December 29, 2013

Two for the coffee table

An anthology and a celebration of great players - both from the Wisden stable - allow us to experience a soothing sense of constancy

At this time of year, we tend to look back. Newspapers will create "best of 2013" lists, while regular Joes might concern themselves more with where it all went wrong. The statistics in question - pints, pounds, personal shortcomings - will be addressed in the New Year, though such resolutions may fall quickly under the revolutions of time's wheel. This will all take place in distracted fashion, recorded in Facebook status updates, and hazy declarations down the local hostelry. Almost without exception, it is a good thing that Wisden isn't taking notes.

For 150 years, cricket has had an assiduous biographer. The game's changes have been manifold - fatter bats and slimmer, more muscular participants; technology and its discontents; the rise of India as its global centre - but so much remains familiar. To flick through the pages of The Essential Wisden is to experience a soothing sense of constancy. Cricket has always been in foment, bogged down in picayune disputes, and assailed by match-fixers; there have always been great players and fantastic feats to chronicle; and there will always be unusual occurrences.

Does reading an anthology of an almanack make one a confirmed anorak? Probably. But then disciples of the "Little Wonder" - the nickname of John Wisden, who first compiled his eponymous tome in 1864 - have always worn such labels comfortably. At the same time, The Essential Wisden provides perfect introductory material for the neophyte. Many who pick up their annual yellow brick will only read a fraction of the content but the editors, John Stern and Marcus Williams, have taken a hammer to 133,491 pages worth of cricketing history (largely as viewed through English eyes) to sift the dust for diamonds.

Beginning with a choice selection of Notes by the Editor - in which complaints about England selection, county finances, and the problem of throwing echo down the century, from Sydney Pardon (almost always from Sydney Pardon) to the modern day - the anthology devotes sections to players, records, obituaries and oddities, as well as the counties, which takes up the most space and reflects the centrality of the English summer to Wisden's method. The features section, though mostly just excerpts, shows the depths beneath its surface of scorecards and statistics. In the 1948 edition, to take one example, the Essex bowler Charles Kortright - considered one of the fastest to have played the game - noted: "There is no magic in fast bowling; but, on the contrary, much hard work, coupled with intelligent methods, is the key to success." Mitchell Johnson would doubtless agree.

The editor's job of further illuminating cricket's brightest stars has long provided an anchor for the almanack in public consciousness. Since 1889 - when Charles Pardon (Sydney's brother) chose "Six Great Bowlers of the Year" - Wisden has anointed the game's superstars; strictly only once, according to the rules, though with a couple of exceptions. For the full, 570-strong list, you should look beyond the anthology, however, to the glossier charms of Wisden Cricketers of the Year. Edited by Simon Wilde, cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times, and also released to coincide with the 150th anniversary, this would probably be termed a coffee-table book - in the sense that it is about the same size as a coffee table.

Like Wisden itself, Cricketers of the Year gets away with being a little unwieldy. As Wilde explains, the initial purpose of the award, based upon performance in the preceding English season, was to provide "medallion portraits" of the players, photographs rather than the colourful written sketches we expect today, with the player whose picture occupied the middle of the page considered to have the grandest stature. The book lives up to this original aim and the carefully produced images that go back to the 19th century - particularly those of impassive young (and not so young) men in flannels and moustaches - are fascinating.

Initial winners were often only accompanied by a few words of description and Wilde, too, skips nimbly through these corridors of fame. Eventually the format became standardised at the familiar "Five Cricketers of the Year" but it was subject to editorial whim in the early years: in 1896, WG Grace bestrode cricket's narrow world by himself; in 1901 the awards went to "Mr RE Foster and Four Yorkshiremen"; in 1921 and 1926, the page was given over to photographs of Pelham Warner and Jack Hobbs respectively, both former winners. Such curiosities - including the story of Harry Calder, a "Schoolboy Bowler of the Year" during World War I, who never played first-class cricket and only discovered about his award at the age of 94 - provide the special interest in an otherwise straightforward study of greatness.

These two collections, lovingly compiled and slickly produced, may be the publishing equivalent of flaying a tiring attack with an old ball. But, given the season, in this year of amplified Wisden worship, it seems okay to overindulge.

The Essential Wisden: An Anthology of 150 years of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Edited by John Stern and Marcus Williams
1104 pages, £50

Wisden Cricketers of the Year: A Celebration of Cricket's Greatest Players
Edited by Simon Wilde
408 pages, £40

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here