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
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.