Episode 51: Rich lives in a few words: the obituaries in Wisden 2021

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.

The arrival of Wisden Cricketers Almanack is always one of the great publishing events in the calendar. The latest edition had rather less cricket to record than usual, but was nonetheless packed with important content. Indeed, it is a major source book for future political, social, economic and cultural historians. In their latest cricket-themed podcast Peter Oborne and Richard Heller celebrate it with its International Editor Steven Lynch.

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They hail the brilliant success of last week’s guest Annie Chave and listeners in picking four of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year, the supreme accolade in the world game: Zak Crawley, Jason Holder, Mohammad Rizwan and Darren Stevens, an especially popular selection and the oldest since 1933. Their one miss was Dominic Sibley. 4-6 minutes

Steven describes the challenge that confronted the Wisden team at the start of the pandemic – the prospect of no cricket.  In the event, there was far more than expected, but this year’s edition constantly places it in a much wider context, including the multiple impacts of the global pandemic, the BlackLivesMatter movement, the now regular coverage (by Tanya Aldred) of cricket and the environment, and (in the essays by Robert Winder and Derek Pringle on schoolboy cricketers and university cricket) the English education and class system. 3-4 minutes Wisden gives the text of Michael Holding’s electrifying comments on BlackLivesMatter: it would be a wonderful thing (suggests the podcast) if he could join Ian Botham in the House of Lords. 45 minutes

Steven describes how Wisden sets out not only to record cricket but add to the understanding of issues around cricket and also to the stock of fine literature.

Emphasizing that it is a team effort, Steven has for many years edited one of the favourite sections of Wisden – the beautifully-written obituaries, which often pack the potential of an entire novel or biopic movie into a few lines. This year’s collection maintains this standard. At 58,000 words it is almost the normal length of a novel – although it still takes up only 84 pages of 1248 in the current edition.  Steven explains the criteria for selection (something which many would pay for!) and the sources and contributors of lives which deserve recording. 7 minutes They include not only people with careers as players or administrators but also essential support staff and notable fans (such as Nobby Stiles, Nicholas Parsons, Tim Brooke-Taylor) and high achievers (Julian Bream) outside cricket with a connexion to the game. 40-41 minutes There is a perennial dearth of women in the obituaries (this year 10 among 226) which he suggests is a legacy of the long neglect of women’s involvement in the game. He has repeated last year’s attempt to redress the balance with a generous retrospective obituary of the great cricketer Marjorie  Pollard. 11-12 minutes

Steven outlines some of the remarkable lives covered in this year’s section:

  • John Edrich, one of England’s greatest and most courageous postwar batsmen, who overcame early critical sniping over his style and holds a surprising Test match batting record 26-31 minutes
  • Brian Bolus, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and England and the memorable advice he received to limit his season’s scoring “otherwise they’ll expect it every year” 6-7 minutes
  • Two people who lived to 105: John Manners, the naval war hero who was the last survivor of those who played county cricket before the war, and Ken Medlock, a past saviour of Wisden itself 8-11 minutes
  • Alan Rayment, the Hampshire professional who taught ballroom dancing after a day in the field 11 minutes
  • Mohammad Bashir – 50 years a groundsman at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium 16 minutes
  • Bapu Nadkarni – who bowled a record 21 consecutive six-ball maiden overs in a Test match and forty years on was still furious that the sequence was ended by a single off a misfield 16-19 minutes
  • Graham Cowdrey, a deeply loved cricketer whose extrovert personality often cloaked trouble and turmoil 21-24 minutes
  • The fascinating multiple lives of Glamorgan and England all-rounder Peter Walker – who, as a journalist, was too moved to report the Aberfan disaster and joined the rescue attempt instead 24-26 minutes
  • John Bruce, who wrote a 1574-page history of his cricket club and whose list of arcane specialist knowledge had to be edited down from a list of around 20. 33-35 minutes

Each year Wisden sadly records people who took their lives over failures at cricket or the end of cricket careers. Perhaps the saddest this year is Sushant Singh Rajput – not a cricketer but an actor who played M S Dhoni in a biographical movie. Steven describes his intense preparations for the role, an exemplar of Method acting. A happier story in reverse is the young cricketer who for lack of 600 rupees was unable to turn up to a vital trial match. Instead, he became the actor Irrfan Khan. 35-38 minutes

Some of the obituaries echo the big themes in this year’s Wisden. The environmental threats to the game are highlighted by the deaths of two Indian women cricketers in a landslide. The theme of racism enters the long tribute to the great Everton Weekes, and the obituaries of two non-white South African cricketers, Noel Brache and “Baboo” Ebrahim, whose careers were victims of apartheid. 44-49 minutes

The obituaries record 15 deaths attributed to Covid, none more poignant than Mr and Mrs Merchant, who died side by side on the same day in hospital. 42-43 minutes

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Previous Episode – Episode 50: The park cricketer who married the Queen

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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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