghamshire and cricket in Rwanda. The other two amount to an editorial on the new Test and ODI leagues and a lightweight look at cricketers on television (as opposed to televised cricket).
A section entitled Golden Summers looks unashamedly historical to me, and there are some book reviews and an extract from the new edition of Gideon Haigh’s The Cricket War, the definitive account of World Series Cricket and a book that has long been difficult to acquire in the UK. There are a number of other smaller pieces on instruction, opinions and the game’s lower levels which will no doubt prove to be regulars. No letters page though (a bit early perhaps?) nor obituaries (at least not this time round).
For anyone trying to sell something, price is important. When last my subscription was paid The Cricketer cost £44.99 for a year provided payment was made by direct debit. I am told by the letter that accompanies my complimentary copy of the first edition of Wisden Cricket Monthly that as a subscriber to the Almanack I can pay £35.99 by direct debit for a year’s subscription, a not inconsiderable difference.
So there you have it. Two excellent publications competing with each other for a marketplace that has hitherto struggled to support one of them. We will have to wait and see what happens, but I hope I am being unduly pessimistic, and that both go on and thrive.
*An annual that ran between 1903 and 1931 (there was a 1902 edition too but that was a flimsy paperback that is now exceptionally rare and has little in common with the later volumes). Ayres was a well written and interesting book with the unique selling point that it concentrated on cricket in the public schools.