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The 142nd edition of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack is the most up-to-date yet, with full coverage of all matches up to the end of England's recently concluded tour of South Africa. And, as ever, the book contains some trenchant opinions and one or two surprises. Matthew Engel, the editor, spoke to Cricinfo ahead of the launch.
Judging by your choice for the cover picture, it seems Wisden 2005 is set to be a celebration of England's remarkable year.
Yes. In broad playing terms, the rise of England's cricket team was the stand-out story of the year. We opted for that particular image because their success was not really down to any one individual, but the team in general, and so it seems right that the cover should reflect that.
You point out in your preface that Wisden has a duty to balance its English heritage with a global outlook on the modern game. How successfully do you feel you have managed this?
Well, it's been an unusual year in that respect, because even if you're looking from a global perspective, England have earned the right to take centre stage solely on the strength of their performances. On the field there were two teams who were significantly better than anyone else in Test cricket. We already knew about Australia, but until this year we hadn't noticed England.
And consequently, for the first time in 45 years, you have selected five Englishmen as Wisden's Cricketers of the Year ...
Most years, I wake up at some moment when it's too late, thinking: "Oh God, I've got it wrong, we should have had so-and-so". This year I've had absolutely no qualms at all. Although we considered a lot of other players who have had an impact on the English season, players like Shivnarine Chanderpaul or Stephen Fleming, there was no doubt in my mind that these were the five who had the most influence. You look at someone like Robert Key. Not only did he make a double-century at Lord's and a matchwinning near-century at Old Trafford, he also turned out to be the leading scorer in the season and very nearly managed to reach 1000 runs before the end of May, which is a feat that has been achieved only twice since the war.
That may be so, but as you point out in your Notes from the Editor, county cricket is becoming increasingly "pointless".
This is a worldwide problem - how do you sustain domestic cricket as anything other than practice matches for touring sides and trial matches for home teams? England has a very strong tradition of county cricket as a genuine spectator sport, and I think it's very important for the English game that county cricket doesn't wither away to the extent we've seen in other countries, not least in India, where domestic cricket has no public interest at all.
This year the Ashes don't begin until late-July. Is this an opportunity to showcase all that is best about county cricket?
No, not really, because I don't think there is any serious strategic thought going on within English cricket about the role of the county game. There's no consensus between those who see it as an irrelevance, and those who are attached to it. As a result you end up with piecemeal reform like the preposterous changes to one-day cricket that are going to be introduced in 2006. Exactly a year ago, in Wisden 2004, I put forward a proposal for merging the main competitions. This was accepted by the ECB working party, but the county chairmen haven't even bothered to read it.
But it's not just county cricket that's a concern - you voice some strong opinions about the TV rights saga as well
In the long term, I think the TV deal is a potential catastrophe for English cricket. But I must stress, it's not because I think that Sky will do it badly - this is an aspect of the debate that is not being properly understood. The problem is that the audience of a dedicated satellite sports channel will already be the committed few, and so the game will cease to reach out to anyone who does not already follow it. It will take years before the implications of this deal become obvious - but they will. Much of the argument that has been going on has missed the point. In terms of pure coverage, Sky will do the job very well and there will be a number of advantages. But the drawbacks of what's been done will take years to come to fruition.
And yet, it's rather alarming to think that the men who made this deal - the England & Wales Cricket Board - are in fact some of the better administrators in the game.
I didn't quite say that, but if you look around at the quality of governance in world cricket, some of the standards are simply appalling. And it's not just the most obviously outrageous - Zimbabwe, Kenya and the USA. Since we went to print, yet more issues have come to light in places such as Sri Lanka and West Indies. The organisation of the important constituents of the ICC leaves much to be desired.
Does it worry you that the ICC have chosen to move their base from London to Dubai?
Not necessarily. England isn't necessarily the hub of the game anymore, so I don't have a problem with that. But I think the ICC may regret being based in a country that is not steeped in a cricketing culture. There are many ex-pats out there and cricket is increasingly popular in Dubai, but they will find it difficult to govern a game that is really going on elsewhere. I also think they will find it hard to attract and keep top-class staff.
The state of the game always gives me cause for optimism and alarm at the same time
You have some words of praise for the ICC, for the manner in which they have handled the latest chucking controversy.
I think the criticism of the ICC on the 15-degree rule has been misplaced and I explain why. They've come up with a formula that's simple, clear and also realistic, and I applaud that.
Wisden 2005 opens on a sombre note, with a reflection on the Tsunami tragedy. And yet, it was touching to witness the speed with which the cricket world came together.
It was all too brief, but cricket's reaction to the Tsunami tragedy showcased everything that is best about the game. That day at Melbourne, there was a demonstration of how the game can react to what's going on in the world and an understanding of how it can play a part in making the world a better place. Sadly, there were certain aspects of the relief effort that were less savoury, and Charlie Austin highlights these in his excellent piece on the subject. But, yes, on that day, cricket did show that it understood its importance, and at the same time, its unimportance.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this year's book is the selection of Shane Warne as the Leading Cricketer of the Year. How did you come to that decision?
In this particular year, I'm not sure if there was any one player who would not have been a controversial choice. In the event, I asked the advice of well over 100 different cricket writers and commentators, and we came up with 11 different names spread around very, very widely. There was no overwhelming favourite, and ultimately, a ballot would have been misleading, for the simple reason that there are more English cricket writers than there are Zimbabwean cricket writers.
In the end, therefore, I asked myself: "If you were in the playground and you had everybody to choose from, who is the player you would most want on your side?" I felt it wasn't Flintoff, it wasn't Damien Martyn, it wasn't Dravid - it was Warne. If you recall Australia at the start of 2004, they were rocking. In their home series against India, they had been unable to exercise control. But by the end of 2004, Warne was back, Australia were back, and it was my feeling that he had made the difference, more than anyone else.
But it was immensely close, immensely difficult, and that was the one award that made me think: "Oh God, have I got this wrong?" But the Leading Cricketer, in my opinion, is an award that has to go to a great player who will be remembered as a great player. The award hasn't yet got the reverence of the Five Cricketers of the Year, but part of the charm of that particular award is that, just occasionally, you can get what might be deemed wacky choices. It can go to great cricketers and fairly ordinary cricketers alike. The Leading Cricketer, on the other hand, has to be able to stand the test of time.
Warne has just returned from a drugs ban. Did that at any stage sway your thinking?
Not at all. If there was a suggestion that the 70 wickets Shane Warne took in 2004 were in some way drug-induced, that might be a consideration, but nobody has yet suggested that.
Warne has already been honoured by Wisden, as one of their Five Cricketers of the Century. Is it a worry that the game seems over-reliant on its biggest character?
No. This year alone we had 11 nominees, and of these, at least half-a-dozen players would have been very worthy winners of the award. But we had to pick just one, and in my opinion, the strongest and most convincing case was the one that was made for Warne.
You conclude this year's Notes with the words of the great Wisden editor, Sydney Pardon, who wrote in 1905: "No serious matters ... disturbed the cricket world during the past year." Do you ever wish that the same could be said of cricket in 2005?
We've never since had a year like that in cricket, and I hope we never do! The state of the game always gives me cause for optimism and alarm at the same time, but that is just part of its charm.
To buy the 2005 Almanack either click here or telephone (+44)08707 879 044