There they were in Trafalgar Square, the boys of summer, the men of the moment. Under the noonday sun, they were wearing their blazers, dark glasses to hide their bloodshot eyes, and the broadest of grins. Thousands and thousands of people gazed up at them and hung on every syllable they spoke, however inane. Many of those present were so young they would be hard-put to say whether Mike Brearley came before or after the stegosaurus.
Questioned about the seven and a bit exhilarating weeks that had just concluded, the players revved up their favourite clichés and let them all rip. It had been a "nightmare" (really?); an "emotional rollercoaster" (whatever that might be); and, again and again, "fantastic". And it really did appear to be a fantasy.
This was the England cricket team, for heaven's sake, being greeted on the streets of London as though they were pioneering astronauts getting a tickertape reception through New York. They were lauded on the front page of every newspaper. At one stage, they were simultaneously on BBC1, ITV and Channel 4, which definitely won't happen in 2006. Alongside them were their counterparts, the England women's team who, by happy coincidence, had just won their own version of the Ashes. Stuffy old cricket suddenly looked inclusive: a game for everyone.
Around the country, kids who had never picked up cricket bats were suddenly pretending to be Freddie or Vaughany or Harmy or KP. And though autumn finally came, and jumper-goalposts inevitably replaced dustbinwickets, there was evidence that the craze did not subside with the England team's sore heads, and that cricket had truly recaptured a slice of the nation's heart. For anyone who had lived through the dark years, it felt like a kind of liberation.
Journalists still tended to write that we had witnessed Probably The Greatest Test (Edgbaston), Probably The Greatest Series, and Probably The Greatest Crowd To Greet A Victorious England Team. There is no need for the nervous adverb. This was The Greatest. The 2005 Ashes surpassed every previous series in cricket history on just about any indicator you choose. There had been close contests before, and turnarounds, and tension (1894-95, 1936-37, 1956, 1960-61 Australia v West Indies, 1981...), but never had cricket been so taut for so long. And certainly, previous players had never enjoyed adulation like this.
In the summer of 1953, when England regained the Ashes after 19 years rather than a mere 16, there were indeed huge crowds on the streets. But they were there for the Queen, in her coronation year. Nowadays she could never match these kind of numbers. Len Hutton, the victorious Ashes captain 52 years earlier, had to be content with a reception at the Albert Hall. No, not the Albert Hall - the Albert Hall, Pudsey. There was, apparently, quite a throng in the marketplace to greet the local hero.
Hutton's generation had lived through a world war or two, and was able to put sport in some kind of perspective. These days the ease and triviality of most people's lives, including those of the players, can combine with the incessant drumbeat of media frenzy to elevate sport above its proper place. Hence the national fervour. But we mustn't underrate sport either. And the main purpose of Wisden 2006 is to savour what happened in the summer of 2005, and then try to pickle its essence, because one day we will be hungry for it again.
England's years of failure and ultimate victory were crucial to this glorious story. Had they held the Ashes a series or two back, there wouldn't have been the pent-up emotion and resentment that made the release so wonderful. Had their victory been obvious, there wouldn't have been the build-up of tension that drew in so many of the uncommitted. Had England failed, it would have been melodrama rather than drama; anticlimax not climax; repression not catharsis. The patriotism was essential to the plot.
But in the final analysis, this was not primarily a victory for England. It was a victory for Australia too. It was - and this cliché is for once the simple truth - a victory for cricket. This was the old game routing its enemies, including those inside the walls. The 2005 Ashes constituted cricket in its purest form. There was no artificial colouring, no artificial flavouring, no added sugar. Nothing had to be sexed up or dumbed down. Everything was already there.
The matches didn't need supersubs or powerplays; they didn't need to be so short that they didn't actually feel much like cricket. Cricket didn't have to talk down to its audience ("here's something we don't enjoy much ourselves but you lot might like it"). Exhilarating contests just unfolded before our eyes. For 22 days of play one hardly dared fetch a beer, have a pee, or sometimes even blink, because the situation could turn on its head in that instant.
It was a triumph for the real thing: five five-day Test matches between two gifted, well-matched teams playing fantastic cricket at high velocity and high pressure with the perfect mix of chivalry and venom. Here was the best game in the world, at its best. And now millions more people know about it.
