John Wisden was a key member of the England cricket team who in 1859 sailed across the Atlantic to undertake the world’s first overseas cricket tour. At his peak he was known as ‘The Little Wonder’. But there was much more to him than just potent batting and a highly effective bowling action. After his retirement, in 1864 – the same year ‘overhand’ bowling was authorised by the MCC – Wisden went on to publish the now-historic first edition of the book that would make his name immortal. He printed ‘full and accurate scores’ along with indispensable facts about the Derby, the St Ledger, the university rowing matches ‘and other Interesting Information’ – potted histories of the Wars of the Roses, and key dates from the history of China. The Almanack was part cricket database, part Dangerous Book for Boys. The 1864 edition is now a rare artwork valued at around £10,000, and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has been published continuously ever since, a seemingly endless bestseller. Not for nothing is it known as the cricketer’s “bible”. Wisden has never missed a year – despite some close shaves. In 1937 it was 48 hours from liquidation, and the chairman was obliged to sack his own son-in-law; in World War II a German dive bomber set fire to the headquarters in Mortlake and destroyed the company records; and in 1960 it was minutes from oblivion when, after 16 years of arm’s-length ownership, the Co-operative Wholesale Society nearly streamlined it into liquidation (it was rescued by the only member of the board to have heard of it). For a while, under Robert Maxwell’s unenthusiastic ownership, the book sagged, but when Paul Getty bought it the Almanack discovered a new lease of life. Somehow, the yellow (since 1938) book has retained its antique, rugged character. It is a labour-of-love collection of records for cricket geeks, but also a hearty eccentric. It loves to count the number of wides in a season, but also delights in relating the antics of the fruit-picker who chucked water bombs at New Zealand batsmen, or stray odds and ends from far pavilions. Through the telling of Wisden’s story, we also glimpse the entire social pageant of English, and world, cricket. The book is a window onto the game’s most charismatic characters, its high points, its flops and political storms. The Little Wonder traces the central role the game has played in the national life for so long. The book’s 150th anniversary in 2013 is a unique opportunity to follow, through Wisden, cricket’s amazing journey through Britain’s imperial domain – first as a symbol of imperial rule (a pastime for officers) and then as a dynamic liberating force. We will see the game’s impact on schools and the culture at large, its class twists and relationship with English identity, but also the well of communal good humour it has inspired. New every year, it feels as though it has been with us for ever.
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