Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home © The Cricketer
In TS Eliot's poem it is Webster, seeing "the skull beneath the skin", who is "very much possessed by death". The same might be said of Wisden, publisher since 1891 of more than 10,000 obituaries, a custom begun with a notice in honour of its first distinguished editor, Charles Pardon, and now pursued with a certain relish in a section more than twice the size of 20 years ago.

This makes a grim sort of sense in a game whose most prestigious trophy sprang from a jest about cremation. The sample you might take to fill a book, however, is not so obvious. Not much point is served by a pageant of Bradman and Graces, so amply served by the rest of the almanack; but little purpose lies in a mere parade of the quaint or queer either. While Peter the Lord's Cat and Other Unexpected Obituaries from Wisden is essentially an excuse for a stroll around this lavish mausoleum, it is also a survey of its habits of memorialising.

Wisden's obituaries today enjoy a just fame for being elegant, discursive, accurate and often whimsical. The almanack's interest is pricked by cricketing achievements; but, as Peter the Lord's Cat suggests, it has always paid regard to a life well lived, with particular affection for all-round sportsmen, writers (JM Barrie, Samuel Beckett, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse, Terrence Rattigan, Rupert Brooke, John Fowles, EW Hornung, Peter Tinniswood), and generally heroes and notables (fighter ace Douglas Bader, Lord Alexander, the last soldier to leave Dunkirk in 1940, the Nuremberg trial judge Lord Birkett, sundry kings, miscellaneous prime ministers). "It may seem a little strange to include Cardinal Manning's name in a cricket obituary," admitted the compilers of the 1893 edition, "but inasmuch as he played for Harrow against Winchester ...his claim cannot be disputed." One wonders if it brought comfort to Captain Oates as he faced his fatal Antarctic blizzard that he would in due course be memorialised by Wisden on the basis of having "played cricket for his House as a lower boy at Eton".

"But it's more than a game," said Tom Brown famously, "it's an institution." Wisden's obituaries have preserved that sense of cricket as concerning more than on-field feats, a preparation for life even when it did not remain their chief preoccupation. Prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the almanack proposed, was in politics "always at his best on a sticky wicket"; the formative influence on the renowned pacifist Baron Soper was killing a boy with a bouncer in a junior game.

Douglas Bader © The Cricketer
It is sometimes complained that Wisden grants disproportionate and anachronistic attention to public schoolboy cricket. It has, nonetheless, guaranteed a steady stream of quirky death notices. Thanks to Kenneth Gandar-Dower's appearance for Harrow against Winchester in 1927, readers were enriched by tales of his exploits in six other sports, as an aviator, big game hunter and his introduction of a team of cheetahs to London greyhound tracks. Occasionally, in fact, the attention might be a little unwanted. Poor Victor Eberle, who died at "about 90" in Bristol in 1974, was of interest to Wisden for dropping Albert Collins at 20 en route to 628 not out at Clifton College in 1899. Nothing more is reported of the hapless Eberle; he might have discovered a life-saving surgical treatment or broken the world land speed record. Yet in Wisden's judgement, and therefore cricket's, he remained even unto death a butter-fingered boy.

Another strand that emerges is Wisden's strong martial tradition, probably instilled in the world wars when the almanack strove to keep faith with collectors by continuing publication. Entries with a military flavour could easily fill their own book; Peter the Cat takes a cross-section, of lives cut short, including Brig-Gen Roland Bradford, the British Army's youngest general at 25, and Admiral Horace Hood, who died a fighting sailor's death at Jutland, but also survivors, such as Major George McCubbin, who shot down the German ace Max Immelmann in June 1916, and Alfred Evans, an incorrigible prison-camp escapologist before his Test debut. Despite this, Wisden is not an especially belligerent book. It gave more space to benighted Private Percy Hardy, promising Surrey Colt who slit his own throat rather than go to war, than Lieutenant Sidney Woodroffe, winner of the Victoria Cross; it admired Brig Michael Harbottle, 156 in his only first-class innings and organiser of Generals for Peace and Disarmament; it liked, above all, a man who took war in his stride, like Col William Wilkinson, whose wounds almost cost him his right hand but did not prevent his scoring a hundred hundreds mainly with his left.

Arthur Conan Doyle © The Cricketer
Certain entries in Peter the Cat are included mainly because the individuals are personal favourites: Melbourne's Bob Crockett, 'the chief justice of cricket', the cricket connoisseur Home Gordon, the gilded brotherhoods of Ashton and Crawley, the circumspect Arthur Clark who thought he should return to driving trains after failing to score in nine innings for Gloucestershire, the salty Cec Pepper who "could talk, spit, chew, belch and pass wind simultaneously". I've a weakness, too, for improbable feats of endurance, from Harry Coxon's 54 years of scoring for Nottinghamshire and Jimmy Cannon's 65 years in service at Lord's, to Baron Walsingham's 1,070 grouse in a day and David Halfyard's camper van with 400,000 miles on the clock.

Wisden, of course, revels in a record, however obscure, whether the 250 winners trained for the Queen Mother by Major Peter Cazalet or the 624,000 weeds that Charles Millar plucked for MCC. The almanack also seems to have shown particular sneaking regard for feats of pedestrianism, from Gerald Lewis ("a fanatical walker" who patrolled Queen's Park Oval "at a ferocious pace") to Bob Crisp (who, "told he had incurable cancer", promptly "spent a year walking around Crete"), from George Lacy ("one of the very few men who could claim to have walked across Africa from East to West before the Boer War") to Frank Harris ("he walked from Bidborough to London on his 70th birthday because his father did the same thing and told him that he would not be able to do so when he was 70").

Then, of course, there is the book's eponymous hero, "a well-known cricket watcher at Lord's", whom MCC's secretary described as "a cat of great character" who "loved publicity" - the kind of cat, it seems, who would probably have appealed to TS Eliot in his guise as Old Possum. Coincidentally, both cat and cat fancier died within two months and would have made a pleasant pairing in perpetuity. Alas, the poet had not done quite enough to endear himself to the almanack to engage its interest.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer