Grant Tinker is the unsung hero of television. Long before The Sopranos and The Wire symbolised the golden age of the small screen, he gave hope to those who believed TV could be an art form. Tinker was inaptly named: unlike almost every other executive, he trusted in writers and the creative process.
In Difficult Men, his definitive book about the TV boom, Brett Martin describes a scene in Tinker's office. Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC Entertainment, had called to complain about the ratings of a show. "But is it good, Brandon?" said Tinker repeatedly. "Is it good?"
Cheers was good. Tinker stuck with it when the first series bombed, and eventually it became the first show ever to finish last and then first in the TV ratings. Tinker showed with programmes like Hill Street Blues that commercial and critical success were not mutually exclusive.
In 2018, Tinker's mantra is more important than ever - and not just in TV. Everything can be measured and judged, from number of retweets to what percentage of the audience can eat three Shredded Wheat. The impact on quality is inevitable. Mercifully the Wisden Almanack remains a beacon of isitgoodism. Editorial integrity is the first and last consideration, an approach hasn't done any harm to the ratings either.
As such, Wisden does not provide a conventional book-reviewing experience. You know it will be good - the quality control is too great for anything else - and you know you won't be able to read the whole thing (1488 pages this year) if you are going to have any chance of meeting the deadline. It's Wisden, it's great, thanks for reading.
Yet the best Wisdens also act a time capsule, and the front section of the 155th edition reflects an uncertainty that dominates both cricket and life. Many of the features try to make sense of a world that is changing at digital speed. Not that all change is bad. In a way, this is the year Wisden checks its privilege. We might joke that for Wisden to check all its privilege would require a lot more than 1488 pages. But the traditional perception of the Almanack - fusty, elitist, a whisky-for-brunch kind of book - is emphatically contradicted by the progressive editorship of the last few decades, most recently that of Lawrence Booth.
The opening paragraph of Booth's preface is a lament about the maleness of cricket journalism, and knowledge of the lack of diversity in cricket runs throughout. But any privilege-checking is done with reflective sensitivity; there is no ostentatious piety or clumsy Wisdensplaining. And the headline decision to have Anya Shrubsole on the cover feels less like a statement and more a logical conclusion from the events of 2017.
Three of the Five Cricketers of the Year are female, with Shrubsole, Nat Sciver and Heather Knight joined by Jamie Porter and Shai Hope. The description of Shrubsole's World Cup-winning wicket is particularly evocative: "Next ball she charged up, her fluid policeman-plod action at full surge, and yorked Rajeshwari Gayakwad. Lord's erupted. Shrubsole ran down the pitch and roared, arms outstretched, body arched, hazel ponytail hanging down, a symbol of female power echoing out to those watching girls: this game, this game is for you too."
That profile was written by Tanya Aldred, whose history of sexism is the outstanding feature. At times it is profoundly dispiriting. The title ("Too ugly to be raped") gives you a clue, and there are stories of sexual assault, harassment, humiliation, exclusion and much else besides. Just when you feel like you can't take much more, a largely dispassionate history takes a sharp turn into a rousing call to arms that ends the piece on a triumphant note. "Cricket has continually evolved, shaken off the past and tried innovation on for size. Sexism has no place here any more - by kicking it out, there is everything to be gained."
Geoff Lemon's impassioned essay on the often disgusting treatment of Indigenous cricketers - and "the great whiteness" of the Australian game - is equally unsettling, while Booth wonders whether Britain's South Asian cricketers will ever feel welcome.
There are other reflections of a changing world: a rare use of the c-word, in Lemon's piece, and a removal of the "c" from the abbreviation SLC. Slow left-arm chinaman is now slow left-arm wristspinner, or SLW. The T20 coverage has been beefed up, with a new section devoted to overseas domestic competitions - and a significant new award for the Leading Twenty20 Cricketer in the World
. The first winner is Afghanistan's remarkable legspinner Rashid Khan.
There are witty, elegiac pieces on 50 years of the PCA and on overseas players, respectively by Matthew Engel and Harry Pearson, and the story of how Afghanistan and Ireland became Test-playing nations is told with breezy authority by Tim Wigmore; it is one of a number of essays that embrace the future. There is also a classy piece on cricket's data revolution by Jarrod Kimber, while Virat Kohli is named the Leading Men's Cricketer in the World for the second year in a row. The praise for Kohli
- "an icon of a country getting younger… with all the self-confidence and in-your-face attitude that brings" - could apply equally to Mithali Raj, the Leading Women's Cricketer in the World
While women's cricket came of age in 2017, the men's game was the subject of endless health checks. Booth's Notes express fear for Test cricket and the Ashes, calling last winter's series a "stinker", and there is a weary sadness in his reflection on Ben Stokes' costly night out in Bristol. The CEO of the ECB, Tom Harrison, and ESPNcricinfo's George Dobell argue both sides of the new T20 competition; Dobell's superb piece literally contains more questions than answers.
The most honest piece comes from Zafar Ansari, who writes with admirable self-awareness about his decision to retire aged 25, and how he struggled with the "need to be permanently competitive". The most vivid is Gideon Haigh's study of cricket mannerisms, which bursts with seemingly effortless brilliance. ("David Gower took his leave by nonchalantly tucking the bat beneath his right arm, as though that was enough elegance for the day… Shane Watson's nervous adjustment of his back pad before every delivery is a little memento mori of LBW".)
Almost all of the writing is both modern and authoritative, not an easy combination. Andy Zaltzman's article on the numbers behind Jimmy Anderson's 500 Test wickets should be a template for engaging writing about statistics; he also busts the myth that Anderson has always been a home-track bully.
There are times when the 2018 Almanack feels like a particularly eloquent form of doom-mongering, though that is more the fault of the world than Wisden. "The world has turned," writes Aldred in her piece about sexism, "but there are many revolutions to go."
Even at the age of 155, Wisden intends to keep on turning. It still sets the standard, whether it's bought as a gift, a decoration, an encyclopaedia or a huge magazine. The Wisden Almanack is all things to all men. And to all women.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack 2018
Edited by Lawrence Booth
1488 pages, GBP55
Rob Smyth is the author of Gentlemen and Sledgers: A History of the Ashes in 100 Quotations