A production in five acts

Behind the scenes at Wisden

Robert Winder

When John Wisden died in 1884, single and childless, Henry Luff acquired his company. As well as publishing the Almanack, John Wisden & Co were primarily a sports-equipment retailer, with a shop near Leicester Square: its spirit lives on in the red tiling above a fast-food joint in Cranbourn Street. But without Luff, the book might have folded.

Wisden: a timeline

  • 1826 John Wisden (JW) is born in Brighton.

  • 1850 JW takes ten wickets in an innings for North v South at Lord's. All are bowled - still a unique feat in first-class cricket. He also sets up in business, selling cricket gear in Leamington.

  • 1852 JW and Jemmy Dean form the United All-England Eleven.

  • 1855 JW opens his "cricket and cigar" shop at 2 New Coventry Street, London. 1859 JW plays in the USA and Canada on the first overseas tour by an English team.
  • 1863 JW retires from the game.
  • 1864 JW publishes his first Cricketer's Almanack. The editor for the first 16 editions 
is W. H. Knight.
  • 1870 The title is changed to John Wisden's Cricketers' Almanack (the second apostrophe moved in 1869).

  • 1872 Wisden's shop moves to 21 Cranbourn Street, London; it remains open until 1928.
1880 The first of seven editions edited by George West.

  • 1884 JW dies in his flat above the Cranbourn Street shop. The business is bought from his estate by Henry Luff.
1887 The first of four editions edited by Charles Pardon, and the first to have its content compiled by the Cricket Reporting Agency.

  • 1889 Wisden selects its first Cricketers of the Year ("Six Great Bowlers").

  • 1891 The first of 35 editions edited by Sydney Pardon.

  • 1896 The first hardback edition. JW & Co open their second London shop - in Great Newport Street.

  • 1901 Sydney Pardon starts "Notes by the Editor".
  • 1910 Henry Luff dies. His son, Ernest, takes over the business.
  • 1911 JW & Co receive a royal warrant to certify their "appointment as Athletic 
Outfitters to the King" (George V).
  • 1914 JW & Co are incorporated as a limited company with their shares divided among several investors.

  • 1920 JW & Co merge with Duke & Son, a sports manufacturer specialising in cricket balls.
  • 1923 JW & Co publish their first Rugby Football Almanack. It lasts three editions.
  • 1924 The Almanack exceeds 1,000 pages for first time.
  • 1926 The first of eight editions edited by Stewart Caine.
  • 1934 The first of two edited by Sydney Southerton.
  • 1936 The first of four edited by Wilfrid Brookes.
  • 1938 J. Whitaker & Sons Ltd ("Whitaker's") become Wisden's publisher and 
immediately conduct a thorough overhaul. Changes include dropping "John" from the title, the introduction of yellow linen covers for the limp version (technically, it was not a paperback), and adding Eric Ravilious's wood engraving of top-hatted cricketers to the front cover.
  • 1939 Because of failings in the equipment business, JW & Co go into receivership.
  • 1940 The first of four editions edited by Haddon Whitaker. The Notes in all four are written by Raymond Robertson-Glasgow. Whitaker's offices are destroyed in the 
  • 1943 JW & Co are bought out of receivership by the Co-operative Wholesale 
  • 1944 Wisden's factory in Mortlake is destroyed by a bomb. Although still published 
by Whitaker's, Wisden is moved to the Sporting Handbooks imprint, in which 
JW & Co have a half share. The first of eight editions edited by Hubert Preston.
  • 1952 The first of 29 edited by Hubert Preston's son, Norman.
1957 Whitaker's buy JW & Co's half share in Sporting Handbooks, who continue to publish Wisden under licence.
  • 1965 The CRA merge with the Press Association. The hardback version has a dust jacket for the first time.
1968 Norman Preston retires from PA, thus ending the PA/CRA editorial arrangement with the Almanack, which had been responsible for 82 editions. Preston continues to edit Wisden on a freelance contract.

  • 1970 Grays of Cambridge Ltd purchase JW & Co (including their stake in Tonbridge Sports Industries) from the Co-operative Wholesale Society.

