Cricket has always claimed to be more than just a game. Neville Cardus wrote that, "if everything else in this nation of ours were lost but cricket, her constitution and the Laws of England of Lord Halsbury, it would be possible to reconstruct from the theory and practice of cricket all the eternal Englishness which has gone to the establishment of that Constitution and the laws aforesaid." And CLR James was convinced that "cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and dance".
Those who care little for the sport might dismiss such claims as dotty. But the game does attract some remarkable devotees. Cardus, then the Manchester Guardian's music critic, doubled up to become its cricket correspondent. James, a West Indian radical who 50 years ago published his classic Beyond a Boundary, was a Trotskyite deported from the US. And the great mathematician GH Hardy, a confirmed atheist, consoled himself as he lay dying by getting his sister to read out the scores of an Australia-India series.
This wide appeal explains why Wisden, the cricket annual, is celebrating its 150 birthday with such pomp. On the face of it, the 150th issue seems ridiculous. The bulk of it contains scores, match reports and averages, freely available on the internet for months. But it can be priced at £50 with the publishers aware of what an excellent investment Wisden is: £130,000 was paid for an original set, £25,000 for the 1864 issue.
Wisden has had many owners, starting with John Wisden's "cricket and cigar" shop in Leicester Square, to sports goods manufacturers, the Co-op, the American millionaire Paul Getty and now Bloomsbury. It has even survived an attempt by Robert Maxwell, whose company published it for a time in the 1980s, to radically alter its looks. The publication has often made little money, with the centenary edition in 1964 barely covering costs. Nevertheless, over this period many of the greatest names in cricket writing have been happy to write, oblivious to what they earn but honoured by being between its prized yellow covers.
It is this complex story of an unlikely, extraordinary, publishing success that Robert Winder narrates with great skill. As befits a former literary editor of this paper who plays cricket, he links the game with wider society to explain why this very Victorian institution has not only survived but become such a universal symbol of the game. Such has been its influence that it helped provide both PG Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle with names for their great characters. Jeeves was derived from the 1914 edition which featured Percy Jeeves, a Warwickshire cricketer, while Conan Doyle was inspired by Shaklock of Nottinghamshire and Holmes of Yorkshire.
Few in Bradford in 1864, where the publication was launched, would have predicted such a long reign. That first edition was very Victorian. Its title ran to 34 words - only two of those, Cricketers' Almanack, survive to 2013. It contained a reference to 1864 being a leap year and the "28th of the Reign of Her Majesty Queen Victoria". Nor was the first edition much of a cricket publication. The 122 pages of facts and figures had no explanation and read, says Winder, more like a railway timetable or stock-price gazette. But John Wisden, who as a professional cricketer had earned the title Little Wonder, like all good Victorians understood what would sell.
So with public schools expanding, Wisden quickly had a section on schools cricket, which meant little Johnny's parents had to buy it. Even today I find it a wonderful present to give my public-school friends who got into the first XI. This shows how Wisden could build a brand, although it required Little Wonder's successors, the Pardons brothers in the closing years of the 19th century, to invent its most enduring item: the five cricketers of the year. This was given only once to a cricketer in his lifetime and only for his exploits during an English season. But cricketers around the world wanted to be on this honours board.
Such an Anglo-centric view might have spelled trouble in the 21st century, with India becoming the powerhouse of the game and providing 80 per cent of world cricket's income. But, as Winder explains, it found in Matthew Engel an editor willing to experiment and create new brands. They included Leading Cricketer of the Year, who no longer even needs to set foot in England to qualify. Engel also came up with a World Championship of Cricket to rank Test playing nations which, somewhat modified, has become the world standard.
Winder does not shy away from highlighting the fact that Wisden has not always been infallible. It failed to recognise the first ever Test between England and Australia until 99 years after it took place. But its greatest failing was over apartheid: failing to recognise the evil even in 1968, when the Basil D'Oliveira affair erupted. Vorster, the South African prime minister, banned England from touring his country for daring to choose D'Oliveira - classified as a Cape Coloured. D'Oliveira could only play Test cricket by coming to England.
The affair made many realise you could not build sporting bridges with white South Africa but Norman Preston, then Wisden editor, dismissed it as "petty squabbles of men on earth", contrasting it to the achievements of American astronauts. Winder argues that Preston may not have known of the evidence that the English cricket establishment colluded with Vorster. But that a publication which has always extolled the game's moral values could not see the moral argument remains a stain. Still, Winder does bring out how Wisden editors have been bold enough to take on the cricket establishment.
Lawrence Booth is no exception. He rightly expresses fears about the failure to deal with match fixing, and cricketers who applaud the spirit of the game but fail to practise it. It is a tone John Wisden would have recognised.
Mihir Bose's books include 'A History of Indian Cricket'