Episode 86: Wisden 2022, the global publishing event of the year, and its editor Lawrence Booth

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 the global publishing event of the year. It makes butterflies stop flapping their wings in the Amazon. On their latest cricket-themed podcast Peter Oborne and Richard Heller celebrate it with Lawrence Booth, its distinguished editor since 2011.

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He reacts to the news of Joe Root’s resignation as England captain: inevitable and the right decision after he had had time to digest a long sequence of defeats which had exposed his lack of tactical acumen. He names Ben Stokes as the only possible successor, reluctantly given the extra stress it would add to his existing responsibilities as the side’s all-rounder. But if his workload could be managed, captaincy might lift his on-field performances, as it had done for Imran Khan and others in the past. Ben Stokes has a fine cricket brain and an aggressive mindset and should get his own way on selections and tactics. He would command respect from his teams. Root’s departure made especially timely Tim de Lisle’s thoughtful Wisden piece on the problems of establishing metrics for captaincy.

In spite of the enduring influence of the pandemic on cricket schedules, the 2022 edition is considerably thicker than last year’s, with many more matches and competitions to cover. A record number of pages are given to women’s cricket, but ten times more are given to men’s. Lawrence explains that Wisden is trying to repair its long neglect of women’s cricket, but it has to balance this against the need to report accurately the cricket played worldwide during the year. The new edition contained 44 men’s Test matches against two women’s. The coverage was constantly reviewed, and he agreed that disability cricket might get more next year – and possibly a new award of its own. He describes the year-long process of planning its content, especially the feature articles, and the constant pressure to cut back some areas to allow breathing space for others. Sometimes Wisden falls victim to late-breaking news, as in its optimistic account of Ukraine cricket, written before the Russian invasion.

With English cricket in deep crisis, Lawrence reviews his fierce criticisms in his Editor’s Notes of the England and Wales Cricket Board, especially of the bonus for its chief executive, Tom Harrison, which had left a terrible public impression. He did not enjoy writing negative notes, but it was his responsibility to Wisden as “the conscience of cricket”. He did not favour political intervention in cricket administration but he noted that the House of Commons Culture Select Committee had made the ECB more accountable over the crisis of racism in English cricket.

Wisden’s treatment of the crisis leads its features section, with a first-hand piece by its main victim, Azeem Rafiq. Lawrence explains its prime motive, to get English cricket to admit the existence and scale of racism in its midst. Apart from the strong features by Rafiq and David Hopps, that message emerged starkly from the bare narrative of Wisden’s timeline of the crisis. Rafiq had been a spur for other victims to give their testimony: English cricket must respond immediately rather than pick over the failings which he himself admits.

Lawrence explains the selection of the Five Cricketers of the Year. Only one was English, Ollie Robinson, and his entry also had to reflect the racial crisis. Three others were obvious: Jaspit Bumrah and Rohit Sharma for India, Devon Conway for New Zealand. The possible surprise, Dane van Niekerk, acknowledged her performances in the Women’s Hundred and the latter’s strong if unplanned contribution to the advance of women’s cricket.

Wisden pays special tribute to three great cricket journalists who died in 2021, David Foot, Martin Johnson and, especially, a past editor, John Woodcock. Lawrence notes that they flourished in a very different era of cricket writing, summed up in Woodcock’s description of The Times’ demand on him on the boat to Australia: “200 words by Ceylon.” Wisden had a special role in giving cricket writers the space and time to write reports and features without the constant modern demands for copy – and for an independent publication not committed to any broadcasting deal or any vested interests in cricket. He relishes his complete editorial freedom.

Lawrence and Peter and Richard pick over some notable parts of Wisden this year:

  • Andrew Miller’s piece on the rebel tours of South Africa, contrasting the treatment of English and West Indies participants, was prompted by the 40th anniversary of the first one. It drew on survivors’ memories.
  • Charles Barr’s piece on Philip Larkin’s had been unsolicited: it coincided with his centenary and revealed the surprising depth of his absorption in cricket.
  • Tuba Sangar gave vital first-hand testimony of the impact of the Taliban on women’s cricket and women’s lives in Afghanistan.
  • Raf Nicholson’s piece on women’s cricket in the Second World War reflected Wisden’s aim of revaluing its lost history.
  • Tanya Aldred’s now regular piece on cricket and the environment focused this year on the campaigning efforts of cricketers themselves, notably Pat Cummins. Lawrence notes how little action they had prompted from cricketing authorities, let alone governments.
  • Among many strong candidates, Vic Marks had made a fine selection of Book of the Year, by a past podcast guest David Woodhouse. His book on England’s dramatic 1953-54 tour of the West Indies, Who Only Cricket Know, reflected Wisden’s ambitions to put accurate cricket reporting within the wider contexts of the game.

The podcast concludes with a poetic tribute to Wisden as it might have been written by Wordsworth (an early Glamorgan supporter).

You can purchase Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2022 here: wisden.com/shop/wisden-cricketers-almanack-2022-hardback

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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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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