LAWRENCE BOOTH: Wisden hitting the shelves should be a celebration after a time of fantasy cricket last year… but the best summer of our lives could be followed by the most dispiriting
- The 2020 edition of Wisden Almanack faces an impossible juggling act
- Cricket had not felt so popular since 2005 after the World Cup final and Ashes
- But the celebration will be short lived because of the problems that lie ahead
- It is conceivable not a ball will be bowled in this country until April in 2021
- Assessing the impact on cricket of Covid-19 will be the job of Wisden next year
Wisden is published on Thursday for the 157th time. It is full of joy, and staring into the abyss. The Almanack’s arrival usually coincides with a spring in cricket’s step: the new season is upon us, and all is well with the world. This year, not so much.
The 2020 edition faces an impossible juggling act. On the one hand, it celebrates the summer of Ben Stokes, a time of fantasy cricket, of England’s preposterous World Cup win and the miracle at Headingley. The sport had not felt so popular since the 2005 Ashes.
On the other, the celebration feels a bit guilty because of what lies ahead — and what does not. It is conceivable not a ball will be bowled in this country until April 2021. The best summer of our lives is in danger of being followed by the most dispiriting.
Wisden Almanack hitting the shelves should be a celebration after the summer of Ben Stokes
Assessing the impact on cricket of Covid-19 will be the job of Wisden 2021, which is already shaping up as the most challenging edition since the Second World War. In the 1941 notes by the editor, RC Robertson-Glasgow summed up the problem. ‘It is not easy to write notes on our first-class cricket season of 1940,’ he wrote, ‘because no competitive first-class cricket was played.’
But even the wartime Wisdens could fill their pages with a little cricket. The British Empire XI, London Counties, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities might not have meant much to the man on the Clapham omnibus, but beggars could not be choosers.
That 1941 edition did not appear until August because the publishers in south-west London had been bombed at the end of 1940.
England’s win in the World Cup final was just the start of a time of fantasy cricket last summer
The editor’s notes conveyed a different set of concerns from the usual lament about the England bowlers’ failure to trouble Don Bradman: ‘Our ally France fell; and the British forces were evacuated from Dunkirk.’
During the First World War, editor Sydney Pardon admitted that the ‘question of coming out at all was seriously considered’. To the relief of future collectors, he explained: ‘The proprietors decided not to break the continuity of over half a century.’
And that, really, is the point. Come pestilence or plague, there will be a Wisden next year, because there has been one every year since 1864.
One of Wisden’s many functions is as a bulwark against the real world. On display in the library at Lord’s is a 1939 edition that once belonged to EW Swanton, the booming cricket correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
But now the coronavirus has meant it is possible we will see no cricket at all this summer
It is thought to be the single-most read copy of any Wisden, since Swanton had it when he was captured by the Japanese following the fall of Singapore in 1942. Such was the demand for the book that he had to place a six-hour limit on its loan. Robert Winder takes up the story in The Little Wonder, his history of the Almanack: ‘Swanton used it to give broadcasts on an improvised camp radio station.
‘And just as cricket filled the homesick hearts of the trench-bound troops in the previous war, so the long-suffering victims of the railway prison camps found sweet calm, it seems, in these familiar echoes of a vanished English summer.’
Next year’s Almanack may not be able to make such grand claims. But, with a fair wind, its appearance will tell us one thing: cricket is about to start again.