A game for heroes
The guiding myth of cricket is that it is a team game. The ethos is always that the individual must subordinate himself to the collective: celebrate a victory even if he has contributed nothing and faces the chop, or pretend that his own century is meaningless if it failed to secure the team's objective. That applies on the village green just as it does in a Test match.
But this misrepresents cricket's appeal, both to the player and the spectator. It's a game of character and personality - individuals operating within the team framework, like wheels within wheels. The Ashes provided the classic example of this. It would have been half the contest but for two amazing men: Andrew Flintoff and Shane Warne.
These two extraordinary physical specimens brought to the summer all the qualities associated with the medieval joust: heroic endeavour laced with good humour and magnanimity. Many of the most interesting figures in cricket history have been built on this scale (Grace, Barnes, Compton, Miller, Botham, Lara...). They are freaks of nature who play the game without fear; their careers are never smooth progressions from one success to the next - their failures are spectacular and disproportionately criticised; they irritate authority; in some cases, their personal lives are equally tempestuous. Yet they bring more to the game than a dozen well-disciplined mortals.
Two years ago, Wisden introduced the concept of the Leading Cricketer in the World to sit alongside the ancient tradition of the Five Cricketers of the Year. It is a totally different accolade, designed to reward just one mysterious, barely definable, quality: greatness. It can be won an infinite number of times, though our three years have so far produced three different winners.
Every Christmas now, we ask all the regular Test-watchers we know who they regard as the No. 1 for the calendar year just ending. It's not a ballot (an electoral college could only be weighted fairly if it were snobbily exclusive), more a set of soundings. But the colloquy that develops has each time produced the answer.
The first year was easy: Ricky Ponting's weight of runs late in 2003 was overwhelming. The next was much harder. The heavy scorers, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer, didn't seem to embody greatness; Flintoff wasn't quite there yet. We went for Warne, just ahead of Adam Gilchrist.
For this Wisden, it was different again. There were only two serious contenders, but which to choose? The voting and the debate swayed, like the Ashes, one way and then the other. The answer? Read Simon Barnes on page 170. Or consider the result of the series. Or look at our cover picture - taken at The Oval after the Test - which seemed, of all the thousands of cricketing images, to sum up 2005: the two champions, locked together in happy embrace... but the one a short head above the other. We are lucky to be able to watch them both, and should relish and cherish them.
The Greatest Series? Quick, run away!
Not everyone was around to enjoy the Ashes. In the ten days between the Lord's and Edgbaston Tests, Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, turned the key and locked the poky offices behind the Compton Stand at Lord's where the ICC had been based for the previous dozen years. A few days later, it re-emerged 3,500 miles away in Dubai, in more spacious if less evocative premises, on the 11th floor of an anonymous office block. In the new reception area, the pictures were not of Grace or Bradman, but of the local ruling family.
There were sound reasons for the move, but the timing typified the ICC year. For a start, the temperature in Dubai hit 50°C (122°F) as soon as the staff arrived. And it was a wretched time for any cricket-lover to leave Britain, as thousands of holidaymakers who had opted to spend August in Provence or Tuscany could tell you. They spent the month staring at computers, plaintively asking friends the score on their mobiles, or twiddling radios, desperately trying to get a faint crackle of Radio 4.
In their Dubaivory tower, the ICC rose above all this. There were other preoccupations. The game's most intractable crisis - Zimbabwe - burbled on without resolution in 2005: the country got worse, its cricket got worse, and the ICC's hand-wringing hopelessness got worse. It became hard to imagine what outrage the country's politicians or cricket administrators might have to commit to provoke a response at last. Eventually, early in 2006, the Zimbabweans had to pull themselves out of Test cricket because the ICC refused to kick them out, despite the manifest inadequacy of the team, the incompetence (at best) of the officials, and the wickedness of the system in which they operated. This had a clear and direct effect on Speed's authority. When he mildly chastised players for their behaviour - which is his job - Tim May, of the international players' association FICA, quite rightly flung Zimbabwe back in his face.
