'Wisden should be fun'
After a summer to beat all summers in 2005, this year's Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, published tomorrow, is a righteous celebration of the Ashes and the spirit of the series. Ahead of its launch, Will Luke spoke to the editor, Matthew Engel
For the first time in its history Wisden has produced a special-edition larger version, roughly twice the traditional size. Might this attract a new audience to the book?
Well I see that there are two separate audiences. Firstly, I think there are a lot of older readers who find Wisden rather hard to read. If you look at Wisden from ten years ago, you'll see that we've worked hard at making it more legible within the constraints of the traditional size, which isn't easy.
I hope it will help older readers, but I think the larger size also makes the book more attractive to people who thought it was purely statistical. Wisden has many statistics in it, of course, but in my view it is not a stats book.
We want people to come to it: for anyone who loves cricket, they'll pick up a copy and find they've been reading it for far longer than they realised.
In your preface, you mention that the idea has been suggested before by Robert Maxwell, Wisden's former publisher.
That's right - and we talked about it a couple of years ago, but for various reasons it didn't happen. This year we decided to go for it, and the initial reaction has been very encouraging. We'll see what happens. As things stand, this is a special edition, which is a one-off. The most important thing to emphasise is that there's absolutely no thought whatever of doing away with the traditional-sized Wisden.
Was there any doubt in your mind, or others whose opinion who you sought, about choosing Andrew Flintoff as the Leading Cricketer in the World?
It arises from a colloquy, a discussion, with everyone who watches a lot of Test and international cricket. In the last week of the year, I email everyone who might have reason to have an informed opinion on the subject and ask who they think the leading cricketer in the world is. I got the thick end of 100 replies from all over the world. But the thing about this year is there were really only two people - Shane Warne and Flintoff - in the race. The front cover of the book sums up the final decision; the two of them locked together, but Flintoff a fraction above Warne.
Some might argue the now-famous photo of Flintoff consoling Brett Lee at Edgbaston was the summer's abiding image.
Yes, well the cover picture is obviously an editorial decision. We thought very hard about various pictures and what worked and what didn't workThe alternative, which was very strongly considered, was that famous picture of Flintoff and Lee. But I thought it had perhaps been seen once too often - we wanted something fresher. Which is why this picture works; the two great players of 2005 and the Ashes locked in this very friendly embrace - it seemed to sum up the story and the spirit of the series.
Is this the first year Wisden has dedicated a separate Ashes section?
Well it's not been done like this before, but we've never had a series like it before. It was the greatest series of all time, I'm very sure of that. There are no ifs or buts, it was something very wonderful and very special and it's right for Wisden to give the story its full worth.
Did the extraordinary impact of the Ashes affect the production of this year's edition?
In your Notes by the Editor, you mention the ECB's decision to sell TV rights to Sky. Had last summer's Ashes not been on free-to-air TV, would it have had the same impact?
No. It wouldn't have had a fraction of the impact. I have no quarrel with Sky, whose coverage is very good in many ways, but the fact is that cricket needs to be on a general/terrestrial channel, and this is the crucial distinction which various people in the ECB don't seem to understand. In my Notes, I mention Giles Clarke, Somerset's chairman, who complained of people gibbering about terrestrial coverage, but that's not the point. There needs to be a general, free-to-air channel to suck in uncommitted viewers, and that's how the Ashes took off; it slowly built up until everyone got to know about it.
You're also critical both of the ICC's handling of the Zimbabwe crisis and the Champions Trophy.
It's a myth to pretend that the ICC is just the president and the chief executive. The ICC is comprised of ten member countries - and a very dysfunctional family it is too. There are people on the ICC who I wouldn't have in my house. I'm not talking about the president or the chief executive. The ICC's politics and its entrepreneurial function have started to damage its regulatory function, and I think the ICC has a very serious credibility problem. And it's been damaged by bad presentation of cricket; it's been damaged by its handling of Zimbabwe and various small and bad decisions, like Supersubs, Powerplays, its handing-out of international status... and so on.
And of the game's expansion too...
Yes. The last two events that the ICC have put on have been terrible - the Champions Trophy and the Super Series. And now we've got a World Cup that's going to last nearly seven interminable weeks, the first two comprising pointless matches: they're simply there to prove that cricket is a global game. Well, it isn't. It's a game that means a lot to a small number of countries. The ICC's globalisation globalisation programme has a small amount of achievement and a great deal of hype. And it's actually damaging the game by forcing the major cricketing countries into playing too much bad cricket.
What of the World Cup then? Has the continued inclusion of developing nations reached its limit?
Well, the top two countries to qualify were Ireland and Scotland, which doesn't represent any kind of expansion or any kind of promise for the game. These countries are never going to beat teams consistently: they simply don't have the potential to become major cricketing powers. We're just pretending.
What then is the future for these countries? Scotland received £317,000 for development at the start of this month.
Scotland will continue to be Scotland. They will be a team somewhat too weak to play in the County Championship. The best hope for them would be to compete regularly with counties, but they aren't yet a match for any county. And to extend the World Cup from its natural length of three weeks to seven, just to accommodate these developing nations, is absurd. There will be a lot of very bored people in the West Indies.
Might a Twenty20 World Cup have a greater role in limited-overs international cricket?
I think Twenty20 is a more appealing game than one-day internationals which have become dull, stereotyped mathematical exercises. They're in desperate need of a freshening-up. I personally don't find one-day cricket very interesting and I know an awful lot of people who love cricket who share that view.
What I think the Ashes showed, and to some extent the Australia-India series a couple of years ago, was how good Test cricket is. There's no doubt in my mind that it's the best game in the world, which we saw at its best last summer. You either get that or you don't.
Judging by your comments, you seem intent on introducing a new audience to Wisden.
Well, I hope we go on to report events like the Ashes in new, original and challenging ways which people find very interesting. I want them to read Wisden and realise that if they thought it was somehow an intimidating and boring book, it isn't. We've got the best cricket writers in the world. There's a fantastic amount of brilliant cricket writing and of fun and wit. Cricket is meant to fun! Cricket should be fun, Wisden should be fun. I hope it is fun.
In conjunction with the Teenage Cancer Trust, Matthew Engel is running a fund to improve conditions for adolescent cancer patients in memory of his son who died ten days after the Ashes were won. Further details can be found at the website: www.laurieengelfund.org
To order a copy of this year's Wisden, visit Cricshop.