Wisden Cricketer's Almanack is any easy target. It's instantly recognisable, has a high profile, and it stands out, heads and shoulders above the crowd.
In some quarters though, it's perceived as old, slow-moving and fusty. It is the size of a big yellow brick — and each year when it is published, gets its share of brickbats. For some, it is a slab of dull ochre masonry; for others, a bar of pure gold bullion.
For many, it's worth its weight in that precious metal; if not literally, then perhaps literarily. The book's influence is wide-reaching and profound. It is known worldwide, is loved, derided and ignored.
English cricket’s "Bible" has its share of believers, non-believers, and agnostics. The Almanack has history, tradition, status and repute on its side. That's enough for anyone with even the vaguest heretical sentiment to want to rebel against it.
It is in the nature of things that the pillars of the establishment are regularly brought into question; that the great institutions are asked to justify themselves. With high regard comes high responsibility: Eminence insists upon accuracy, objectivity, and considered judgement.
Wisden has been regarded as THE authoritative voice of the game ever since it established itself as the pre-eminent annual in the 1890s. Under the stewardship of its greatest editor, Sydney Pardon, it had surpassed its competitors (annuals by cousins James and John Lillywhite — one green, the other red) in both sales and reputation. If it had lost that battle in its first 25 years of existence, we would now probably be debating the contemporary relevance of Lillywhite’s; and the England versus West Indies Test series would be competed for the Lillywhite Trophy.
'The voice of the game' — that reputation is one of Wisden’s greatest strengths; and a profound weakness. It is the chronicle of the English game – not the world’s. And yet its authority makes some believe it should be speaking for all when in fact it is only speaking for some.
Wisden is as anachronistic as Marylebone Cricket Club. Once the game's governing body, its protector and ruler, MCC now only has the rules (the Laws) in its custody. When the game ceased to mean predominantly "the English game", it needed replacing by something more international and inclusive. The club then found its new place within the overall structure of the world game, and continues to add value. The ICC now sits at the head of the table, but MCC is still there to offer sage counsel, if asked.
The Wisden Cricketer's Almanack is of similar vintage and pedigree as the MCC — but nothing else has come along globally to challenge its position. So, is it the fault of the volume if it has remained parochial? Should it have widened its audience? I don’t think so.
Earlier this week, Australian writer and broadcaster Dennis Freedman was the latest to voice his dissatisfaction, writing a piece for Firstpost, caviling at the old volume, and implicitly questioning its modern relevance.
His major criticism was the yearly "Five Cricketers of the Year" section. The award is based upon performances in the previous English season, and does not allow a winner to get the accolade a second time; so naturally, choices are intrinsically restricted each year. This may be self-defeating; it is certainly quaint and quirky. But it is a rule the volume has adopted and adhered to for over a century. If some readers need a definitive five players of the year list, irrespective of whether they have been so lauded before; and whether or not that were so in the English season, then let another volume do so. Or readers can name their own. Perhaps bloggers, podcasters, or other social media users can publish their own role of honour? If people don’t like Wisden's system, then they have every right to complain. But nobody has the right to insist that the volume change its criteria.
Other countries have tried and succeeded (or failed) to have their own national chronicle of domestic cricket. I would not expect them to recognise cricketers of the year from outside their own confines, and certainly would not insist they adopt anything other than their own rules in naming them.
Dennis' article also objected to those selected under the present criteria, in particular, Ben Stokes. That is his prerogative. But I disagree. Stokes' impact on the English summer, if not his figures, demand his inclusion. His first innings 92 against New Zealand at Lord's basically turned his side's Test fortunes that summer, and encapsulated the positive style of cricket they played. His second innings century reinforced it. Added to that, his miracle catch of Adam Voges during Australia's amazing 60 all out at Trent Bridge will probably be the single most recalled moment of the 2015 English season. One swallowed chance does not a summer make — but let's not forget he also took 6-36 in the second innings as England reclaimed the Ashes.
Dennis has also objected to the fact that since one of the five cricketers of 2011 had his name withheld because of revelations of matchfixing; and yet other cheats still have their name on the honours board. Personally, I thought the decision by Scyld Berry that year was a poor example of 'look at me!' editorship; and he could have handled the situation in a far more undemonstrative manner. I have been impressed by how Berry's successor, Lawrence Booth, has resisted writing attention grabbing "Notes By the Editor" and has returned the annual to calmer waters.
But would Dennis seriously countenance the removal from the records of those named and shamed? Where would he draw the line (apart, obviously from straight through the appellation)? Do we also, for example, strike out VWC Jupp, who served time in prison for manslaughter? Perhaps all playing statistics of miscreants should be expunged? Maybe Dennis would like us to delete from the record the careers of the likes of LG Hylton, CC Lewis and WR Gilbert, to name but three of many. That is, of course, absurd. They did what they did — on and off the field — and their records should stand.
So no — no changing records, and no to changing Wisden. I defend the Almanack. I defend its choices, and I defend its right to make those choices based on its own criteria. As I said earlier, if readers don't like it, then don't read it, or read something else. But you won't find anything better.
But on one thing I do agree with Dennis: Wisden’s Photograph of the Year. It was an excellent, action photograph, but didn't capture a definitive moment in the English season. The winner should have been the look on Stuart Broad's face when Stokes took THAT catch.