Author: Scyld Berry (editor)
Publisher: John Wisden & Co
By Martin Chandler
13 Apr 2009
The Cricketer's Bible
The name John Wisden has been inextricably linked with the game of cricket for well over 150 years and will remain so as long as the game is played. His name is revered today because of the eponymous Cricketer's Almanack that is published each April and which in 2009 has reached its 146th edition, but it should not be overlooked that before the Almanack began Wisden was, for several years, one of the leading bowlers in England.
No other sport comes close to having an annual review which stretches back as far as Wisden. Despite the exigencies, at various times, of war, depression and financial hardship nothing has ever prevented Wisden making its annual appearance and with yearly sales having steadily increased in recent years, to a level in excess of 50,000, its financial stability would seem to be assured.
After so long it is widely assumed, not unreasonably, that Wisden was the first cricketing annual to be published. The fact is, however, that the first annual had been published as long ago as 1790 by the then MCC scorer Samuel Britcher, whose scores were published each year between 1790 and 1805. Britcher is very much the Holy Grail of cricket book collecting and single examples, of the 52 copies known to exist, have changed hands for up to one hundred thousand pounds on those very rare occasions when they have appeared for sale.
Following Britcher there was a lull and it was not until 1843 that William Denison first published his 'Cricketers Companion' which ran for four years. Denison does not enjoy quite the same status amongst the cognoscenti as Britcher but his contribution to the game's literature remains a very rare publication with copies seldom seen on the market. On those occasions when copies of Denison do appear, the prices achieved, while generally several thousand pounds, are by no means as spectacular as those achieved by copies of Britcher.
Not long after Denison ceased to appear Lillywhite's Guide, the first of three publications from the brothers Lillywhite, began in 1849 under the editorial control of Fred, the youngest of the three. Fred Lillywhite was the only one of the three not to make his mark as a player his older siblings, John and James, the former with considerable success, having played at first class level. The history of these publications indicates, latterly correctly, that Wisden and the Lillywhites were fierce rivals. That was not always the case as in the 1850's Fred was in partnership with John Wisden for around three years before the partnership was dissolved in 1858. There is no hard evidence that Wisden took any great interest in the Guide while he was with the firm but doubtless he would have taken note of its progress. The Guide continued until 1865 when it 'merged' with a new publication, John Lillywhite's Cricketer's Companion (the Green Lilly), which in turn later merged with James Lillywhite's Cricketer's Annual (the Red Lilly) which soldiered on until 1900 before finally conceding defeat to Wisden. Since the dawn of the twentieth century other cricket annuals have come and gone and some have enjoyed considerable longevity but none has ever again attempted to compete directly with Wisden.
Returning then to John Wisden himself he was, as indicated, a fine cricketer although that is increasingly forgotten as time passes. Wisden's only cricketing achievements that the Almanack now records are the two occasions on which he took all 10 wickets in an innings in 1850 (all bowled) and again in 1851. All told in his career Wisden took more than 1,100 first class wickets. Unfortunately history does not record his full analysis on each and every occasion he bowled but from what we do know it seems likely that his overall average was less than 10. In addition it should not be forgotten that Wisden was a distinctly useful batsman making his top score of 148 in 1855 in a game between Yorkshire and Sussex which marked the first ever first class fixture at Sheffield's Bramall Lane. To put that achievement in context it needs to be borne in mind that that innings was the only first class century recorded in England in the entirety of that season.
John Wisden was 36 years of age at the start of the 1863 cricket season and had been troubled by injury and weight gain since returning from a tour of North America in 1859 and 1863 saw his final first class appearances. This was an era when 36 was no great age for a professional but that in part was due to the lack of employment opportunities for former cricketers and in that respect Wisden was the exception having already taken steps to secure his future once his playing days were over.
Wisden's first business had been the acquisition, with George Parr, of a cricket ground in Leamington where for a period of approximately 10 years Messrs Parr and Wisden's Cricket Club played with considerable success. At the same time Wisden first began trading in cricket equipment and in 1855 he opened his 'Cricket and Cigar Depot' in London at 2 New Coventry Street, off The Haymarket. It was from this address that he traded in partnership with Fred Lillywhite for those three years before, from then on, trading on his own account, save for what must have been a very brief period in 1868 when he appears to have been in partnership with a Mr Maynard.
