Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2021

Published: 2021
Pages: 1248
Author: Booth, Lawrence (Editor)
Publisher: John Wisden
Rating: 5 stars

I do not suppose that anyone who is reading this will be surprised to learn that I enjoy reviewing books. The one slight rider to that is that over the years I have tended to be more than happy to let others review Wisden. This is not through any disinterest in the longest running annual in the sporting world, but more because of the size of the task, and never really knowing where to begin.

The task is a little easier this time round however, albeit that is not necessarily for the best reasons. I have been reading Wisden since I was a child in the late 1960s, and over those years the good book has increased by around 50% in girth, from around 1,000 pages to 1,500. Last year of course there was a marked reduction in the amount of cricket played around the world, and Wisden has lost the best part of 20% in weight in order to reflect that.

First and foremost Wisden has always been, for me anyway, an opportunity to relive the previous summer. For once however, this year I was rather keener on looking forward than back so, fascinated to see how Lawrence Booth and his team were going to deal with the unique challenges that the issues that bedevilled our lives in 2020 presented, I decided that this year I was going to review Wisden, and do so promptly.

It would be fair to say that when I first opened the familiar and reassuring saffron covers that I did not expect to be disappointed by the 158th edition, but neither did I expect quite what I got, which is without a doubt a stunning achievement – in one sense Lawrence Booth probably ought to retire from the editor’s job now, because however hard he tries I really cannot see him coming to close to matching the quality of this edition.

There are, of course, things that Wisden does well every year, and nothing changes there. The reports of the cricket played throughout the world are all here, as are the records and registers. It is, ultimately, difficult to argue with the choice of the five cricketers of the year (not that that should discourage anyone from attempting to do so) and all the recent innovations reappear.

But there are stand out features. High quality cricket writing is bound to be the result of the impressive list of contributors that Wisden boasts, all 129 of them, but it is the editor who is ultimately responsible for the subjects they cover, and there are some absolute crackers here, all topical and of the highest relevance. There is cricket and the pandemic (and a particularly interesting look by Steven Lynch at the game during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920), cricket and Brexit, cricket and Black Lives Matter, and cricket and slavery.

There are, naturally, a selection of what I will describe as purely cricketing subjects looked at, past and present. Two that contrast very well are the celebration of Stuart Broad’s 500th Test wicket in 2020, and Garry Sobers’ evocative look at his illustrious countrymen and former teammates, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott. And of course the book wouldn’t be a modern Wisden without the occasional look at the quirky, and the best example of that is Jon Hotten’s piece about Nigel King, a man with a manuscript that might be described as an 1863 Wisden.

In terms of specific items of interest I will restrict myself to three that particularly caught my eye. The first is a piece by Robert Winder, who has come up with a cracking idea. Since 2007 Wisden has named a Schools Cricketer of the Year, the first three winners of which title were Jonny Bairstow, James Taylor and Jos Buttler. It is a shame it took so long for such an interesting award to come into being so, recognising that, Winder has remedied the problem by retrospectively going back to 1900.

And what of franchise cricket? Personally I hate the idea, never watch it, knew very little about it and generally turn into a grumpy old git whenever it is mentioned. The fact that Wisden devotes almost fifty pages to the subject horrified me, so I thought I’d better read it. And of course it is at that point I started learning something and I have to admit to finding myself rather enjoying the stats, the potted scores and the slices of narrative about the various tournaments. Counter intuitive as it sounds Wisden 2021 has taught me that franchise cricket is not without interest, even if,perhaps perversely, I still have no desire to actually watch it being played.

But let’s save the best until last. One of the Almanack’s most popular features has always been its obituaries, but those really have gone to a new level this year. There are, I believe, 55,000 words in that section alone, sufficient for a reasonable sized book in itself. Gone are the old ‘played twice for Blankshire in 1947, scoring 32 runs in three innings and not bowling’ type of obituaries not infrequently used in the past. There is something more than that this year about even the most modest playing career and, best of all, the scope has been extended well beyond men and women who have played the game at its higher levels. There are several writers featured, as well as those whose real fame came in other fields, men like entertainers Nicholas Parsons and Tim Brooke-Taylor, and 1966 World Cup Winner Nobby Stiles.

So is Wisden 2021 perfect? It has to get five stars, but perfection is avoided by dint of the book reviews. There is not, I hasten to add, anything to criticise in the thoughts of this year’s selector, Emma John who, as far as she goes, does the job superbly. Once again however, and I must confess to not understanding why this should be the case, the coverage seems limited, only a few overseas publications making the list, and just a handful of the worthy self published books and booklets that appear each year.

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