One evening last July I was sitting at Worcester watching Durham, who were bottom of the County Championship, play Worcestershire, who were then 15th. It was precisely the sort of cricket match people who never watch the game keep saying is entirely worthless.
After tea on the first day, the Durham spearhead Simon Brown reduced Worcestershire to 11 for four. Only Graeme Hick stood between Durham and probable victory. Both men were playing for a place in the Test team against Pakistan the following week. Hick had also made himself unpopular with some Worcestershire members by missing the previous home match, pleading exhaustion. This was the very stuff of cricket: wheels within wheels, confrontations within the confrontation, games within the game. I thought it was utterly enthralling. In the event, Hick stood in Brown's way through the evening and much of the next day as well; the supporters decided they loved him again; and so did the England selectors, who chose both him and Brown for the next Test - then dropped them.
At the end of August, I was at Bristol for an even deader match: Gloucestershire playing Northamptonshire, two counties going nowhere. There was a young off-spinner, Jeremy Snape, bowling to an old slogger, Courtney Walsh, with three men on the leg-side boundary while Walsh tried to give them jumping practice; there too was an even younger batsman, Alec Swann- apparently impassive behind his grille but heart pounding - facing the master bowler Walsh, as he played his very first innings in county cricket.
At Taunton a few days later, I saw Derbyshire, thirsting for their first Championship in sixty years, bounding on to the field in bright sunshine with their hyperactive wicket-keeper Karl Krikken shouting keep working even before a ball had been bowled - and his captain, Dean Jones, then providing a running commentary which became noticeably more intermittent as the Somerset score moved towards 194 for one.
The 1996 cricket season in England was in some respects the most depressing in memory, almost entirely due to the continual disasters that afflicted the national team. A calendar year which began with the dreadful conclusion to the tour of South Africa, and a wretched performance in the World Cup, ended with England's glum failures in Zimbabwe. An indifferent summer was sandwiched in between; and a pall of gloom descended on the game. But every time I went to a county match I enjoyed myself hugely, no matter how few people might have been around to share that enjoyment.
The debate in English cricket is sometimes said to be between conservatives and radicals. Yet it seems to me that every true cricket lover is, in a sense, a conservative, or at any rate that the game represents the conservative side of our nature: our love of summer days and our youth. More often, the debate - such as it is - goes on between sleepwalkers on one side and hysterics on the other. Fleet Street cricket correspondents no longer report the game as such. Nearly all the time they just cover the soap opera of the England team: EastEnders without the varying storylines. Before contemplating the future of cricket - and, most daunting of all, English cricket - it makes sense to pause, and to give thanks for a wonderful game. It needs to change; but it has to be changed with care and love.
Taking a global perspective, the game of cricket is thriving. Sri Lanka's success in the World Cup has sent a whole country cricket-crazy. Between harvests, when the rice paddies are dry, they are said to be filled with youngsters playing with any implements that approximate to bats and balls; indeed, elsewhere inWisden we record the concern of doctors there about the injuries being done by flying stones. In rural South Africa, you see black people - women as well as men - playing impromptu versions of a game that was once effectively denied them. In Australia, the national team's success has helped restore cricket's role as the country's most potent unifying factor. In India, a remarkable proportion of the national income is now being channelled into the game, and the players' pockets.
In the subcontinent the success of the one-day game has wreaked havoc in other directions; the 1996-97 Duleep Trophy final in Mohali, a first-class match of some significance, was said to have begun with an attendance of one. But South Africa has shown that people can be won back to traditional cricket. When India visited there for the first post-isolation Tests in 1992-93, crowds varied between the patchy and the pitiful; four years on, when India returned, the support was tremendous.
The buzzword among optimists now is globalisation, the belief that cricket can and must colonise new lands where the game is little-known. It happened once before (through imperialism rather than television), which is why cricket is an international sport and not a quaint Olde English pastime. The evidence that it can happen again is not overwhelming. Thus far only two new countries, Kenya and Bangladesh, remotely look as if they might be able to stage Test cricket in the foreseeable future - though the ICC Trophy in Malaysia will shortly provide further evidence on this point. The fear is that what globalisation might actually mean is more and more piddling one-day tournaments staged in more and more recherché places for the benefit of Asian satellite TV. This is exacerbated by the perception that Indian cricket is keener on short-term financial gains than the long-term welfare of the game.