The one chink of light on this issue came when Jagmohan Dalmiya, the supremo of Indian cricket for almost two decades, fell from power in November, suggesting an end to the strange alliance that had formed between India and Zimbabwe. But the private rejoicing among Dalmiya's former colleagues round the Dubai boardroom table (kept very discreet for fear that he couldn't possibly be gone for good) was more to do with the hope that his fall would end the administrative chaos he fostered inside Indian cricket. The filing system for the most influential national organisation in the game was basically inside Dalmiya's head, which was driving everyone crazy.
Dalmiya at least worked through the council, when necessary subverting it to his own ends. In their early weeks, anyway, his successors at the Indian board seemed prepared to challenge its authority directly. Not a bad idea, you might think. It is time someone did, because the ICC's entrepreneurial role is damaging its regulatory one. There was a crucial symbolic change when its web address switched from .org to .com. It constantly now has to refer to its own financial interests - exacerbated by the fraught TV deal with the Global Cricket Corporation, which expires in 2007 - rather than the good of cricket, which should be its only concern.
Every year, it insists, there has to be an ICC tournament of some kind, whether anyone wants it or not. It would be hard to imagine cricket more ill-timed and ill-presented than the 2004 Champions Trophy in England. But the bad ideas keep coming: the Australia v World XI Super Series, held in Australia in October 2005, was OK in theory, but the World XI players didn't want to be there (the Australians, a month after the Ashes, were happy to kick any available arses), and nor did the people of Sydney or Melbourne. It wasn't even the cricket season. This might have worked as a full-length Test series if there was ever time for such a thing. But there wasn't, and there isn't. Coming up: yet another ugly-looking Champions Trophy, to the delight only of TV channels with more airtime than content.
Year after year, the wonderful folks at the ICC assemble the world's best players and get them to play bad cricket. If they staged W.G.'s XI v The Don's XI at the Elysian Oval with S. F. Barnes bowling to Victor Trumper, they would find some way of making the occasion dismal. It's a gift, really: a form of anti-showmanship.
The expansion menace
Even the 2007 World Cup will be badly flawed. What should be cricket's greatest tournament will last 47 days (the Olympics: 16, football World Cup: 31), the first two weeks of which will mainly comprise no-contests. The ballooning of the World Cup derives from one fact alone: the delusion of expansion. From well-intentioned beginnings, this has now become an outright menace. The error is right up there at the start of the ICC's mission statement. It will lead, it says, "by promoting the game as a global sport". It should change its mission statement.
In modern times cricket has only really spread within existing cricketing cultures: to the Afrikaaners and, to a limited extent, the urban black community in South Africa; and from the cities to the countryside in South Asia. None of the four countries elevated to Test status since the Second World War represents a gain of territory: Pakistan and Bangladesh were simply new political entities carved out of India; in cricketing terms, the same is true of Zimbabwe which - as Rhodesia - played in South African domestic cricket; and the rise of Sri Lanka was just a matter of degree.
Our Round the World section (page 1391) passes its century in 2006: in 14 years we have reported on cricket in 103 countries and territories. It's a part of Wisden I love. But with minor exceptions (Afghanistan, for instance, where war refugees brought the game back from their camps in Pakistan) it does not report on true expansion - although our far-flung correspondents understandably over-egg the pudding sometimes.
Overwhelmingly, the game in non-traditional countries is played by expatriates, mostly South Asian. Journalists were kidded into believing that cricket was about to burst on China, on the basis of some warm comments by civil servants and a couple of coaching courses. I have seen not one shred of evidence to back this up. Are the kids playing with tapeballs on the streets of Shanghai? Are they heck!
But we have to pretend, don't we? Eight teams at a World Cup doesn't sound global enough, other sports would sneer, and what would the International Olympic Committee think? So there have to be 16. Indeed, from now on, the leading associate members will get one-day international status whenever they play a senior country: Ireland v England at Belfast on June 13, for instance. This will add another layer of distortion to cricket's poor old statistics. Far more often than not, it will also create yet more bad cricket, leaving less time for the great contests which the public want to watch. Two terrible events, the Champions Trophy and the Afro-Asian Cup, have already been justified by the need to raise money for expansion. Millions of pounds later and - aside from the thoroughly dubious case of Kenya - what has emerged?
