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April 11, 2006
Andrew Flintoff has been named as the Leading Cricketer in the World for 2005, as the 143rd edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack prepares to hit the bookshops tomorrow.
The award, which was instituted two years ago and has previously been won by the Australian duo of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne, was a reflection of Flintoff's towering performance in last summer's Ashes, a series that the editor, Matthew Engel, unequivocally describes as "the greatest".
"We took soundings from writers and commentators in all the cricketing countries, and there were only two people in it, Flintoff and Warne," said Engel. "Our cover picture sums up the year as we saw it. Flintoff and Warne are shown embracing after the Ashes series - but the one is just a fraction above the other. We felt in the end that 2005 was the year when Freddie touched greatness."
Both men were ineligible for Wisden's more traditional honours list: the Five Cricketers of the Year, which dates back to 1889 and is the oldest honour in cricket. By ancient custom, no-one can be chosen twice for this list, but each of the five recipients did nonetheless play their part in the Ashes: three for England, Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Kevin Pietersen and two from Australia, Brett Lee and the captain, Ponting.
'The Five' invariably stir a debate among the cricket-watchers of the world, but as Engel points out, the criteria for selection is steeped in Wisden's traditions of editorial independence. "The Five have never been the world's top five," he explained in The Times this week. "The choice is based on their influence on the English season, and successive editors have cut themselves enough slack to pick players who just happen to appeal to them. It has always been accepted that there is room for whimsy, idiosyncrasy or downright eccentricity. Cricket followers like that."
Cricket followers also liked the events of last summer, when England regained the Ashes after an 18-and-a-half-year gap, in a cliffhanger of a series that will echo down the ages. "It was a triumph for the real thing," Engel wrote in his typically hard-hitting Notes by the Editor. "Five five-day Test matches between two gifted, well-matched teams playing fantastic cricket at high velocity and high pressure with the perfect mix of chivalry and venom. Here was the best game in the world, at its best."
To mark the occasion, Wisden has revved up its traditional coverage and introduced a special 72-page Ashes section - plus 12 colour plates. The coverage includes "Notes and Quotes" from each Test, reviews of the media by Quentin Letts and Malcolm Knox, afterthoughts by John Woodcock, Simon Hughes and the former Australian captain, Mark Taylor - and even an analysis of how the Ashes changed the English language.
And several of the articles in the Comment section also derive directly from the Ashes:
And in keeping with a spirit of bigger and better, for the first time in its 143-year history, Wisden has gone supersize, with a special limited-edition large-print format. This is news that would have gladdened the heart of the late rogue Robert Maxwell, who briefly held the publishing rights to Wisden in the 1980s and haughtily announced that the book was going to change its shape. Wisden's owners snatched the book back from him before he could do any damage.
The difference is that this time there are no plans to abolish the familiar housebrick-sized almanack to make room for the new breezeblock version. "There is no thought whatever of abandoning the traditional Wisden, so no-one need worry about getting new bookshelves" said Engel. "This is just an experiment to see if readers are interested in an alternative.
"Maxwell did have a point, and I'm sure if John Wisden had known in 1864 that the book would expand from 112 pages to 1600, he would have made them bigger in the first place. I believe a lot of older readers will be grateful for a more legible version. And maybe new readers will find it more attractive and be inspired to begin collecting Wisden."
The 2006 edition is intended as a celebration of the game, but as ever, the almanack's long tradition of forthright criticism is maintained. In his Notes, Engel mocks the International Cricket Council for the failure of the Australia v World XI Super Series; blames the "delusion of expansion" for the unpalatable 47-day, 16-team format that will form next year's World Cup in the Caribbean, and slams the "political gimmickry" that resulted in England's Ashes squad being awarded blanket MBEs.
But Wisden 2006 is about more than just the awards and the innovations. Did you hear about the Australian who was banned for calling a batsman "a Pommy git"? Or the strange case of the Bradman Chocolate Chip Cookies? Or how a block of ice, a flying sightscreen, a picnicking landlord, an angry stump-stealing motorist - and a frustrated bull - all stopped play? All these tales and more are included in the Chronicle section, while news from the far pavilions of the game - including Afghanistan, Mongolia and Niue Island - can be found in the Round the World section.
The Wisden Almanack archive is now available online, at www.wisden.com, where it is now possible to search through a selection of key articles, including the Editor's Notes, Cricketer of the Year essays and obituaries, as well authoritative reports of every international series, dating back to the first edition in 1864.
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
Buy the 2006 edition at Cricshop for the discounted price of £28.