As all Wisden enthusiasts know the first edition of the Cricketer's Bible rolled off the presses in 1864. There can be little doubt that Wisden did not even begin to foresee the impact that his speculative venture into the publishing business might have. In truth the contents of that first edition are not such as to suggest an intention to set up a long running periodical and it is likely that Wisden's primary motivation in issuing the 1864 edition was to cash in on his reputation as a leading former player and to advertise his main business. The bulk of the contents are taken up with recording the scores (and only the scores as there is no commentary) of the Gentleman v Player's fixtures since 1820. The book includes, amongst other oddities, the rules of a game called knurr and spell as well as the rules of bowls, the rules of quoits, a list of the winners of The Derby, The Oaks and The St Leger and more bizarrely a list of the British Societies, the dates of the 8 Crusades and the 12 Battles of the War of the Roses. The only significant narrative content in the entire book is a short account dealing with, of all things, the trial of King Charles the First of England, which had taken place in Westminster Hall and resulted in the King being convicted of high treason and being beheaded outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall way back in January 1649.
That first edition ran to a total of 112 pages which makes it the briefest of all. As the years passed while retaining the same page size, until as recently as 2006 when a small printing of an alternative large format edition was first produced, Wisden has gained steadily in thickness and modern editions exceed 1500 pages. There was, naturally, a considerable slimming down of the book during the lean years of the two World Wars however despite having no first class cricket to report on no amount of enemy action could prevent the Almanack's annual appearance and those editions covering the War years are amongst the most interesting and sought after despite their brevity..
As the book grew in size so did its reputation and the annual 'Notes by the Editor' rapidly established Wisden as the most authoritative source of comment and opinion in the cricketing world, a point which makes it worth reinforcing that John Wisden & Co has always been a private company and entirely independent of the game's governing bodies. The views of the then editor, C Stewart Caine, in his notes to the 1934 edition, are a masterpiece and remain, despite the plethora of words subsequently written on the subject, the definitive statement of principal in relation to the controversies thrown up by the Bodyline Tour of 1932/33.
In terms of outward appearance Wisden changed little for many years and indeed the cover price, despite the substantial increase in the books size, did not increase from 1 shilling until a dramatic rise in production costs led to a 150% increase for the 52nd, 1915 edition. Collectors habitually bemoan the destruction of the company's archives in enemy action in 1944 and the consequent loss of information about, amongst other things, the book's print runs, however it is known that sales were dropping in the early 1930's and that only 8,000 copies of the 1937 edition were printed.
In response to falling sales the old style of paper wrappered books gave way to the yellow linen covered editions which continue to be produced to this day. At the same time the hardback edition underwent a change of style too and, save for the introduction of dust wrappers in 1965, the outward appearance of a Wisden hardback is the same now as it was in 1938.
Internally the 1938 changes were more of style than substance with the introduction of a more extensive photographic section (a single photographic plate had been introduced in the 1889 edition) and the order in which the contents were set out was thoroughly reviewed and presented in a more logical sequence.
The 1938 makeover had the desired effect as that year 12,000 copies were sold and while the paper shortages of World War II led to a very sharp decrease in the number of copies available between 1940 and 1946 the post-war cricketing boom meant that by 1949 32,000 copies were sold. After that peak Wisden, it must be accepted, rather rested on its laurels as the format of the book remained unchanged and sales fell back to 21,000 copies by the centenary edition in 1963, an edition which, naturally, contained a history of the Almanack and to which any reader who would like further information is referred.
After 1963 the market continued to shrink and it seems likely that Wisden struggled to stay afloat through most of the 1970's and 1980's. The rescue came with the acquisition of the Almanack by the great philanthropist, Sir Paul Getty, in 1993. The Almanack's editors since then, predominantly Matthew Engel and Graeme Wright, have gradually brought the Almanack into the 21st Century. The book would still be readily recognised by a reader of the 1938 edition but there are more essays and more comment in the book now and the huge increase in international cricket played around the globe has been fully embraced, and while there remains something quintessentially English about the Almanack it certainly cannot be accused of being parochial.
