Football may have long overtaken cricket as England’s national sport but cricket lovers remain convinced their game still speaks for the nation in the way 11 men chasing a ball around a pitch cannot. As the cricket writer Neville Cardus claimed, if everything was lost apart from cricket, “it would be possible to reconstruct from the theory and practice of cricket all the eternal Englishness”.
The coronavirus pandemic may have put a stop to the 2020 season, yet cricket lovers will feel this eternal Englishness endures when they pick up this year’s Wisden. The 157th edition of the game’s bible is as bulky as ever: 1,536 pages squeezed between the familiar yellow covers and packed with statistics, scorecards, match reports and titbits that will reassure fans that there are some things that even Covid-19 cannot destroy.
There is enough material here to fuel many a lockdown quiz. Who has the better cricket team, the Vatican or the Archbishop of Canterbury? Answer: the Anglicans lost last year to Rome but lead the series 3-2. Wisden also notes that the Anglicans fielded two women — “an option not available to the Catholics”.
Wisden’s first editor was convinced cricket would not be enough to sell the annual and so included articles on the lengths of canals, the rules of quoits and the Wars of the Roses. Lawrence Booth, the present editor, also ranges beyond the boundary to find a cricket angle in theatre, technology, environment, films and even Julian Assange. Ecuadorean cricket fans wrote to Assange while the WikiLeaks founder was holed up in their country’s embassy in London, offering him honorary membership of the Quito Cricket Club. They had been encouraged by Assange’s claims that his great uncles were fine cricketers. Alas, before anything could happen Assange was relocated to a stickier wicket, Belmarsh Prison. In one article, the broadcaster Mark Lawson claims that his mental health problems were cured by cricket matches. Even when rain meant no play, he found “cricket grounds are as effective as antidepressants, and equal to cathedrals, as places for recuperative meditation”.
In contrast a football ground “felt too noisy, crowded and relentlessly tense. Nor did the traditional match-day smell of urine and fried onions serve as aromatherapy.”
Last season’s cricket was wonderful therapy which Wisden rightly celebrates. England winning a Test against Australia by one wicket, turning certain defeat into improbable victory, was one of those moments that make sport so special. England also won the men’s World Cup for the first time after a dramatic final against New Zealand.
Wisden sees this as an advertisement for multicultural Britain. The team was led by a Dubliner, Eoin Morgan. The architect of the victory was Ben Stokes, born in New Zealand, where his feats caused his father much grief. Another player was Adil Rashid, a Bradford-born Muslim who at a crucial stage in the game assured Morgan: “Don’t worry Allah is with us”. Booth warns of the unconscious bias when a player of ethnic origin does well, “the English game applauds. When he doesn’t, it whispers about Anglo-Saxon work ethics”.
His great worry is the Hundred, a new short form of the game due to be launched this summer. Meant to make money and attract new spectators the competition has new teams with fancy names, like Welsh Fire, in place of the traditional counties. Booth fears “our summer sport risks being tranquillised by the trivial.” Coronavirus now means that it is not going to be played this season: an unexpected positive aspect of the crisis — for some cricket lovers at least.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2020, edited by Lawrence Booth, Wisden, RRP£55, 1,536 pages
Mihir Bose is author of ‘The Nine Waves: The Extraordinary Story of Indian Cricket’
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