The publication of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack every April is one of those key events in every year for cricket lovers. Out come the journalistic clichés, the yellow covers signalling the real arrival of spring; the “Bible” of cricket returns and cricket statistics geeks study the small print for the slightest error.
The 2011 edition springs surprises. Indeed such is the quickening pace of and marketing need for, change that a Wisden without changes would be the surprise. This year the regular features are re-organised, a “cricket photograph of the year” is introduced and is it just my eyes or has the small print got ever so slightly smaller?
The headlining surprise is that the editor, Scyld Berry, has only picked four cricketers of the year. Not five, but four. Of such subtleties is cricket made. In truth he did pick five to maintain the tradition but one is currently embroiled in legal proceedings over allegations of spot-fixing. An accolade suspended.
Tim de Lisle, a former editor, writes an engaging piece about cricket records “Cricket’s Love of Numbers”. Towards the end of his survey of memorable, rather than merely the most or highest, he makes a shrewd comment “as international cricket has multiplied, so first class cricket has shrivelled.”
This is perfectly captured a few pages later in an article on the retirement of Freddie Flintoff. In his career he took 350 first-class wickets with 219 in Tests, 62%. By contrast Fred Trueman, who retired in 1969, took 307 Test wickets in a career total of 2,304, 13%.
The ever changing nature of the game is making many of the hallowed records fossilised, as de Lisle points out. Records are at the heart of Wisden. The annual arrival of the tome marked for many the chance to update their knowledge of highest run scorers, wicket takers, winners etc. That was in the pre-computer days. Now websites provide instant updates. They even offer the chance to build your own enquiry; a luxury previously limited to the awe-inspiring systems of media scorers like Bill Frindall.
But Wisden’s arrival still holds that certain confirmation of cricket immortality and progress up the scales of statistical progress.
The key to many record lists is the entry level qualification. Most centuries, well starting from 50. Most wickets, starting from 1,500 etc.
The thresholds have slowly changed: it is no longer enough to score 1.500 runs for your country and have your name recorded for ever in the tables; that increased years ago to 2.000 and now stands at 4,000. The “Most runs in a career” has subtly moved from 25,000 to the “top 100”. Robin Smith scrapes in at 100 with 26,155. Until that is, I suspect, Mike de Venuto, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid slip past him within the next couple of years.
These are but quibbles. There are some records which now seem simply obsolete. The pattern of fixtures around the world means there will never be any more entries into the lists.
Will anyone now make over 100 centuries? Mark Ramprakash seems destined to the last. Tendulkar, who else, is only 23 short. Will he make it? He is scoring around 9 a year; and is Wisden’s International Cricketer of the Year. If not, the list will remain at 25 for ever.
Will any bowler ever take over 1,500 wickets? Murali Muralitharan is on the edge of retiring with 1.374. Will a wicketkeeper ever reach 1,000 dismissals? Paul Nixon stands, or should that be crouches, tantalisingly 44 short, perhaps a seasons tally. But although he has a one year contract he is no longer the regular keeper for Leicestershire and took just four catches in 2010. The once-famous Double, 1,000 runs and 100 wickets in an English season, is but a memory, as is the “First to 1,000 runs in May”.
With T20 as well as the 50-over one day version more hybrid career statistics are coming to the fore. Sachin Tendulkar is just one century away from 100 international centuries: 50 in Tests so far and 49 in ODIs.
Wisden records these changes, as it has done since 1864. Quirks remain, new features, new changes are incorporated. And we wait for the new season with one eye on the yellow almanack of April 2012 to remind us of what we have seen.