All Wisden Almanacks are collector’s items. But some editions, such as the 2021 publication, are more so than others.
Dubbed the “Coronavirus Edition”, number 158 is sleeker in the shelves than 157 – some 288 pages shy of 2020’s 1,563, which had been about par for the previous decade. The reasons for that are regrettably familiar. Cricket, like other walks of life, has felt the toll of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is by no means the shortest. Those produced during the Second World War came in at around 400 pages, with the First World War editions closer to 300. In fact, when editor Lawrence Booth and his team met this time last year, to assess what this year’s book might look like, they estimated they could still produce one of 800 pages if no cricket was played that summer.
Thankfully, that was not the case. English cricket eventually got the wheels turning on 8 July with the start of the men’s Test series between England and West Indies and, slowly, the rest of the game followed suit.
The County Championship was refashioned to a shorter Bob Willis Trophy, accompanying the T20 Blast, while the Royal London One-Day Cup was sacrificed. England’s Women made do with a solitary white ball tour by West Indies supplemented by a new domestic 50-over competition in the form of the Rachel Heyhoe Flint trophy. By the end of Wisden 2021’s cycle, the rest of the cricketing world had found some semblance of new normality.
Yet even with the pandemic, issues beyond the boundary came to the fore. Beyond how Covid-19 was affecting the game and its participants from the top down across the globe were the emergence of highly charge social topics, notably the Black Lives Matter movement. And just like the rest of the world, cricket had to look at its part in racial injustices. To Wisden’s credit, the introspection and uncomfortable conversations in England, particularly around its treatment of black cricketers, is given room to reflect and expand.
“It is the editor’s choice for how much it does permeate,” Booth tells The Independent when asked of the Almanack’s duty to address issues beyond bat and ball. “Benny Green, who used to write anthologies of the Almanack, always said Wisden is a social history of England. I think, at its best, it is elements of social history.
“Even the cover this year of Stuart Broad wearing a mask is a bit of social history. I know some people said they don’t like it, but the fact is we can’t afford to be isolated from real life. Especially when something like Black Lives Matter was such a prominent theme of last summer’s Test schedule with West Indies being the first to arrive and Jason Holder being such an impressive figure.
“My own personal view is sport is always more interesting when you see it in its social context and, in 20 years, I would want someone to pick this year’s Wisden wondering what was said about coronavirus or Black Lives Matter. Were they on top of those issues? You’d be washing your hands of those responsibilities if you said ‘sports and politics don’t mix’ - that’s the laziest trope in sports. They do, and it’s more interesting when they do.”
There are pieces from Ebony Rainford-Brent and Michael Holding, who both spoke of their experiences of racism within cricket and wider society. Historian Tom Holland also charts the game’s history in slavery.
This is all teed up by Booth’s Editor’s Notes, which summaries and then challenges how the summer, in particular, was approached. The profound impact of England teams taking a knee in solidarity for their first series of the summer was gradually phased out. “What seemed like an obvious thing to do by taking a knee at the start of the West Indies series suddenly became a bit of a political hot potato,” Booth says. “England and Australia [the last leg of the summer] were talking in terms of “education” rather than “protest” as if the two couldn’t coexist.”
“I was determined to stick to my instincts on that. Not that I’m someone who has suffered racist abuse. I am a classic mainstream kind of journalist: I’m white, approaching middle-age and public school educated. I’ve got not much to complain about in that sense.
“But I think you’d be incredibly cloth-eared to not listen to people who have suffered. And I think Wisden had to reflect that. I’m expecting a bit of stick for my position on BLM, but sometimes these positions you take are useful for drawing these subjects to the surface and getting a debate going.”
There was enough play on the field for five Cricketers of the Year to emerge: Holder, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley and Mohammad Rizwan were lauded for their international exploits in the English summer. But the standout name was a County Cricketer stalwart in Darren Stevens.
At 44, the Kent allrounder is in his 24th season of professional cricket and scored his 35th first-class century last week against Northamptonshire. His recognition in Wisden was for 29 wickets at 15 in the Bob Willis Trophy, all procured through some archetypically English nip off the seam.
To some, this may look like a lifetime achievement award, though Booth is keen to assert that it is about what the old man of county cricket is still achieving now. Indeed, the guidelines for the five are clear and strict with consideration only for performances previous in the English summer. But he cedes this has been a long-time coming for Stevens. He becomes the fourth oldest Cricketer of the Year, and the oldest since 45-year-old Ewart Astill received the accolade in 1933.
“This is the 10th Wisden I’ve edited and in my decade I reckon I’ve had more correspondence about Stevens from readers than any other player in the world. Usually, their addresses are from Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells, so you can guess where they are coming from.
“I looked at someone like Craig Overton who took 30 wickets at 13 for Somerset. He’s taken one more wicket at a better average, but he’s in his twenties. You sort of expect that for a young guy knocking on the England door. You don’t expect it of a 44-year old.
“At his age, he’s knocking over teams – there was no Division Two so there were no perceived ‘easy’ wickets – and he seems to be getting better and better. I’ll probably look back in a few years time and think, damn, I should have chosen him at 49 because that was his best season. Maybe I went too early!”
As ever, thoughts have already turned to the next. The hope is that 2021’s sombreness will give way to a celebratory tone in 2022. The summer looks set to be richer with men’s Test series against New Zealand and India and a one-off women’s Test against India along with limited-overs fixtures against India and New Zealand. Beyond that lies a T20 World Cup and Ashes series. Hopefully, whisper it, all with supporters in attendance.
There is also the small matter of The Hundred. Its delay last year was a necessity and has only increased the importance and scrutiny around the England and Wales Cricket Board’s new competition. Wisden’s review on how it plays out, along with its wider ramifications, will be all the more prescient.
“Two Wisdens ago I tried to take the Hundred apart in my notes. That will be a crossroads of the game. How celebratory the next edition will be might depend on the success or otherwise of The Hundred.”
Nevertheless, the hope is for a return to 1,500-pages or so next year. In many ways, the thickness of the Wisden Almanack has historically been a means to gauge the broader sense of normality or abnormality beyond cricket itself.