England's journey from 'Shambles to Shangri-La'
The 147th edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, launched today, tells the story of England's recapture of the Ashes - in the words of the victorious captain, Andrew Strauss. In his dissection of a 2-1 series win "that defied logic", Strauss reveals that the difference between the two sides was not "tactical acumen, superior planning, or inspired individual performances". Instead, "The answer lies somewhere in what people like to call the unity, or spine, of the team."
The Ashes victory was the culmination of an incredible resurgence in which England, in the words of the Observer correspondent, Vic Marks, went from "shambles to Shangri-La" in the space of 12 months. Strauss recalls the Mumbai terrorist attacks that disrupted their tour of India in 2008-09, as well as the Moores-Pietersen turmoil surrounding his ascent to the captaincy, and says that coping with these trials made his team a cohesive and resilient outfit: "I believe strongly that shared experiences, the type of which don't happen every day, are actually what brings teams together.
"We needed some stability, which Andy Flower and myself tried to bring in as quickly as possible. We needed some honesty about where we were as a side, and how hard we needed to work to go forward. Above all, though, we needed as a group to use our experiences to bring us closer together, and I am absolutely certain we did: that was the critical factor."
The 2010 Almanack also includes the Ashes reflections of England coach Flower, who reveals how much the previous home Ashes series meant to him: "In 2005, while still playing at Essex, I had been caught in the exhilaration expressed by a nation watching one of the greatest series of all time. I saw what it meant. I took note."
Flower identifies two major reasons why he began the series in confident mood: "First was the make-up of the respective teams. We were likely to play five bowlers, Australia only four. I thought it would be interesting to see which theory would come out on top.
"And that led into a second reason - the absence of the great Shane Warne from the Australian line-up. I now felt the spinning option was an area we could exploit, and actually thought we might have played two spinners on more than the single occasion we did in Cardiff… the saving of that first Test in Wales was a key moment. A draw there was as good as a win."
Amid the euphoria of Ashes glory, however, Wisden remains critical and concerned about the direction of English cricket, and in his third year as editor, Scyld Berry slams the ECB for losing the desire to make England the best team in the world. The administrators, he argues, have adopted the philosophy of "If at first you don't succeed, give up."
"All the current Test-playing nations have won either the World Cup or the Champions Trophy. All, that is, bar two: Bangladesh and England. So what is the ECB's response? Cut the 50-over format (in which these tournaments and all ODIs are played) from the domestic programme altogether and replace it with a 40-over structure wholly absent from the international stage. Cricketers will reach the England team never having played 50-over cricket, so how can they understand the rhythms and demands of the game?"
Berry also has the counties, or at least the 13 that voted for the change of limited-overs format, in his sights. Every county relies on a £2m a year handout from the ECB - who in turn are heavily reliant on the England team for their revenue. Yet those 13 counties short-sightedly chose to handicap the national side.
Berry also assesses the impact of the Umpire Decision Review System, which had mixed success in its first full year of implementation, and fears that its most significant impact has been to subvert the authority of the umpires - at every level of the game. He notes: "What may start as fun - a club bowler or fielder making the shape of a T when he disagrees with a decision - will become a whole process of insidious undermining."
Unsurprisingly, Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year, a tradition that dates back to 1889, has a distinct Ashes flavour in 2010. Stuart Broad, Graham Onions, Matt Prior and Graeme Swann are the four victorious Englishmen to be honoured, with Australia's leading run-scorer for the series, Michael Clarke also acknowledged for his contribution to the summer. Virender Sehwag, who "broke Test cricket's sound barrier by scoring at more than a run a ball, is the first man to be named as the Leading Cricketer in the World for consecutive years, since the award was introduced in 2004.
*The second Wisden Test XI, based solely on performances in Test cricket during 2009, contains four Indians, three Englishmen, two Australians, a Sri Lankan and a South African, with four players - Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni and Johnson - retaining their places from the first-ever Wisden Test XI, while seven (Graeme Smith, Ricky Ponting, Kevin Pietersen, Shiv Chanderpaul, Harbhajan Singh, Dale Steyn and Zaheer Khan) are dropped.
The 2009 Wisden Test XI 1 Virender Sehwag (India), 2 Andrew Strauss (England), 3 Gautam Gambhir (India), 4 Sachin Tendulkar (India), 5 Kumar Sangakkara (Sri Lanka), 6 Jacques Kallis (South Africa), 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (India, capt & wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson (Australia), 9 Graeme Swann (England), 10 Peter Siddle (Australia), 11 James Anderson (England).
Jos Buttler, from King's College, Taunton, is the Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year, while Harold Larwood, Duncan Hamilton's biography of the bowler whom he describes as the fastest in the game, is the winner of the Wisden Book of the Year award. Hamilton's beautifully told tale of pathos and pace is "a biographical tour de force, reading like a great, sweeping historical novel," according to Wisden's reviewer, Robin Martin-Jenkins. "There will never be another story to emerge from [the Ashes] as poignant, or important, as this."