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Wisden – A Reassuringly Stable Presence in an Uncertain World

Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has gone trad this year, moving away from recent shifts to covering the environment, racism and women in the game.

There are old-school obits (Shane Warne), anniversary tributes (David Frith on SF Barnes on the 150th anniversary of his birth – Barnes’ not Frith’s – the veteran writer is a mere 85) plus tales about the war and retiring players. This year’s Wisden is also rumoured to feature an article on Wisden collecting – in a case of Wisden eating itself. And on the cover? Wisden “could not look beyond” England captain Ben Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum. 

The 161st Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack is published on 20 April. Sales are expected to be around 30,000, which is remarkable for a book where all the statistics are already available online.  

Some 22 years ago, I reported for Cricinfo on McCullum whacking 123 off 141 balls for NZ U-19s v SA U-19, a prototype Bazball. At the time, I was also writing a bit for a rival Wisden website, with editor Tim de Lisle asking me not to do too much of ‘that Cricinfo stats stuff’ in the reports. Meanwhile, in what’s now called a side hustle, I was teaching cycle proficiency, including to Ben Stokes, a radge redhead on a BMX, hooning round the lanes of outer Christchurch. 

These days, Stokes has honed his hooning and Baz has tuned his innovative win-at-all-costs brand Bazball, while Wisden (which shortly after Baz’s signpost innings bought Cricinfo) stays as popular as ever, despite attempting to move with the times, which potentially alienates it customer base of ageing cricket fans. 

So, as cricket changes rapidly, does the cricket fan change? The cult of Wisden has another acolyte. How to Be a Cricket Fan, A Life in 50 Artefacts from WG to Wisden is a new book (written by me), published by Pitch on 13 February. 

Wisden co-editor High Chevallier said my book should get included in the reviews section in 2024 – Wisden, as an annual, finds it difficult to be current. 

However, the many recent books about Wisden show that the cult is alive and well among those who have driven prices for early editions into the thousands of pounds. What Wisden Means to Me (2013) by Bill Furmedge includes dozens of tales on the titular topic. One at random: “In 1994, while on holiday with my family in York, I bought an 1875 Wisden paperback for £15 from a local bookshop. Six months later my wife left me. Yes, 1994 was a good year.”  

The Wisdener Manual suggests 1875 is worth at least £22,000, and as much as £42,500, judged by prices advertised from 2008-14 on 12 Wisden websites and also (Amazon-owned second-hand book site) Abebooks and Biblio, plus traditional catalogues and prices achieved at auctions, including eBay. This is up from £17,500-£21,500 in 2000. 

For years in the 70s/80s my Dad (who is the subject of my new book, which I’m claiming as the first biography of a cricket fan) sought an 1882 but there were none available through the dealers that advertised in the almanack – EK Brown, John McKenzie and co. It’s all different now. 

My Dad paid £85 for a good 1882 some 40 years ago. Maybe £500 now?  Auction site‘s Chris Ridler says: “The record sale was £2,240 at auction in 2008 , we have all the significant (and many not) prices on site but it is worth around £800 if a nice paperback (if a rebind without covers maybe £300).” 

My Dad’s Wisdens were sold when he died and I’ve only collected about 70 since, so 1882 is a long way off – and would only go on the shelf unread – the data within it is pretty obscure now and there are not really any features to read. Almanacks from when middle-aged cricket fans came of age are the most popular now for collectors, as they bring back happy memories, Wisden sellers tell me.

I asked a random bunch of associates what Wisden meant to them. One has a collection from the year of his birth (1973). He gets the new ones when they come out for half price (£28.50) by pre-ordering. He thinks the features get better every year, though he claims to not remember Cricket and Gardening, an article from Wisden’s 2018’s environment section, probably because he’s trying to annoy the author (me). One collector I know has random almanacks bought for him as birthday presents over the years. Another has his Dad’s collection going back to the 1930s and feels he has to add to it annually. Having an 1864 first edition is beyond most people. The 112-page almanack (up to £38,750) isn’t much fun to read, especially as you feel you need to wear gloves to even touch it.

Sellers tell me the vast majority buying older Wisdens are buying out of habit. Their latest ones may go on the shelf sealed, but they love the continuity. Surveys suggest three-quarters of articles remain unread.

During the pandemic a lot of people new to the market, or returning to Wisden, bought the yellow jacketed book, as well as getting hooked on collecting back issues. One dealer tells me: “The market had never been more buoyant. They want that link with tradition, habit. They want to read articles about the past, so the 1960s and 70s are very popular.” There’s plenty of social history in those years, for instance EM Wellings’ snobbish reports on public school cricket and how schoolboys’ uncouth long hair had led to a decline in fielding standards.

Chris Ridler sums up on Wisden’s enduring popularity: “Many buy to collect it but plenty buy it to read it, it is a great gift for cricket fans and looks great on the shelf. New collectors appear regularly but alas older ones do pass away from time to time. Fifteen years ago, people said Wisden were dead thanks to the internet but it is still in existence and I am sure if we win the Ashes this year 2023 will sell out. People (not I) say it is a bit too political these days, but that is the only downside I have heard.” 

Matthew Appleby is author of How to Be a Cricket Fan: A Life In Fifty Artefacts from WG to Wisden (Pitch Publishing 13 February 2023)

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