Peter the Lord's Cat And Other Unexpected Obituaries from Wisden
edited by Gideon Haigh (Aurum, 148pp) £8.99
Published in 1986, the original, chunky Wisden Book of Obituaries is quippingly known as the "Wisden Book of the Dead"; perhaps this pocket-sized alternative should have been entitled the Wisden Book of the Extraordinary Dead? As it is, the title is easily the worst thing about what can safely be described as a loo book par excellence.
If Gideon Haigh's stature as the game's most flavoursome and perceptive contemporary historian and writer needed any reinforcing, his Introduction does so with girders of steel. First he launches into a riff on how the game's vocabulary "provides regular intimations of mortality" - dead bats and balls, lethal deliveries and rushes of blood, death overs and rattles - then examines the coffins: in the blue-blooded corner five monarchs, three Prime Ministers, three colonial governors and two Lords Chief Justice; in the red the father of English socialism, a star of Dr Who, descendants of Oliver Cromwell and, yes, "Cat, Peter (The)". Then come the "frankly unclassifiable" such as Gwynfor Evans, whose threat to go on hunger strike paved the way for a Welshlanguage TV station.
Of the 10,000-odd obits published in the yellow bible since the practice was initiated in 1892 the 250 or so here obviously represent the tip of a Titanic-toppling iceberg. But Haigh has uncovered some crackers. As well as the not so unexpected - Samuel Beckett, PG Wodehouse - there are Frederick Hyland, whose first-class career for Hampshire spanned two overs, and my favourite, Bob Crisp, the only man in firstclass annals to take four wickets in four balls twice. His status as a former South Africa fast bowler tells but a fraction of a story that Hollywood would have rejected for being too fanciful.
Crisp was called up for the 1935 tour of England shortly after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro; won the DSO for gallantry but vexed his alleged superiors so much that General Montgomery personally saw to it that he was never awarded a Bar; founded the groundbreaking black newspaper Drum; returned to England to try his hand at mink farming; left again to live in a hut in Greece; responded to being told he had terminal cancer by spending a year walking round Crete; and "died with a copy of the Sporting Life on his lap, reportedly having just lost a £20 bet, a risk-taker to the last". Statistics, the tribute concludes, "are absurd for such a man", which is probably as close as Wisden has ever got to advocating its own extinction.
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