These considerations have informed a year of intense debate among the members of the International Cricket Council, following the failure of the controversial secretary of the Indian board, Jagmohan Dalmiya, to be elected ICC chairman at the 1996 meeting. Mihir Bose discusses these issues on page 21. The past few months have been taken up with intense negotiations over a plan devised by Sir John Anderson, the chairman of New Zealand Cricket, to put a new executive committee in place, with devolved powers to sub-committees covering cricket, finance and marketing, and development. In the long run, that is likely to mean a beefed-up secretariat, with less power for the non-Test-playing countries, and perhaps less importance attached to the post of chairman.
Within ICC, there are faint glimmerings of a consensus, particularly over the need to get a balance between one-day internationals and Tests. Two years ago, in these Notes, I made the case for an ongoing World Championship of Test cricket. Wisden's own version of this now exists (see pages 18-19) and has gathered a gratifying amount of interest throughout the cricketing world. The principle of a World Championship now seems to command overwhelming support, whether or not ICC, who are due to debate the subject this year, ever manage to reach agreement on establishing one in practice.
If there were a Test Championship, it would be reasonable to consider a similar framework for international one-day cricket. South Africa has floated the idea of staging the World Cup every two years instead of four; others are interested in an ongoing one-day Championship culminating in a mini-World Cup between, say, the top four teams. The World Cup provides cricket with a showcase for the most popular form of the game, and it would certainly be preferable to clone that rather than continue with the present absurd situation in which meaningless trilateral and quadilaterial tournaments fill the international calendar and TV time to no sporting purpose whatever.
Whichever way this goes, part of the pattern is clear: a more seamless year, with cricket in many countries even during the English summer; and shorter, more intense, competitions that may render the concept of touring obsolete. Indeed, while the English were earnestly debating whether or not overseas players should be allowed to play county cricket, hardly anyone seemed to notice that the decision was being taken for them because the players were rapidly becoming unavailable. More than ever, one suspects, leading international cricketers will be just that and nothing else - they will be representing their country, or preparing to do so, or recovering and resting.
Early in 1997, Archie Henderson, sports editor of a South African newspaper, the Cape Argus, wrote a column enthusing about the role television has played in the cricketing boom there. Cricket, once seemingly destined for extinction, has learned to sell itself, he wrote. While rugby and soccer have rested on their laurels, cricket has exploited the medium with imaginative innovations. This has extended the audience from largely white and male ... the marketing gurus behind the sport have taken every little nuance of a game that is full of nuances and turned them into sub-plots of the greater drama.
Such a column might also be written in Britain, with the word not strategically inserted throughout. And this is only in part because the production values of the BBC TV coverage now seem so stereotyped and dated. Amid the general global mood of cricketing expansionism, England is a spectacular and potentially catastrophic exception.
In 1996-97 the national team reached a point where even the good days were bad. They were one run short of victory in the Bulawayo Test and one wicket short at Auckland. It felt as though the English, who were once presumed to have won first prize in the lottery of life, were now on the receiving end of some cosmic practical joke.
At the 1996 World Cup, the England squad resembled a bad-tempered grandmother attending a teenage rave; British delegations at European summits have sometimes behaved in a similar fashion. Unable to comprehend what was happening - on the field or off it - the players just lingered, looking sullen as well as incompetent. They conveyed as bad an impression in Zimbabwe at the end of the year. And, though they appeared to have learned to display a little grace under pressure by the time they reached New Zealand in January 1997, that merely emphasised their earlier petulance. The captain, Mike Atherton, and coach, David Lloyd, were culpable in failing to understand the importance of their roles as public figures. But it was hardly surprising. Until the end of 1996, they were paid by the Test and County Cricket Board, a body that found public relations so difficult that for its last couple of years it simply gave up on the whole business.
All this was merely the superficial expression of a far deeper mess. In England, football has always been more popular than cricket. Ten years ago, when Ian Botham and David Gower were more instantly recognisable than any footballer, and soccer was struggling against the ravages of hooliganism, the gap was a narrow one. It is now a yawning chasm. Play in the Lord's Test was stopped by the roar of delight among the spectators when they heard that England had beaten Spain in the European Championship quarter-final. The idea that the reverse might ever happen at Wembley is unthinkable.
The consistent failure of the England team is the biggest single cause of the crisis, but it is not the crisis itself. The blunt fact is that cricket in the UK has become unattractive to the overwhelming majority of the population. The game is widely perceived as elitist, exclusionist and dull. The authorities have been accused of worrying too much about marketing. In fact their idea of marketing has usually consisted of sucking up to corporate sponsors and TV executives. If anyone has devoted serious thought to finding innovative ways of bringing young people into cricket grounds, then it must be one of those secrets of which the old TCCB was so fond.