The top two of the five teams who qualified for the World Cup via the ICC Trophy are Scotland and Ireland. Well, whoop-de-doo! In cricketing terms, these are not separate countries. It is just a historical quirk that the England cricket team is not called Britain or the British Isles. Every Scotsman and Irishman who gets good at cricket wants to play for England, and always has done. Of course they do.
And we have enough formlines to go on to know how good these teams are: stronger than a Minor County; worse than the weakest first-class county. About where they have always been. The idea that they can provide proper opposition for any genuine Test team is ludicrous. But the World Cup will be substantially ruined to perpetuate this myth.
If I ever get the chance to report the first China v England Test at Guangzhou, I would be delighted to celebrate with a plateful of sweet-andsour hat. But it is time to stop wrecking the game we do have in the vain pursuit of the one we don't.
We like Nike
Cricket is not desperate for new blood for the sake of it. India's off-field might is usually represented in England as a threat ("the big beast of cricket,'' according to Mike Atherton). It can also offer opportunities. Early in 2006 came the news that Nike, anxious to eat into its rival Reebok's dominance of the Indian sports-footwear market, had agreed to pay £25m to sponsor the Indian team's kit for five years. Even the New York Times was awestruck. This swoosh-money will slosh round elsewhere as well. And if India uses its muscle to insist on playing Zimbabwe less, and England and Australia more, that sounds like a plus too.
A stake through cricket's heart
Cricket has become very fond of the fashionable word "stakeholder". I occasionally get communications from official bodies addressed to me that way. One might swank about this, but I suspect my stakeholding is analogous to that of a woman with one share turning up at the Marks & Spencer AGM to moan about the knickers being frumpy.
In the case of English cricket, there is now only one stakeholder worth a light: Sky TV, a company which itself is run by one dominant stakeholder. Luckily for cricket, Rupert Murdoch has other things to consider, and Vic Wakeling, the head of Sky Sports, seems a nice, sensible bloke - which is lucky, because if he wakes up one morning and thinks the leg-bye should be abolished, or the tea interval, he only has to pick up the phone.
Let's not go through all this again, because it is really too awful. English cricket will be shown live only on Sky Sports until at least 2010. In January 2006, a committee of MPs gave the England and Wales Cricket Board a tap with the ruler for the decision, taking the view, which I share, that this was a bad decision for which the board is primarily, but not wholly, responsible. However, it is the ECB's job to protect English cricket's interests, not the government's, nor parliament's, nor any TV company's. Live cricket has now disappeared from the screens of more than half the homes in the country. The ECB has counted the financial gain from Sky; the damage - just when the game should be poised to reap the full rewards from 2005 - will be incalculable.
No amount of money for the counties, even in the unlikely event of them using it wisely, can compensate for what has happened. Had the deal applied last year, and the Ashes been shown only on Sky, the great surge of interest would have been a ripple. No serious broadcasting analyst disputes this. Only the main TV channels have the reach that allows these great national obsessions to develop, whether it is sport, a breaking news story, Darren Gough reinventing himself as a ballroom dancer, or faded stars making prats of themselves on Celebrity Big Brother.
It would help if the ECB admitted the disaster, instead of denying it. But the gung-ho gimme-de-money county chairmen who negotiated the wretched deal were in full cry even as the Ashes was proving them wrong. "People are gibbering on about wanting to retain Test cricket on terrestrial TV, but that will not exist in the digital age... if the BBC competes in 2010 it will be through a digital channel," said Giles Clarke of Somerset. Mr Clarke is supposed to be a clever man, but he is the gibberer, a condition that seems to have been exacerbated by swallowing some first-year media studies undergraduate's textbook.
The word "terrestrial" is irrelevant. But in any conceivable television future, there will still be a vast difference between a free-to-air general channel and a paid-for sports service, which will be watched only by existing fans. It doesn't matter whether the service is being received by aerial, satellite dish or a cable inserted direct into Mr Clarke's brain. Live cricket's presence on a general channel is essential to the game's wellbeing.
English cricket now thinks wistfully about the Beeb. It was like the game's first wife: it was safe and dull and, by the 1990s, its cricket coverage was bordering on frigid. But she would never have sought a divorce had cricket not walked out for the flashy young bird down the road. Channel 4 was the classic second wife: rekindling the fires with sexiness, imagination and fun.
