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May 14, 2013

The misleading aura surrounding Wisden's five

Samir Chopra
Hashim Amla: one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year  © AFP
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Last year, as the annual Academy Awards ceremony rolled around, attended to by all the usual hype, I wrote a post at my personal blog in which I attempted to describe the origins of my disillusionment with the Oscars - because I had previously imagined them to be awarded by some extraterrestrial jury - and the opportunity it provided for understanding that human reckonings of human achievement were just that, human. In that post I described finding out how the Oscars were merely the result of voting by a very particular panel of movie-goers, the Motion Picture Academy of America:

When I reached this point in my reading, I remember being stunned: Wait, that's ALL the Oscars were? Just the result of voting by some Academy? Made up of humans voting their preferences? Why was that so special? Couldn't they just vote for their favorite movies? I knew somehow, dimly, that human beings often differed in their utility allocations; schoolyard rumbles had at least taught me that much. Somehow, I had imagined that the Oscars resulted from a non-earthly assessment of cinematic quality, that their awards were free of the taint of human subjectivity and bias.

I'm reminded of this story whenever I witness the annual hype surrounding Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. Every year, when the Famous Five are announced, some cricket fans find out to their dismay that the Yellow Book has not deigned to recognise the achievements of their personal favourites; their dismay is only partially tempered when they find out that it is because these feats took place far away from English shores. Wisden's list is still a Big Dealâ„¢.

As a child, I too, waited eagerly for these announcements: Who would Wisden anoint this year? Who would it select for its pantheon of cricketing grace? Who, dear God, who? I was sometimes puzzled by the inclusions on the list, but I accepted them nonetheless. Who was I to argue with Wisden? And then, like the story above, I had my moment of enlightenment: my father let slip one day that Wisden's list only recognised performances in the English season. It would not matter if an Australian scored 2000 runs in his season; it would not matter if an Indian took 100 wickets in his; if it didn't happen in England, it didn't happen for Wisden. I remember being stunned on hearing this qualification: this was Wisden, the supposed impartial arbiter of global cricketing excellence, stately and above human parochialism, and all its list did was recognise achievements in the English summer? Even to my highly pliable Indian middle-class Anglophone mind, something about this seemed far more modest, far more circumscribed than the lofty promises of the original Five of the Year's Best.

To be fair to Wisden's list, it wore its parochialism lightly on its sleeve; it never pretended to be doing anything more than picking five local performers; its air of esteemed judgement and cosmopolitanism was derived almost entirely from the fact that the English summer always had tourists, from the usual underwritten premise that England was the centre of cricketing achievement, and thus consequently, its writings on the game would constitute the heart of the information order of the world of cricket, and thus finally, because the rest of the cricketing world was only to eager too grant Wisden's list the aura of Final Distinguished Discernment.

But it is worth remembering what Wisden is: a periodical, manned and staffed by cricket fans like us, each one of them bringing a background of national cricketing history, particular acculturations, and personal preferences, to their understanding of the game, to their reckonings of cricketing excellence. Every year, some of them, armed with statistics and their own judgement, sit down to pick out five cricketers from among the hundreds who perform on the English stage. Elsewhere in the world, thousands of other cricketers do the best they can. Their feats are written about, commented on, observed, praised, and censured by many other cricket fans, many of them as knowledgeable and passionate and perceptive as those that compose Wisden's assessments of excellence.

We might find, if we are prepared to listen, that their lists are just as good, just as worthy of attention and analysis.

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Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here

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Posted by   on (May 15, 2013, 22:11 GMT)

Andy has it nailed in one. Cricinfo, feel free to close comments on this piece, nothing further needs to be added.

Posted by   on (May 15, 2013, 17:30 GMT)

Samir Chopra: "We might find, if we are prepared to listen, that their lists are just as good, just as worthy of attention and analysis."

That's a remarkably non-specific closer. Name some people! Name some groups! It's daft to have a pop at Wisden and then not throw out some alternatives.

Posted by   on (May 15, 2013, 17:24 GMT)

"I'm reminded of this story whenever I witness the annual hype surrounding Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year."

What hype is this exactly? It's certainly not hype created by Wisden itself. Some of the comments on here are astoundingly crass. Wisden is affectionately named the cricketing bible for obvious reasons: no other cricket book comes close to having the history of Wisden. It's a gentle title, not one that demands you bow down and worship Wisden. I doubt those offering criticism are unlikely to have read many copies. I'd invite them to read it, learn about the game's history. Wisden is a whole lot more than just mere stats.

Posted by   on (May 15, 2013, 15:02 GMT)

Why the surprise? Wisden is primarily an English book. It has always been published in England, and when its first edition rolled off the presses almost no organised cricket was played anywhere else in the world. It carries full scorecards and reports of every County Championship match, while most other countries' domestic tournaments are recorded only in summary. In the section covering the overseas season, England's tours always appear before other countries'. It has never been any great secret that the five are chosen from the English season; a break from tradition was made when Sanath Jayasuriya was selected in 1997 for his performances in the previous year's World Cup.

