Episode 52: Wisden 2021 – cricket and class, race, plague and global warming

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.

Steven Lynch, International Editor of Wisden Cricketers Almanack, returns to the regular podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller to celebrate a landmark edition which more than ever lights up the mighty issues which shape global cricket and the lives of all its players and devotees.


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He begins by accepting their thanks for a generous review of the podcast itself in that edition on page 182 by James Gingell.

“Peter Oborne and Richard Heller’s On Cricket evokes the plum and dust of parliamentary tearooms – never more than when Lord Jeffrey Archer of Weston-super-Mare claims that Ian Botham was Victoria Cross material – only with far more open-minded hosts. Tim Wigmore persuades them Twenty20 does have nuance, Mihir Bose that cricket is the only world sport run by non-white people. It’s outwardly fusty, inwardly modern, social and political as much as sporting: in some ways it was the Almanack to the Wisden Cricket Podcast’s monthly magazine”.

A very perceptive writer, James Gingell, clearly a man to watch.

Steven emphasizes the strengths of Wisden’s editor, Lawrence Booth, combining the ability to stay in touch with the whole world of cricket as a daily newspaper journalist and to take a wider view in selecting key topics and major contributors to fill “the front of the book”.

The three cite in particular the edition’s coverage of BlackLivesMatter and issues of racism and discrimination in English cricket, which is both topical (through the contributions of Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent) and full of historic depth. Harry Pearson describes the racism experienced by the great Learie Constantine in 1930s England (including, sadly, from professional cricketers). A remarkable essay by Tom Holland begins by describing a mysterious artefact apparently showing a West Indian slave playing cricket and then follows C L R James in exploring cricket as a passage to equality.  Wisden’s multiple coverage of the issues around BlackLivesMatter and the enduring legacy of subjection and servitude has played a key role in making English and global cricket belatedly aware of them and of the need to right them.

Steven gives the background to Wisden’s greatly expanded coverage of women’s cricket worldwide, another issue where it has lately been a progressive force, as also on class.  Steven also analyses its shift away from extended coverage of the feats of English public schoolboys (which in past editions might have helped to sell it to them and their parents). This year’s public school coverage was all but wiped out by the pandemic. Future coverage is uncertain, but is likely to continue in some form if only because English public schools continue to provide most of the members of the England Test team. This point is well made in Robert Winder’s article: Steven explains that this replaced the normal public school coverage and named, retrospectively, the top schools cricketer of each year since 1900 – every one from public schools (the only ones to play enough cricket and send in their statistics to Wisden) and almost every one a major cricketer afterwards.

Arising from the issue of social class and access to cricket and the previous week’s tribute to Prince Philip as former park cricketer, Peter and Richard suggest that saving public sports facilities, and creating new ones, would be a better memorial to him than a yacht or a statue.

Steven highlights the now regular annual contribution of Tanya Aldred on cricket and the environment. This year’s focuses on the insensate and often unnecessary demand for air travel created by the international schedule.  She has raised consciousness of a range of environmental threats to cricket which have already killed thousands of cricketers and threaten the game itself with extinction. A dramatic mark of Wisden’s now-progressive outlook is a sympathetic piece by Hugh Chevallier on the Extinction Rebellion cricket team.

The three hail Wisden’s coverage of the pandemic: Peter and Richard suggest that it will be an important resource to all historians, not only cricketing ones. Duncan Hamilton’s essay is deeply felt and conveys the emptiness of English life without the familiar rituals of an English cricket season. Essays by Steven and Patrick Kidd give historic depth to this topic. Steven describes his research into the “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918-20, massively more destructive than the current one but almost ignored by Wisden in its apparent determination to celebrate the return of cricket as the return of normal life after the Great War. He outlines Patrick’s treatment of the wartime editions of Wisden, contrasting their content and tone between the two wars but suggesting that all the editions concerned were reluctant to talk about anything outside cricket – in contrast to the most recent ones.

Patrick cites Rupert Brooke’s Wisden obituary, concentrating on his achievements as a schoolboy bowler at Rugby and adding as a reluctant afterthought that he had “gained considerable reputation as a poet.” It was a template for Samuel Beckett’s later obituary as the only Nobel Prize winner to have played first-class cricket – early cricket prowess at length, literary output and Nobel prize almost with disappointment. Steven credits the former editor Matthew Engel for a changed approach to obituaries: he hopes now that famous people with cricketing connexions are commemorated for their real achievements. Returning to “his” current list of obituaries, he picks out Dean Jones, another brave, brilliant cricketer who died young, sometimes controversial but deeply loved.

In the category of unusual second lives he cites the late Mr Gayle – the Jamaican umpire who was a global authority on the cultivation of pimentos.

Next year’s Wisden is already in the making and Steven mentions the international series he expects to cover, including the current one between the newest Test-playing countries, Ireland and Afghanistan.

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

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

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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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