There was always a commitment problem, though... so cricket is on to its third wife: a marriage it does not want. No. 3 is rich, and, after two divorces, the game needs the cash - allegedly to help bring up the kids. And it is the next generation who, as ever in these situations, will be the losers.
Can I phone a friend?
With Ashes fever raging after the Old Trafford Test, the Radio 4 programme Today asked me, as a presumed expert, to provide a short cricketing quiz designed to catch out the saloon-bar bluffers who were suddenly proclaiming they knew it all. So I obliged.
Is Shane Warne a leg-spinner or an off-spinner? What's the difference between a draw and a tie? Which is the bogus fielding position: deep extra cover, fourth man, backward short leg or silly mid-on? Good questions, they said. Who are the county champions? The producer sent a polite message: "Please think of something else. That one's too difficult.''
One of the perverse consequences of the Ashes is that it led to less interest in county cricket rather than more. The narrative of the Test series was so strong it was able to withstand the expected competition from football (exploding, more by luck than judgment, the arguments of those of us who said the series should have been staged earlier in the summer). But the extra newspaper space devoted to umpteen Ashes reports, sidebars and columns came largely at the expense of county coverage, especially in those papers most committed to the game, like The Times and Daily Telegraph.
Wisden readers can probably remember who the current champions are (see page 567 if not). But there are now six sort-of trophies spread among the 18 counties, including the two second-division titles. This suits the county chairmen, who can pretend they are successful, on average, once every three years. But can you name the winners of them all in 2005, without thumbing through this book? Harder still, try assigning the correct division for each team in both the Championship and the whatever-it's-called-this-year League. On second thoughts, don't bother. The unified championship I have talked about before - merging the main four-day and one-day competitions - would mitigate this problem. But it's a reform that would interfere with the general pretence of success.
Last year I asked a county chief executive if he could describe the purpose of a county cricket club. To win trophies? To provide pleasure for the members? To enhance cricket within the county? To provide players for the England team? To make money? All of these? If so, which takes precedence when they conflict? He said that was an interesting philosophical discussion, in the tone of one who was far too busy ever to have philosophical discussions. But unless he is clear about the answer, I don't see how he can do his job.
When the Heart of Midlothian Football Club was having a few problems last year with the Lithuanian tycoon who currently owns it, the Scottish Nationalist leader Alex Salmond commented: "In an ideal world, clubs would be owned by their fans."
That ideal world exists: it's called cricket. It is customary to decry it, but the ownership model of county cricket clubs has proved astonishingly durable. After all, not a single club has ever had to drop out of the County Championship since its invention in 1890. Had they been companies, most would have sunk years ago.
At least, that ideal world did exist. The 18 counties are now adopting a variety of operating models, many offering sound advantages. (See Stephen Fay's article on page 77.) All of the counties are trying to get more businesslike and worldlywise. Three have gone way beyond the others. Unless someone in Yorkshire wakes up, then by the time this is published, the club members will have ceded control for ever to a self-perpetuating six-strong junta. The members thus become no more than subscribers, buying tickets but almost no rights. They will share their powerlessness with followers of Hampshire, or more accurately RodBransgroveshire, which is controlled by the majority shareholder of Rose Bowl plc, and Durham, which has never been a members' club.
Now it is arguable that the members of Hampshire and Yorkshire had no choice. In both cases, grandiose stadium projects had gone horrendously wrong, and there was a dirty great black hole where the money should have been - although in the case of Yorkshire (population: five million, with more active cricketers than Australia) it is hard to believe another solution could not have been found.
Yorkshire have of course been at the opposite extreme; the membership was so politicised in the 1980s that they acted like the sans-culottes terrorising the aristocracy. There is room for a happy medium, and I hope the 15 remaining democratic counties learn the lesson.
No one can seriously believe the entire membership of a county club should vote on every decision, any more than the entire population of Britain should vote on every legislative clause. Of course, business expertise is important to the cricketing economy. And, yes, county members have needed to acquire a broader outlook. But it seems to me an underrated aspect of cricket's enduring strength - which has seen it through all the bad times - that it ultimately belongs to those who love it. Stakeholders, if you like. That is a much better way to preserve the game than yielding control to here-today, gone-tomorrow businessmen, however rich, however benign. Football is not the people's game. English cricket is (outside Yorkshire, Hampshire and Durham). It will maintain its strength best if it stays that way.