The fixtures are either unpopular or, in some cases, too popular to be accessible. One of the joys of an Oval Test, wrote Terence Rattigan in 1965, is always the presence in force of the very young. How many young people does anyone suppose will be at the 1997 Oval Test when all the tickets will have been sold six months before the event? Equally, how many will be at the many other games where tickets are available and unwanted? Very little has been done to make grounds welcoming and attractive to the young. The message is merely, Sit down and shut up.
Of course, the biggest possible fillip English cricket could receive is success. It would be tremendous if, by the time they reach the Oval, England have won, are still contesting or even have not utterly disgraced themselves in the fight for the Ashes. But this will not be enough on its own.
Amid this atmosphere of crisis, the start of 1997 marked the end, after 29 years, of the Test and County Cricket Board and its replacement with something formally called the English and Wales Cricket Board, to be known by the acronym ECB. This in itself is not a promising start for an organisation that is supposedly going to cut through sectional interests and provide a clear path to the future. The and Wales appears to be a sop to David Morgan, the Glamorgan chairman, who was one of the key figures in the development of the new Board's structure. Since Mr Morgan is not insisting that the national team be known as England and Wales it is hard to see the point of this piece of confusion.
This is detail. People are waiting to see whether the new chairman and chief executive, Lord MacLaurin and Tim Lamb, will give the game clear leadership, and whether the ECB's streamlined policy-making system will prove more responsive than the old, clogged, TCCB methods.
MacLaurin's arrival was well received. He has been a successful chairman of the supermarket group Tesco and, from this summer, will be free to devote himself to cricket. He appears to be a man of sufficient calibre to do the job justice. One sensed some cricket writers thrilling to the idea of someone who might boss everyone about. Dictatorship is always an attractive option at times of crisis. Indeed, Lamb has talked cheerfully about the game being de-democratised. There is a danger here. Successful businessmen are sometimes thoroughly accustomed to giving orders and getting them obeyed. That is not English cricket's need. It does require clearer leadership and bolder decision-making. But it needs, if anything, to be more democratically accountable - and, above all, transparent - not less.
There is an attractive, but not especially hopeful, idea being floated for a National Cricket Membership Scheme. But cricket needs to involve as members not only the 150,000-plus people who belong to the major clubs, but the hundreds of thousands more who play the game. One of the objects of the ECB is to integrate the amateur and professional sides of cricket. This needs to be done formally, at grassroots level, so that anyone who belongs to a village club has an instant affiliation to their county club - and a stake in what is happening at Lord's.
Above all, what English cricket needs is something that Lord MacLaurin is better qualified than anyone to provide. It needs Tesco-isation. The game needs to become an attractive product sold in an imaginative manner at competitive prices.
But, whenever England lose a Test match, and the squealing starts, the demands for change focus narrowly on the structure of the English professional game. A few years ago, four-day cricket was going to be the answer. Now anyone who attempts to argue with the proposition of a two-division Championship is widely presumed to be a nincompoop.
Some people think this could lead to the County Championship becoming as competitive as the FA Premiership, with the big matches being contested before a packed house like Manchester United v Liverpool. It sounds great. But very often the same people insist that the chairman of Test selectors should have the right to pick county sides.
They can't have it both ways. Cricket in England is a long game with a short season. There is, and has to be, a tacit compromise whereby the demands of county cricket are subsidiary to the needs of the national team. Soon England may follow the international pattern and play more home one-day internationals, making current Test players even less available for the counties. Even a two-division season with only eight Championship matches per team is not going to change that reality.
County cricket needs rapid reform: less one-day cricket; the end of the benefit system balanced by far more attractive payments for success; an Academy (though, preferably, a winter one based somewhere warm rather than one that competes with the counties for talent) to help build what coaches at the Australian original call a focus on achieving; a smoother flow of players from lower down the system; and, yes, more combative county matches. I have an instant suggestion for that. The first-class counties should pay a fee of at least £25,000 to enter the Championship. The resulting £450,000 would be distributed to the players, in addition to the sponsors' money, in accordance with their position in the table, right down to second-last place, with huge differences between the pay-outs to the leading counties and the also-rans. That would put a stop to the dead end-of-season matches which cause so much irritation.
