November 20, 2013

The little cricket magazine that endured

The ABC Cricket Book was a faithful companion to generations of Australian kids growing up with the game

© ABC Books

It must have been a cold winter night in 1993. Huddled under the covers of my bed in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, I was listening to Neville Oliver on a faux wood-panelled PYE radio that I'd just purloined from my Dad's shed. Making off with the "spare TV" definitely would have aroused suspicions, so it was just me, the clandestine radio arrangement and a small but intriguing magazine: my first ABC Cricket Book.

It seems an odd and anachronistic little thing now, the ABC Cricket Book. Its statistical tables and the biographical info on the competing teams have long been superseded by online resources, chief among them this very website. I still buy it every year, though. To even contemplate the potential that it might disappear one day fills me with dread, which is both stupid and absolutely honest in equal measure. Each one links me to a moment in time, to a summer or a winter, to who and what the Australian Test team was, but also to who I was myself.

To understand its appeal fully you really just need to cast your mind back to the early '90s, before the internet had replaced the printed word as the primary source of gathering information. I hadn't come across my first Wisden at that point, so the ABC Cricket Book seemed the most sober and respectable way to settle debates with my brothers as we watched the cricket. Each one is now a fascinating and sometimes amusing time capsule.

I can imagine that that '93 Ashes issue might have added fuel to a long-running argument with an older brother over which of the Waughs was better; at that stage, 52-Test veteran Steve's 2503 runs at an average of 36.28 shaded Mark, who had 1063 at 33.22 from his 21 appearances. Statsguru is great, but I can't hold it and it doesn't really make me reminisce like walking over to the bookshelves and pulling that little magazine out does.

Along with buying every issue since Allan Border's side retained the urn in '93, I started working backwards, buying old ones at garage sales, charity stores and junk shops. It probably helped spawn an obsession with collecting and completism that endures till today. Cricketana and all sorts of ephemera from summers past soon filled my bedroom. I'd never pay more than A$2 for an ABC Cricket Book unless it was a really old one, at which point a solid case would need to be made to my parents. This was usually pitched as a kind of investment opportunity of a lifetime. "There's never been a better time to buy a magazine from the summer of 1968 with Lawry and Sobers tossing a coin on the cover, Mum, honest."

To my eternal gratitude my parents normally acquiesced, and they even encouraged the collection. They enjoyed seeing my brothers and I read, and that itself is as great a gift as any parent can bestow on their child. The scorecards that another cricket nut had lovingly compiled in my 1974-75 Ashes edition even inspired me to one of my most embarrassing acts of fandom: keeping a complete scorecard (dots and all) for an entire day's play during the Test summer of 1996-97. I still have it in a box somewhere. (The collecting bug dies hard.)

Last week I picked up the 2013-14 edition. Its cover star, Ryan Harris, has just let a delivery fly, and thanks to the magic of Photoshop it looks as though the ball is bursting through the page. I would have loved that as a nine-year-old, but I also wonder how many children of that age have picked the thing up off the newsstand. Would they even understand it? Maybe it is destined to become a heritage act that only those of us who loved the game before the existence of iPads and high-speed internet can truly appreciate for what it is, like The Beano, vinyl records or phone boxes. I hope not.

The ABC Cricket Book is something solid and permanent. It hangs around after the noise has died down and it's still there for you to read on the train home when you've tired of Twitter or have run out of phone battery. If Jim Maxwell's editorial from the 2013-14 edition popped up on the internet, I might open it in a tab on my computer browser and eventually forget to read it. It would hang out there online still, but I'd have long forgotten its existence, so there it would stay.

Right now it sits on my desk, though, so weeks later I'll still be able to read it. Appropriately enough, in that editorial, Maxwell talks about his first, the 1962-63 Ashes edition. He calls the guide "an enduring phenomenon in Australian cricket". I hope he's right because it remains a reassurance and a reminder that the world doesn't always have to fly by at a million miles an hour to show its rewards.

So here's to taking things slow, to poring over pages that really ought not to matter anymore but somehow do, and to a diminutive magazine that helped many of us on our way to loving cricket. That's no small feat.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here