The long and the short of it
The ICC has shown a gung-ho approach even in abiding by its own regulations, but it took some brass neck for it to jettison the first sentence of the Laws of Cricket: Law 1.1 - "A match is played between two sides, each of 11 players..."
This was the attempt to jazz up one-day internationals by introducing the "supersub", who arrived in 2005 along with the "powerplay", a tactical innovation so obscure that captains couldn't be bothered to think about it. The supersub concept destroyed essential strategies and principles of the game without bringing in a single extra spectator (except perhaps the substitute's mother). And as I write, it looks as though the idea will be chucked out of the 11th-floor window, and thank heaven for that.
Both these silly ideas were supposed to pep up something deemed to have become tired. But you can't improve a bad product, and 50-over cricket has always been a dreary formula, which has grown worse with repetition. When the Gillette Cup first began in England, in 1963, it provided 65-over cricket for the first season; then it (and its successor, the NatWest Trophy) was a 60-over tournament for 35 happy summers until 1998, and declined thereafter when it conformed and went down to 50 overs. This seems not to be coincidental.
The early World Cups were all 60 overs, and the one-day matches that linger in the memory (the moonlit Old Trafford Gillette semi-final of 1971; the 1975 and 1983 World Cup finals; the succession of wonderful NatWest games in 1981) nearly all took place in this format. It injected urgency into the ancient framework of a cricket match without discounting the essential skills of attacking bowling and defensive batting.
The 60-over game had to go because, before floodlights became so widespread, there was not enough daylight to schedule them outside England. And they were still not concise enough for broadcasting tastes. But 50-over cricket was always inferior and, with endless usage, one-day internationals turned into trench warfare, with everything done according to a predetermined plan. They have become mathematical exercises in fancy dress: too short to be real cricket, and too long to have any of the zing that has made Twenty20 such a hit.
The beauty of Twenty20 does not derive only from its brevity, though it does fit nicely into normal schedules: you can do a day's work, and still watch the match. Right now, it remains novel for the players as well as the spectators: nobody yet knows what they are doing. Each team is trying new ideas and different techniques, and conventional wisdom is being turned on its head all the time. That at least makes it fresh and vibrant. Let's just hope it stays that way. While it does, a Twenty20 World Cup is something even traditionalists should support. If the format's sensible.
The British honours system is corrupt, of course. Tycoons who hand their excess cash to political parties rather than the poor get a peerage; and, when in power, the Conservatives have always used knighthoods to buy the loyalty of useless backbenchers. It is slightly mad too: how strange to be a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) when the British Empire hardly extends beyond the Isle of Wight.
Nonetheless, there are certain areas where it is admirable. It is absolutely right to honour someone like Medha Laud MBE, the England teams administrator, precisely the sort of hard-working but easily overlooked person who deserves recognition from the nation. Until now, honours worked well throughout sport and the arts, with merit generally being recognised fairly and uncontroversially.
However, the Blair government has made a point of using sporting honours as a publicity stunt. For years, there was an obligatory football knighthood. I suppose we should be grateful this has now turned round, and cricket is seen as a vehicle for the prime minister to show how cool he is. But there was something about the mass-gonging of the Ashes squad - five OBEs for the officers, including Michael Vaughan and Clare Connor of England Women, 11 MBEs for the men - that was rather unpleasant: in its lack of discrimination, in its political gimmickry and the way it implicitly dishonoured past cricketers.
Curiously, it dishonoured footballers as well, since Steven Gerrard, who captained Liverpool to victory in the Champions' League, was ignored in favour of Ian Bell, Geraint Jones and Paul Collingwood. Bell was given an MBE a year after his Test debut; it took his Warwickshire predecessor Dennis Amiss 22 years to earn his. Alan Knott, who might just be a greater Kent and England wicketkeeper than Jones, never got a sausage. Collingwood got an MBE for doing not much in one strategic Test; Graham Thorpe still awaits recognition for his hundred Tests. It is one thing offering the same honour to all three Beverley Sisters [note to younger readers: popular chanteuses of the 1950s], given MBEs this New Year along with the cricketers. But an honours list that fails to distinguish between the contribution to the Ashes win of Flintoff on the one hand, and Collingwood on the other, is tainted. In a strange way, it isn't even flattering to those involved, it's embarrassing.