But the changes have to be realistic, and the idea that there is any instant cure for England's habit of losing Test matches is nonsense. English cricket's deepest attitudes have to change. It has to make use of all the country's human resources. Britain has 35,000 schools and a hundred universities; cricket seems to work on the principle that the correct figures are a couple of dozen, and two. Above all, it has to be ambitious for itself.
Panic is not the answer. The closure of long-established county cricket clubs - a very possible result of two divisions - is an idea greeted with relish by some reformers. They like to talk about pruning the branches to preserve the main stem. I suspect it's the wrong metaphor. They would be blocking the tributaries, and then the river would dry up.
In the face of all this, it hardly matters who moves the pawns on the England chessboard. As I write, the jury remains out on David Lloyd's contribution as coach and the leadership of Atherton, who has drawn close to Peter May's record number of matches as captain without ever inspiring public confidence. Atherton's own heroic batting enabled England to finish their 1996-97 Tests well, with a 2-0 series win over a weak New Zealand and the bonus of an apparently settled side, something that was never allowed to develop when Ray Illingworth was in command. Illingworth's three-year reign as chairman of selectors, and briefer period as all-purpose supremo, will not be remembered kindly. It was sad to watch a man whose career embodied so many of the strengths of English cricket flail around and have his failings exposed so hopelessly in the World Cup. He had no long-term strategy, merely faith in his own instincts. It was not enough. A teacher friend of mine has a motto on his wall from an unknown American educator: In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with the world which no longer exists. It can serve as Illy's cricketing epitaph.
And so to smaller concerns. One of the minor sadnesses of modern county cricket is the way in which the game is being withdrawn from so many of the out-grounds, and moving closer towards the point when nearly all the matches will be played at the 18 county headquarters. In 1996, most drastically, Yorkshire abolished their traditional fixtures in three of Britain's largest cities - Sheffield, Bradford and Middlesbrough - and one of its liveliest festival grounds, Harrogate. Simultaneously, Somerset made the long-expected decision to abandon the Weston-super-Mare festival. Further retrenchment is expected elsewhere in the years ahead.
Any argument against these changes is usually dismissed as soppy sentimentalism by county officials who like to present themselves as shrewd managers making sensible economic decisions in keeping with cricket's modern needs. The reverse is the case. Of all branches of the game, county cricket is the one that has most dismally failed to market itself - hence its appalling public image.
The festival games have long been the one great exception, the time when county cricket comes alive, and draws in a wider public. In Yorkshire's case, it would have been one thing to get rid of their outposts in the context of a move to a spanking new stadium, when everyone would want to experience. They hope to move to Wakefield by 2000. This may or may not happen; it will be terrific for English cricket if it does. But for the next few seasons they will be playing almost all their cricket at Headingley, which they have effectively condemned. Unless the team is very successful indeed, at least three very downbeat years are in prospect; it is impossible to see how this can work to the advantage of either Yorkshire or cricket - except in the narrow terms of saving small amounts of cash. I hope Lord MacLaurin tells them Tesco did not succeed by closing down shops without opening new ones.
The Schleswig-Holstein question, Lord Palmerston, said, was only understood by three people. One was dead, one was mad and he was the third, and he'd forgotten. The pre-1890 County Championship may well come into the same category. None the less, it has been necessary to investigate it, and to change Wisden's position on this matter.
Until 1962 the Almanack carried a traditional list of champions dating back to 1873. The following year my late predecessor, Norman Preston, printed an amended list, starting in 1864, which ended, for instance, the romantic notion that Derbyshire were the 1874 champions. He was influenced by the arguments put forward in the 1959 Almanack by the historian Rowland Bowen and, perhaps, tempted by the thought of listing all the champions from Wisden's first year. But all Bowen did was to sift - very conscientiously - the conflicting opinions of various contemporary sources. His champions were not necessarily acknowledged by Wisden at the time. It is impossible to come up with a definitive champion until 1890, after the counties' representatives had met and agreed a points system.
Wisden has a historic mission to separate cricketing fact from fiction and opinion, and it seemed to me that we were failing in our duty. We will continue to publish Bowen's champions, but they cannot be equated with the real champions of 1890 onwards.
If county cricket still arouses passions - and I hope it does - I expect to be burned in effigy in Mansfield Woodhouse and Wotton-under-Edge, since the effect is to strip Nottinghamshire of ten outright Championships and five shared ones, and to reduce Gloucestershire to none at all - the county of the Graces joining the disgraces, I am afraid to say. I am sorry if this upsets two historic and congenial cricketing counties, but I can see no honest alternative.