  • 1979 Queen Anne Press (a division of Macdonald and Jane's Publishers which, in 1982, came under Robert Maxwell's control) succeed Sporting Handbooks as Wisden's licensed publishers. The magazine Wisden Cricket Monthly is launched, published under licence from JW & Co.

  • 1981 The first of six editions edited by John Woodcock.
  • 1984 The centenary of John Wisden's death is commemorated with the unveiling of a 
new headstone for his grave in London's Brompton Cemetery.
  • 1985 McCorquodale plc purchase JW & Co from Grays and re-establish JW & Co as 
Wisden's own publisher.
  • 1986 Grays of Cambridge buy back 50% of JW & Co to become joint owners with 
McCorquodale (who are later acquired by Bowater plc).
  • 1987 The first of eight editions edited by Graeme Wright.
  • 1988 Colour photographs are included for the first time.
  • 1993 The first of 12 editions edited by Matthew Engel. Paul Getty purchases JW & Co from Grays and Bowater. The combined total of pages in all editions exceeds100,000.
1995 A limited-edition leatherbound version is introduced.
  • 1998 An Australian Wisden Almanack is launched, lasting eight editions.
  • 1999 The (British) Almanack exceeds 1,500 pages for first time.
  • 2000 Wisden names Five Cricketers of the Century: Don Bradman, Garry Sobers, Jack 
Hobbs, Shane Warne and Viv Richards.
  • 2001 Wright returns as editor, while Engel takes a sabbatical. Wisden Online is 
  • 2003 The only edition edited by Tim de Lisle features Wisden's first cover photograph 
and names its first Book of the Year. JW & Co buy The Cricketer magazine (which is merged with Wisden Cricket Monthly to form The Wisden Cricketer) and the website Cricinfo (into which Wisden Online is integrated). Paul Getty dies. His son, Mark, takes control of JW & Co.
  • 2004 Engel returns as editor. Wisden introduces a new annual accolade: the Leading Cricketer in the World.
  • 2006 A large-format version is introduced. Across all formats, Wisden sells over 50,000 copies.
  • 2007 Cricinfo is sold to ESPN; The Wisden Cricketer to BSkyB.
  • 2008 The first of four editions edited by Scyld Berry. The Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year award is introduced. Bloomsbury Publishing plc purchase JW & Co 
from Mark Getty.
  • 2009 Claire Taylor is the first woman to be named a Cricketer of the Year.
  • 2011 The Shorter Wisden ebook is introduced.
  • 2012 The first edition edited by Lawrence Booth. The 2013 - and first - edition of 
Wisden India Almanack is launched in late December.
  • 2013 The 150th edition is published. 
Compiled by Christopher Lane
There was keen competition (from, among others, James Lillywhite), and the 1886 edition nearly failed to come out altogether, eventually emerging in December with a sheepish apology: "Messrs John Wisden & Co desire to express their regret at the delay which has occurred in its publication - a circumstance due to the long-continued indisposition of the Compiler [the editor, George West]." Only decades later, when Wisden had grown into a collector's item, would the importance of not skipping an edition become clear: Luff's determination had helped preserve the continuity on which the value of the whole set depended.

Luff strengthened the sports company by making it a manufacturer, and rejuvenated the book by handing it to a new generation. The Pardon brothers ran the Cricket Reporting Agency, which placed journalists at matches to submit copy to newspapers. They were responding to the same technical advances that had played midwife to Wisden itself: wireless telegraphy and industrial-age printing. In 1887, Charles Pardon became editor; his brother Sydney, younger by five and a half years, took over in 1891, and remained until 1925. In availing himself of this fresh blood, Luff - who died in 1910 - placed the Almanack in the hands of a dynasty that turned it into an institution.

Charles Pardon edited only four editions, but his third - in 1889 - launched a feature that would become an essential part of the Almanack's appeal. The Cricketers of the Year was inspired by another new technology (photography), and Pardon included medallion portraits of "Six Great Bowlers", provided by prominent photographers E. Hawkins & Company of Brighton. Wisden went on to make an annual award to the season's leading players, later prompting Sydney Pardon to declare that this was "proving so acceptable... there is no likelihood of the Almanack ever again being published without one".

