July 25, 2013

The best cricket periodical ever

From 1978 to 1983, the World Cricket Digest, published out of Sydney, offered fans of cricket and cricket writing an invaluable service

World Cricket Digest: a collector's item © World Cricket Digest

Two years ago, I made a short trip to India to sample the pleasures of hiking in the Ladakh Himalayas. Besides subjecting myself to the lung-bursting exertions of climbing high-altitude passes, I found time, on my return to Delhi's steaming cauldron, to dig through boxes of my old possessions, stashed away in my brother's garage. And while rummaging through those reminders of a life left behind, I stumbled on a true treasure: one of my four copies of the "best damn cricket periodical ever" - the World Cricket Digest. (I am not alone in this appreciation of the Digest; Gideon Haigh agreed with this assessment during a conversation in Melbourne a few years ago.)

The World Cricket Digest was published as a quarterly (out of Sydney) from the summer of 1978 onwards. It was edited by Jack Egan (an author and long-time ABC employee and producer of cricket documentaries, including one on Bradman); its editorial included David Moeller, Brian Bavin and Peter MacKinnon. It temporarily ceased publication while the hubbub surrounding World Series Cricket swamped Australian cricket and seemingly made any kind of normal cricketing business impossible. It then resumed publication in November 1982, and finally, sadly, came to a grinding halt in October 1983. Its issues now survive as collectors' items on ebay and other internet used-books stores.

In that brief period, it ensured for itself a standing not likely to be equalled by any other compendium of cricket writing and images. Every single issue of the World Cricket Digest featured a top-class collection of cricket writing, some original, some reproduced from elsewhere, which struck a fine balance between match reports of current series, historical recollections and analyses of the game, commentary on changes in the world of cricket, and some of the most stunning cricket photographs ever.

It was remarkable in another respect, one that might have been responsible for its downfall: it featured no advertisements whatsoever. I have no idea how the World Cricket Digest survived for as long as it did without this feature. I doubt any other cricket periodical has even flirted with such an unconventional publishing tactic.

The following is the table of contents from the issue currently lying on my desk. This should give you some idea of its content, its eclectic (not eccentric) coverage, its catholic interests, and at least by the names of its contributors, an indication of the quality of writing on show:

  • India Versus England - Derek Hodgson & Brian Bavin (Match reports on India's tour of England in the summer of 1982 featuring photographs by Patrick Eagar.)

  • A Cry From the Heart. - Bill O'Reilly (An eloquent plea for the return of the legspinning art, written well before Shane Warne's entry into Test cricket.)

  • Bunkum About Bodyline - Fred Root (The English allrounder dispels some commonly-held misconceptions about Bodyline.)

  • Third Test Adelaide January 1933 - Arthur Mailey (The great Australian legspinner's report on the controversial third Test, possibly the precipitating crisis of that hot summer.)

  • Cricket Crisis - Jack Fingleton (The Aussie opener's summary of the Bodyline furore.)

  • Pakistan's First Win in Australia - Max Walker ("Tangles" provides a description in his inimitable style of Pakistan's famous win at Sydney, the match that catapulted Imran Khan to fame.)

  • With the 1905 Australians in England - Frank Laver (The side sometimes reckoned the strongest Australian outfit ever.)

  • Second Test Melbourne December 1950 - Sir Neville Cardus (The doyen of cricket writing on an epic Ashes encounter.)

  • Women's Cricket - The Early Years by GD Martineau (The distaff side of cricket, featuring action photographs of Molly Hide and Betty Wilson.)

  • 1929 to 1999 and All That by David Moeller (An interestingly prescient take on the possible evolution of world cricket.)

  • Victory in England by Clyde Walcott (The most devastating member of the Three W's describes the famous 1950 West Indies tour of England)

  • Flat Tracks and Old Bones by Jack Egan (A description of a casual tour of India by an Australian club side.)

  • The Great Captains - Jack Cheetham by Louis Duffus (A homage to an often-ignored South African great.)

I first saw the World Cricket Digest on sale in a Delhi bookstore sometime in late 1978 or early 1979. It featured on its cover an impossibly elegant David Gower, playing a trademark drive. I salivated, I lusted; but how could I possibly afford it? I mentioned it to my parents, and indicated I would be willing to work for the Rs 15 it cost (this edition must have been prepared for the Indian market, for its price in rupees was printed on the cover). A few days later my father decided to make his younger son the happiest lad on the planet by bringing home a copy for me. That first issue was in a larger format than the ones that followed it, and contained, if I remember correctly, reports on India's tour of Pakistan in 1978 and some of the most detailed match reports I have ever read: on the Ashes series of 1978-79, which ended in a thumping 5-1 win for England.

A cricket periodical like the World Cricket Digest occupied a very special place in my reading heart. First, it was, besides Sportsweek's World of Cricket, the only periodical available in India that was devoted exclusively to cricket. Second, its focus on history was more acute than that tried and trusted member of the club of Indian cricketing magazines. (A quick glance at the table of contents above will confirm that it was not exclusively focused on Anglo-Australian cricketing ties, even though there are three articles on the Ashes; and, of course, there are articles on women's cricket and amateur cricket.) Third, the quality of its photographs was exemplary. Not only were the best modern photographers - like Patrick Eagar and Ken Kelly - featured, it also showcased some of the best photographs of days gone by (its cover photographs were in colour; the ones inside in black and white). For instance, the issue noted above made available to me, for the first time, photographs of the 1950 West Indies tour of England, the 1952-53 South African tour of Australia, the 1905 Australian tour of England, and the 1950 Melbourne Test. And in yet another issue that featured a series of reports on England's win in the 1928-29 Ashes, I saw a photograph of Don Bradman driving Farmer White; it still remains one of my all-time favourites. Here is how I described it in one of my first posts on ESPNcricinfo:

Bradman is at least six feet out of his crease, and the back face of Bradman's bat is parallel to his upright back. Bradman seems to have sailed down the pitch and whiplashed this furious off-drive, with the bat swinging over his shoulder and then down. The crispness of the action on display is palpable, almost making the photograph itself sharper.

Fascinatingly enough, the inside of the back cover of the issue listed above featured, in a display of a generous appreciation of the game, an action photograph of Raelee Thomson, vice-captain of the 1982 Australian women's World Cup team.

Sadly, I have lost some of my copies of the World Cricket Digest but have now begun the process of replacing them via the internet's resources. I hope I am not impeded in this process by too many of you.

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