Wisden is, as alluded to, very much a collector's item and there is a brisk trade amongst collectors and dealers in back numbers. As to the value of the Almanack much depends upon how one wishes to build a collection. The 'ultimate' set would consist of original paperback copies from 1864 to 1895 complete in each case with front and rear covers and with solid, unchipped spines, together with original hardbacks from 1896 onwards. Particularly difficult to find are the first 15 editions which, when they do appear, are generally rebound and usually lacking their original covers. These editions are rarely available at all and to find a copy in it's original state is wholly exceptional. If any collector does have such a set they are certainly not publicising the fact and no such set has ever appeared on the market. If it did then even in today's strained economic conditions it would surely fetch at least a quarter of a million pounds. That is not to say, however, that the acquisition of a full set of the Almanack is beyond all but the idle rich. All editions from 1864 to 1931 and 1940 to 1946 have been reproduced in facsimile and The Willows Publishing Company hope to bridge that particular gap and reissue 1932 to 1939 over the next few years and once those are available the minimum cost of a full set of the Almanack will be comfortably less than ten thousand pounds.
Moving on to the values of individual editions there are, naturally, huge variations, not only from year to year but also dependent on the type of book on offer. The two rarest editions are 1864 and 1875 copies of which in reasonable, but less than perfect, condition have each sold for more than twenty thousand pounds. What an 'ultimate' copy of one of those editions might go for is anybody's guess - if a copy ever did appear at auction and two serious collectors with deep enough pockets decided to do battle over it then it is not inconceivable that the Britcher record may be threatened.
More curious to the casual reader will be a look at prices of the 33rd, 1896 edition. A beautifully made modern facsimile will cost around seventy pounds. A rebound edition without it's original covers or advertising pages (meaning all of the cricket content is present) might well be obtainable for a similar amount. If that rebind had all the advertising pages and both covers then two hundred pounds would be nearer the mark. A purist wanting the original paperback in fine condition will probably have to find more than five hundred pounds and if an original hardback were required, and remember this is the first year that they were produced, then the collector who wants a copy in fine condition is going to have to be prepared to go well past twenty thousand pounds to land his target.
With increasing sales the prices of twentieth century editions ease markedly but wartime copies are an exception. In 1916 the print run was very small but despite the absence of any cricket to report all copies sold out immediately due to the interest in the obituaries of WG, Trumper and Stoddart amongst, tragically, many others. A paperback edition in fine condition will set a buyer back at least one thousand pounds and an original hardback the greater part of ten times that. 1941 is also a difficult year to acquire a fine original linen wrappered copy being unlikely to sell for much less than five hundred pounds and a hardback four times that. What we do know for certain in the case of the 1941 edition is that a total of four thousand copies reached the market, eight hundred of which were hardbacks.
Collecting Wisden is therefore an expensive hobby and, just occasionally, ends in ruin and tragedy. At a 1986 auction a previously unknown collector paid what, at the time, were astonishing prices for some early Wisdens including five thousand five hundred pounds for copies of the first two editions. Two years later that collector, Hugh Simmonds CBE, a prominent solicitor, committed suicide after unspecified financial irregularities came to light. The Simmonds books were later sold at auction again in 1990 those same two editions showing a 36% increase in value over the intervening four years. In the recession of the early nineties Wisden values generally held their own before rising steadily again in the latter years of that decade before rising sharply between 2004 and 2008 - whether the Almanack will prove to be a good investment in the current downturn remains to be seen.
Throughout the changes that have taken place over its lifetime Wisden has remained very much a cottage industry and one whose future, in its current form, all cricket lovers will hope is secure. It was therefore with some trepidation that Wisden collectors learned in December 2008 that the company had been acquired by the Bloomsbury Group, however we are assured that this is to be a seamless transition and that the 2009 edition will uphold all of the Almanack's values and that its editorial independence will not be compromised in any way. Let us hope those promises are fulfilled and that John Wisden is not given cause to turn in his grave.