This showed that Wisden was not only a careful keeper of scores and records, and a stern Victorian preacher when it came to Laws and etiquette, but a wholehearted celebrant of individual feats. This may have cut across the classic ideology of team spirit, but in reality it was a central part of cricket's fabric. The quality of the images meant that "the faces will be easily recognised" - no small matter at a time when cricket followers only rarely glimpsed their heroes. Sydney Pardon would go on to be the grandest editor of them all (for 35 years), but Charles's innovation has been a Wisden hallmark ever since - a little touch of Oscar in the spring.

When in 1938 John Wisden & Co appointed Whitaker's - owners of another famous almanack - as publishers of Wisden, Haddon Whitaker took charge. Along with Wisden's own editor, Wilfrid Brookes, he instigated a thorough overhaul, introducing many elements - such as the yellow cover and the wood engraving by Eric Ravilious - that would become permanent. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Brookes resigned, and Whitaker became editor. As during the previous war, there was little cricket to describe; inevitably, the main event was an expanded Obituary. And against a background of strict paper rationing, wartime sales shrank to barely 4,000 a year.

On December 30, 1940, the Whitaker's office near St Paul's was destroyed in the worst night of the Blitz. Yet somehow Wisden, as per the motto of the time, kept calm and carried on. In 1943, Whitaker appointed Hubert Preston, a long-time Wisden aide, as editor for the 1944 edition, and thus the Almanack entered a new era. It was the start, too, of a second Wisden dynasty: his son Norman took over in 1952 and edited the book until his death in 1980. But if it hadn't been for Haddon Whitaker, they might never have got the chance. With pleasing modesty, Whitaker later referred to himself as an "interloper" among the distinguished line of cricket reporters who came before and after.

As the chief engineer of the Co-operative Wholesale Society's retail empire, Ken Medlock was cut from a different cloth. In 1960, he was elected to the main board. A keen club cricketer for Birch Vale in the Peak District, he was surprised to see on the agenda of his debut board meeting in Manchester a proposal to dissolve John Wisden & Co, which the Co-op had bought out of receivership in 1943. Even though he was the new boy on the team, Medlock took a deep breath. "We must be out of our minds," he said. "Don't you realise we are talking about liquidating the most famous name in cricket?"

After a flutter of consternation, Medlock arrived at the John Wisden & Co works in Penshurst, Kent, where he found elderly craftsmen and a dispirited management. He moved fast, replacing staff and streamlining product lines until, a decade later, it could be sold to Grays of Cambridge. None of this concerned the Almanack directly, whose contract with Whitaker's assured its immediate future. But Medlock's influence was profound. In 1963, the Almanack's centenary year, he and his friend Sir Learie Constantine gained permission from MCC to award the Wisden Trophy to the winners of England- West Indies series. As Medlock's trophy celebrated its 50th birthday, the man himself (born in 1914) was not far off his 100th.

At the height of his bad-boy fame, Mick Jagger did not always boast of his fondness for cricket, but he spent hours following it on television at home in Chelsea. Even when he visited his reclusive American neighbour, Paul Getty, he would - as Getty later put it - insist on watching "this ridiculous game".

Getty's own life had been stalked by tragedy. In 1971, his second wife, Talitha Pol, died from an overdose, and two years later the older of two sons from his first marriage, John Paul Getty III, was kidnapped in Italy. When the initial ransom demand was refused, the boy's right ear was hacked off and sent to a newspaper in Rome. But the "ridiculous game" to which Jagger had introduced the older Getty would at least, in time, play a consoling part in his life.

Armed with a colossal inheritance from his family's oil interests, Getty went on to befriend cricket's leading personalities, finance new architecture at Lord's, and build his own, Gatsbyish, ground at his Wormsley home in the Chilterns. In 1993, when Wisden was seeking a new owner, he stepped in. It did not need saving, as such: it was a profitable enterprise in its own right. But it did need a devoted and steady proprietor - and it found one. Under Getty's wing (and the editorship of Matthew Engel) the Almanack grew in prestige as the game entered the electronic age. Jagger's oblique place in the story reminds us that cricket's relationship with rock music long predates the snatches of "Another one bites the dust" that blast across today's Twenty20 grounds.