Sometimes contemporary facts are even more elusive. During the Pakistan tour last summer, the fast bowler Waqar Younis was quoted in The Sun as confirming what many people in cricket had long suspected, that he was not born on November 16, 1971, as recorded in Wisden and in every other reference book. He said he was two years older than that.
I then approached Waqar for confirmation of The Sun story. He did not deny it, but said the date should be left alone, and demanded to know why it mattered. There was no ready answer to that. After all, there is no age limit in Test cricket. He is not cheating anyone; why should it matter? When Waqar signed for Glamorgan, he stuck to the 1971 date on his registration form, so there it must rest.
There are circumstances, however, in which it definitely would matter. In 1996 the first Under-15 World Cup was held in England, and Pakistan reached the final: some journalists wrote about players who performed with maturity beyond their years. If anyone in this competition had lied about his age, that clearly would be cheating. Later in the year, there was an intriguing development. In October, Hassan Raza, Pakistan's top scorer in the final, was picked for the Test team against Zimbabwe, aged - according to the records - 14 years 227 days, making him the youngest Test player in history.
However, after the game, the Pakistan Cricket Board themselves rejected Raza's age, and announced that a test on his wrist - a bone-age study- showed he was 15, which came as a surprise to those of us unaware that the human wrist had the same qualities as the rings of a tree-trunk.
It also came as a surprise to Dr Jamil Mohsin, a radiologist working at the Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, who wrote to me - backing his arguments with impressive quotes from Greulich and Pyle's Radiographic Atlas of Skeletal Development of the Hand and Wrist (second edition), the Wisden of such matters - insisting that this test could never be regarded as exact, and that it was only intended to show whether someone's growth was in accordance with their age, not to prove how old they actually were.
There are rumours that some of the old-time Australian players also liked to knock a year or so off their age, so this problem may not be unique to Pakistan. It certainly looks as though it might take a while to sort this one out. In the meantime, let's just say that Hassan Raza, however old he is, does seem to be an awfully good player - an awfully good, young, player.
One of the Cricketers of the Year exactly a hundred years ago was the wicket-keeper Arthur Augustus Dick Lilley, far and away the greatest cricketer Warwickshire has yet produced, as Wisden 1897 put it. Throughout a lengthy county and Test career he was always A. A. Lilley. Sometime after his death in 1929, some researcher appears to have discovered that he had an additional middle of Frederick, and thus the laborious process began of transforming A. A. Lilley into A. F. A. Lilley.
I expect if A. A. Lilley had wanted to be known in cricket scorecards and records as A. F. A. Lilley, then at some point during his 416 first-class matches he might have mentioned it. Perhaps he hated the name Frederick; perhaps he was unaware of it; but he has the right not to have it forced on him just because it is on his birth certificate.
Cricketers are entitled to call themselves whatever they want, provided they do not use a name for fraudulent purposes, and they are certainly entitled to suppress initials they find embarrassing. Lilley is not the only cricketer who has mysteriously acquired extra initials after retirement or death. It will take a while to make the whole of Wisden consistent, but I shall do my best to remove them. Posterity ought to remember cricketers under the names they used in their careers, otherwise posterity is going to be mighty confused.
Alert readers will have noticed that of late Wisden has become assiduous at collecting the ludicrous incidents which attach themselves so much more readily to cricket than to any other game. In 1994 we instituted the Chronicle of each year, and in 1996 the Index of Unusual Occurrences (and may I reiterate my plea, especially to more far-flung readers, for appropriate newspaper cuttings).
It is good to be reassured that this merely reinstates one of the game's richest traditions. Roger Heavens, a Cambridgeshire publisher and enthusiast, has just indexed Wisden's honoured ancestor, Scores and Biographies. He has included the index compiled in 1885 by A. L. Ford, called simply Curiosities of Cricket.
These included: ball caught of knife of spectator; long-stop padded with sack of straw; ball passed through long-stop's coat and killed dog on other side; ball rolled one-sixth of mile after delivery; batsman batted with two bats, one larger than the other, to play fast bowler; and ball never hit during whole of match (a single-wicket contest).
I believe the 1997 crop of eccentricities is well up to standard: the fielder who returned by bus, the team who played the wrong opposition, the golden retriever elected club vice-president and the British businessman, held hostage in the Colombian jungle, who taught his captors cricket. There's globalisation for you! Unfortunately, the terrorists and his fellow-captives were all very relieved when the bat broke. They much preferred football, apparently. More fool them.