Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.
Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2023 is the longest edition on record. It not only records the present state of global cricket but also reflects on the mighty global forces – political, social, commercial, environmental – which shape it. Its editor, Lawrence Booth, analyses its content as the guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their latest cricket-themed podcast.
Lawrence begins by hailing the turnaround in England’s Test team under Ben Stokes as captain and Brendon McCullum as coach. Although the England team dislike the term Bazball he thinks it a healthy sign that the general public have adopted it for the enthralling blend of cricket they are playing. The only pity is that they are not seeing it on free-to-air television (a topic regularly ventilated in previous Wisdens) but he still hopes that this summer’s Ashes series might raise the profile of cricket as did that of 2005. 1-4 minutes He comments especially on Ben Stokes’ confidence in asking for fast flat wickets in the Ashes series in contrast to the conditions in which England have gained all their home series successes since 2001. 5 minutes
Above all, Stokes and McCullum have removed the fear of failure from a previously careworn team. He suggests that Stokes’s character has deepened from the crises in his life: his empathy was illustrated by the consoling text he sent to the teenaged spinner he had hit for 34 in an over. He views Brendon McCullum as the most significant cricketer of the last twenty years, given his innings which ignited the Indian Premier League on its first day and his contribution to the re-invention of Test cricket. 6-10 minutes
A major theme in this year’s Wisden is the multiple threat to Test cricket from T20 Leagues which have induced leading players in the world to reduce their commitments to international series or even abandon them. Lawrence believes that it is too late to reverse this process but he hopes that national boards might grow sufficient spine to halt the release of players to new T20 Leagues, particularly that proposed in Saudi Arabia, which would transform the international scene if it secures the best Indian players. 11-18, 24-25 minutes,
Lawrence comments pungently on the role of the International Cricket Council on three major topics covered in the Almanack: Afghan cricket since the Taliban takeover, cricket in Ukraine and the sponsorship deal with Aramco. The ICC has developed a habit of ducking fundamental decisions about the governance of the game and most of the full members are in permanent thrall to the financial and political power of India. 19-25 minutes
Wisden now regularly features commentary by Tanya Aldred on cricket and the environment. This year’s had highlighted several examples of cricket used as a setting for environmental activism. These efforts are strongest in England, but they had made no headway in India either with the uber-capitalist Modi government, which was running Indian cricket, or with fans who were more concerned with the availability of tickets and the methods used to control crowds. The environmental threat to cricket was a very low concern although it is becoming ever more imminent. Lawrence repeats a dramatic warning from Professor Peter Frankopan (the cricketing author of The Earth Transformed) that all Test cricket may soon have to played as day-night matches. He notes that recently every single part of India recorded daytime temperatures of 40 degrees. 25-30 minutes
Wisden has more pages than ever before on women’s cricket, reflecting both its high-profile and high-income successes, including the onset of the Women’s Premier League in India, and good-news stories from places as far apart as Brazil, Thailand and Rwanda. Lawrence explains how Wisden will continue to track its growth and how next year’s edition will make it easier to follow in individual countries. Through Raf Nicholson’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Women’s World Cup (two years ahead of the first men’s) he hopes that Wisden has made amends for its scant coverage at the time. He notes that Lord’s has yet to fulfil the promise it made them of staging a women’s Test match. 31-37 minutes
One innovation in the Almanack is the re-purposed Wisden Trophy, for the outstanding Test performance of the last 12 months. Lawrence describes the rescue of the old trophy (replaced by the Richards-Botham Trophy for England/West Indies Test series) and the decision to award it to Johnny Bairstow for his performance against India. His closest competitor was Ravi Jadeja. Wisden had also nominated retrospective winners from the dawn of Test cricket onwards: those before the Second World War are in this year’s edition. He acknowledges that Johnny Briggs won his award for a performance in a match of dubious quality against South Africa, which had given the legendary J E P McMaster a Test and first-class career whose non-achievement can never be surpassed. He declines the idea of a McMaster trophy for his successors. 37-41 minutes
He describes the criteria for the selection of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year and the factors behind those chosen this year, dwelling especially on the young Durham and England pace bowler Matthew Potts. 42-45 minutes
Lawrence expands on his Editor’s note hailing the success of Ebony Rainford-Brent and the Afro-Caribbean Engagement programme. It had restored engagement with cricket not only to young Afro-Caribbean people, and dispelled the lazy and convenient narrative that they had all given up cricket for football, but also to young white working-class people. He contrasts her striking and rapid success with the ECB’s persistent difficulty in dealing with accusations of past racism. The long delay in publication of the report of its independent Commission on Equity has not been explained and he can offer no prediction of when it will appear. 46-51 minutes
Among the features in Wisden this year, Lawrence notes the faint but fascinating hint by Emma John that Jane Austen might have invented round-arm bowling. 54 minutes
He concludes with the comment of Benny Green, a regular compiler of Wisden anthologies, that the Almanack is an annual work of social history. Particularly in the age of the internet, when it is so easy to generate and obtain statistics, he believes that it could not survive only as a bare record of runs, wickets and catches, essential though that remains. He sees the task of its editor as balancing the need to hold cricket authorities to account for the state of the game with meeting the demand of readers to celebrate the joys of the season past and anticipate those of the one to come. 52-54 minutes
You can purchase Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2023 here: wisden.com/shop/wisden-cricketers-almanack-2023
The podcast is now taking a break until the autumn to allow Peter and Richard to complete a history of global cricket from its earliest beginnings. They thank all their listeners, particularly those who have contributed feedback and suggestions, and all of their guests, who have brought such understanding of cricket present and past.
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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller
Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.
Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.
Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership
Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.
Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.
The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.
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