The purpose of the "Leading Cricketer in the World" award was to recognise excellence in all cricket during the year. Australia has had its own version of the Almanack, and this year India has. Wisden is expanding its horizons to reflect the globalisation of cricket - just not by changing this particular award.

Posted by   on (May 14, 2013, 20:53 GMT)

Nice article. Every year somebody complains about their favourite player not being included, even if this player (e.g. Tendulkar) has been honoured before. The rules are 5 players based on the performances in the previous English summer, and you only win once. Bradman won in 1931, not 1935/1939/1949. This is just an award made by a bunch of cricket fans, just like us, who have their own human prejudices. Sometimes, as a kind of long service award, Wisden will honour a long serving good county player. Perusing the lists of the famous five over the years will have 4 superstars and somebody else.

Posted by jolo on (May 14, 2013, 17:24 GMT)

All the revisionism in the world won't change history. Nor does history dictate the future deterministically.

Yes, the modern game of cricket was codified in England, and was then spread further afield by consequence of a far reaching empire, with all it's varied impacts (bad and good). And Wisden was the almanack, the authoritative yearly record of the English game. Though cricket has become (somewhat) more global since the first serious international competitions between England and Australia, Wisden remains iconoclastic, wilfully retaining it's English orientation as a reflection of its heritage. This is not hidden and is likely an intentionally preserved eccentricity that bucks the trends towards universality and homogeneity driven by commercially-fuelled globalisation. Take it for what it is, an English perspective on the game. Other perspectives are welcome too. Enjoy the diversity while it lasts, because you cannot have a conversation with only one voice, unless you are crazy.

Posted by playitstraight on (May 14, 2013, 16:07 GMT)

What a piece, of course couldn't expect much less from a Philosophy teacher! :) I am not a fan of the Wisden 5, mainly because they choose players who have excelled in English shores. But then again, England is where the home of cricket lies, i.e. Lord's. I do see the bias in choosing Compton, the only English player, but then again who am I to comment? I'm just a regular fan, critic, and sometimes rambler.

Maybe in the future, Wisden could consider changing its policy in the future, mainly for two reasons: (1) to avoid bias, in selecting players and (2) to include other players who may have not toured England but excelled elsewhere.

Posted by Sundararajan on (May 14, 2013, 14:16 GMT)

Oh history does not change, I agree, and it does not have to.. But then that is exactly what it is.. HISTORY!!! Times, change, world changes and one has to move with the world. Eng may have begun cricket, but it is not the home of world cricket anymore. I heard someone saying in comms, cricket is an Indian sport accidentally invented by the English. And there are others who dig up history to say cricket was not born in Eng at all. As I said this is the 21st century and Eng have to wake up to reality. Eng, Wisden and MCC find it difficult to accept that reality. Yes, let them have their book, no doubt, but stop calling it the 'bible' and Lords' as the home of WORLD cricket. They may have been so back in the day, not anymore. As for how much Wisden is revered in India, a quick look at the number of comments on this website as compared to the wisdenindia website will tell you all. And yes, as someone has written in one of the comments, "history mightn't change but it often gets rewritten"

Posted by Sir.Ivor on (May 14, 2013, 12:54 GMT)

There is no doubt that England is the home of Cricket and that Lord's is its headquarters. This can never be debated. The point I think we should be considering here is whether the five players nominated each year by Wisden were the most deserving to be so named.If you look at the list of the five players named over the years, you will find that a fair share of the names have been included in defiance of cricketing reasons. Probably for reasons of old world loyalty to the belief that any thing of excellence must start with England. I have often found that in the annual cluster some names like Viv Richards long ago and Hashim Amla recently truly belong there for their performances over the year. But inclusion of these names may not add to the credibility of the other names included in the list. England have been one of the best sides over the years. But I am not sure if that can be the reason for including the names of English players in Wisden's annual list.Objectivity is called for.

Posted by ygkd on (May 14, 2013, 9:25 GMT)

Yes, cricket started in England. One of the earliest probable references to the game mentions "craig' which is often linked to Irish Gaelic "craic' meaning fun. However, in far-flung Scotland in Victorian times, "craigear" was specifically cricket, in their related language. This could well link with a Norse word for a stick and ball game. So cricket, often given as Flemish Dutch in origin, could instead be a Viking thing. Whatever it is, England nurtured it, but it was probably already in its infancy before England, as an entity, ever existed. And it quite probably was imported from elsewhere. So history mightn't change but it often gets rewritten.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Samir Chopra
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He runs the blogs at samirchopra.com and Eye on Cricket. His book on the changing face of modern cricket, Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket has been published by HarperCollins. Before The Cordon, he blogged on The Pitch and Different Strokes on ESPNcricinfo. @EyeonthePitch

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