Triumph and tribulation

From the dramatic cover picture of the England team in a triumphant huddle to the last of its 1,744 pages, the latest Wisden is in celebratory mood. And why not? As the editor says: "None of the previous 141 Wisdens has had a story of English success to report that can match this one ... it has been for England a fantastic year." This uninhibited rejoicing makes it one of the most uplifting editions ever.

The celebrations begin with the naming of five Englishmen as Cricketers of the Year for the first time in 45 years and how pleasing it is to see Ashley Giles there. So often dismissed as a spinner without spin, Giles had, in Vic Marks's words, "a wondrous summer" taking 31 wickets with a mixture of spin and flight we hadn't seen from an English spinner since ... well, who remembers? This recognition will mean a lot to him and he deserves it.

And only the stony-hearted would object to the choice of Shane Warne as the "world's leading cricketer" in 2004. Described as having been "thoughtless for a moment and idle for a year", Warne's comeback has been stunning, but, as Wisden says, "Warne's whole career has been about the inspiration he finds in the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd, and above all in the scale of the challenge".

But back to the celebrations: these continue with a lively review of past English disasters by Mike Selvey, now a formidable cricket writer and never better than when recalling the events of 1981. Australia had won the first Test and he writes: "The second is sliding out of reach when the champion is bowled, for his second nought in the game, and stomps off through the silent seething hostility of the Long Room, his captaincy in its death throes. That was indeed a dark hour, but it precipitated one of the most uplifting renaissances in cricket history. If Ian Botham's leadership was lying in the gutter that evening, then as with Oscar Wilde, his career was looking at the stars."

To Scyld Berry falls the enjoyable task of describing England's year. He rightly identifies Steve Harmison's 7 for 12 in the first Test in West Indies as the key moment. It was on that day, he writes, that "England were transformed from being a competent, middle-table team into one of serious potential ... thereafter Test cricket was a different game for Michael Vaughan and England". He celebrates, too, Andrew Flintoff's growth from "hitter to batsman", the remarkable debut of Andrew Strauss, and Graham Thorpe's continuing ability to raise his game when most needed.

But the book doesn't only celebrate England's year. As ever a merger of cricket literature and cricket accountancy, it remains an ongoing celebration of cricket and cricketers at their best and worse. Side by side in this edition are a moving tribute to the incomparable Keith Miller - "the man who made cricket glow" - by Richie Benaud, and a sceptical article on the "afterlife" of Hansie Cronje - "the making of a martyr" - by Rob Steen. Miller elevated cricket to the heights, Cronje took it to the depths; the game can learn from both and Wisden helps it do so.

The obituaries are beautifully written, but sad; I wasn't aware how many personalities of the past we lost over the last 12 months, including not only Miller, but the larger-than-life Bill Alley, those county workhorses Charlie Elliott, Jack Flavell, and Mike Smith, the heroic Willie Watson of the 1953 Lord's Test, and the West Indian magician Alf Valentine. And, of course, David Hookes, tragically killed when only 48. "At Hookes' funeral, his bat was placed against the stumps, with his cap and gloves alongside; it was a trademark gesture of his when he was batting at an interval; a sign that he would be back. In these circumstances it was almost unbearably poignant."

This edition completes the emergence of Matthew Engel as a great Wisden editor. His influence is clear, from cover to cover. His introductory editor's notes have all the brilliance and power of a century before lunch. The ICC - comprising "the worst administrators in the world" - is hit to every part of the ground, its Champions Trophy "one of the great sporting fiascos of our time", its collaboration with the Robert Mugabe regime "a cause for shame", its choice of leaders a factor in far too many ludicrous decisions. The ECB is also cut, pulled and hooked without mercy, readers are ruthlessly reminded that England's achievements were strictly on the field. By stumps, the administrators, domestic and international, have been hammered without mercy; only the players are left standing.

Writes Engel laconically: "The editor's notes for Wisden 1905 began `no serious matters of a controversial kind disturbed the cricket world during the past year'. I thought about starting these notes the same way. But then again, I thought not."

Some surprising but immensely satisfying articles reflect Engel's reach. Don't miss a superb chapter by Robert Winder on the transfer of power within international cricket to Asia nor David Frith's history of chucking. There is even an extraordinary piece on cricket and the weather.

Engel has, too, been quietly developing the back pages of the Almanack. Perhaps there's a little bit too much trivia (I imagine an editor tires beyond the 1,700th page) but there's also a lot of fun. You'll find some surprising things there, not least the story of Carlisle CC who, having observed a minute's silence in memory of former player Leonard Brunton, called his home to ask where the flowers should be sent. Mr Brunton answered the phone. Apparently his innings had not yet ended.

This is a vintage Wisden - beautifully illustrated, appropriately opinionated up front, fascinatingly informative in the middle, lively and irreverent at the back. Matthew Engel shares a challenge facing the England team - how to match this year's triumph in the eagerly-awaited days to come.

Rating: 5/5