Sometimes, trivial follies can have longer-lasting consequences than major ones. For 128 years, international cricket meant just that - cricket between nations (with the sole exception of West Indies being an agglomeration of nations, not one). In 2005, the tradition and the regulations were twisted, not once, not twice, but three times, to suit the ICC's immediate purposes. The tsunami relief match in Melbourne (where a little sentimentality intruded on the decision), the Afro-Asian Cup (Dalmiya-inspired rubbish), and the Super Series Australia v World XI matches were all given Test or one-day international status.
I believe it is the ICC's job to decide on the status of current cricket matches, not Wisden's. It does more damage to the game to have competing statistics than to have bad ones. But some statisticians have indeed rebelled, refuse to include these matches and thus insist, for instance, that Brian Lara did not break the Test run-scoring record in 2005 (as he thinks he did). That way, I feel, madness lies.
Here, we just sigh deeply and knuckle down to deciding how to cope with all the asterisks and footnotes forced on us from on high in Dubai. But we do have the right to demand that the ICC starts acting like a proper governing body, and provides coherent, conscientious and considered decision-making. On small matters as well as big.
696 and all that
The point I made earlier about the individualism of current cricket extends to the game's records too. Players' performances are much more interesting than mere wins and losses. Wisden has always recorded highest scores far more prominently and extensively than the highest totals. And Brian Lara's twin peaks - his first-class score of 501 and his Test match 400 - are much more celebrated than their collective equivalents: 1,107 (Victoria v New South Wales, 1926-27) and 952 for six declared (Sri Lanka v India, 1997-98).
On August 18 last year, the Worcestershire total against Somerset stood on 696 for seven; the team was on the cusp of something unprecedented: never, in well over 2,000 first-class matches, had the county reached 700. A wicket fell, and Gareth Batty, the acting-captain, declared.
There is no criticism of Batty here: he wanted to bowl out Somerset a second time, and duly did so. But quite obviously, he would not have declared lightly had one of his batsmen been on 96, 196 or 296. Indeed, Batty goes further than that: the wicketkeeper, Steven Davies, had been out a little earlier for 148. "There's no way I'd have declared if Davo had been on 145 or something," he said. He speaks for cricket. Technically, this is indeed a team game. But the essential appeal of it is a human one.
Oh, what's the point?
If there is one thought that I've tried to bang home most from this pulpit, it's this: a complex game needs simple structures. That's one reason why the Ashes were so appealing: you didn't need to be an expert or a statistician to work out who needed to do what.
Yet administrators remain addicted to trying to achieve too many objectives at once. Thus, with all the bonus points and fractional over-rate penalties, the ECB has made the County Championship fairly incomprehensible. But that's nothing. Take a look, if you can face it, at our Cricket in South Africa section.
Bonus points awarded for the first 85 overs of each team's first innings. One bonus batting point was awarded for the first 100 runs and 0.02 of a point for every subsequent run... Gauteng 20.18 pts, Northerns 4.94.
It gets worse. Consider Sri Lanka:
...0.1 pt for each wicket taken and 0.005 pt for each run scored up to 400... Galle 11.925 pts, Ragama 3.795.
The attendance for one Sri Lankan provincial match in early 2005 was reported as zero; I'm surprised they got that many. Under the circumstances, congratulations to Zimbabwe Cricket, who were unable to tell us, despite repeated requests, what points system, if any, was in operation for their domestic tournament. I was rather relieved, frankly.
Nobody's told us...
On August 5, 2005, the Tenby Observer in Pembrokeshire ("the little England beyond Wales") had a report that began: "Unfortunately, despite a recent appeal in both the Tenby Observer and the Tenby Times, only one elderly gentleman came forward willing to help re-form a cricket club in the town." The plans were therefore abandoned.
August 5 happened to coincide with the Edgbaston Test match, the very start of the English cricketing revival. Six months later, the good news still hadn't reached Pembrokeshire: no one wanted the cricket club. "We're up against a brick wall, I'm afraid," said Gareth Evans, secretary of the Tenby & District Athletic Association, in February. Let's just hope the good times last long enough for even Tenby to get the message.